In the space of 48 dizzying hours, Donald Trump announced via Twitter the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, revealed an “agreement” with Mexico to host asylum seekers from Central America (a policy now blocked by the Supreme Court), and witnessed the worst day-to-day Wall Street drop-off in 10 years. All this before he decided to take the federal government hostage with the still-ongoing government shutdown, in retaliation against Congress for not approving the funds for the construction of his border wall.
Everything coming out of the White House gives the increasingly palpable sense that Trump is tumbling toward a looming precipice. The previous week saw the announced departures of Chief of Staff John Kelly (out of sheer exhaustion) and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (under investigation). The resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who delivered his high-impact letter of resignation in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal, is merely the latest in an endless series of resignations and firings that have decimated the Trump administration. To the extent that the president actually listens to anyone’s advice, he listens to extremist demagogues like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and a host of other sensationalist figures from far-right radio and TV.
Mattis has been portrayed as the last of the “adults in the room” to leave the administration. In reality, he is an old-school warmonger, champion of an American hegemonism which is to be imposed, whenever convenient, either by means of market dominance or by strategically applied firepower.
However, everything is relative after all, and in the context of the Trump administration, the Marine general nicknamed “Mad Dog” was the closest there was to a voice of reason.
And it is indeed true that Mattis was the last of Trump’s “generals,” which were considered to be a moderating element—certainly not progressive voices, but stabilizing forces by virtue of their ties with international institutions such as NATO. Without them, and with an immediate circle that is ever narrower and ever more under siege (and ever more reduced to his family members), one may expect from Trump more of the erratic convulsions that have characterized his populist-nationalist presidency.
This improvisational tweet-based politics is threatening to upset the established balance between Wall Street and the Pentagon, and the most shameless spectacle of all is that of the conservatives twisting themselves into pretzels to be Trump’s yes-men, constantly terrified because they have no idea what outrageous tweet might arrive the next morning.
Trump has managed to alienate many former supporters with his inscrutable and uncontrollable outbursts, which come after long sleepless nights spent watching his favorite talking heads on Fox News, and which impel him to suddenly change course on official state business—or, indeed, to name someone he saw on TV to the position of UN ambassador (which happened just two weeks ago). Sometimes his snap decisions draw the condemnation of both his allies and his enemies, both his political supporters and his opponents.
Taken in itself, out of context, a military de-escalation in the Middle East would be positive news—as it is, it has put many progressives in the awkward position of criticizing the sudden troop withdrawal as an expression of an authoritarian style that hints at a dangerous amateurishness—or something entirely more sinister. His decision in Syria seems to have come as a result of a “business” phone call with Erdogan, in which the latter pledged to purchase a supply of Patriot missiles made in the US.
Buying American weapons is profitable business nowadays, since, as already demonstrated with Saudi Arabia, this counts in Trump’s eyes as justification for funding a war (such as the genocidal aggression in Yemen), acquiescing in the dismemberment of a journalist, or, indeed—as seems to have happened here—a troop withdrawal agreement that paves the way for the annihilation of the Kurds, allies who have outlived their usefulness. The “withdrawal” will likely be a prelude to an intensification of air raids, as well as a possible involvement by the mercenaries of Trump’s good friend Erik Prince, head of the soldier-for-hire firm Academi, formerly known as Blackwater.
If we can make some sense of this decision, it does not express any coherent geopolitical strategy, but rather an isolationism on steroids, close to the original meaning of his slogan “America First,” which he has been endlessly repeating since the presidential election campaign: that of the autocratic, pro-Nazi and xenophobic movements of the 1930s.
What all of his policies have in common is a fundamental amorality, elevated to a value and an overarching policy. The traditional conservative ideologues have been replaced by Trump with himself as the exclusive focus of his loyal base—a Party of Resentment that keeps his approval rating hovering around 40 percent.
They are the only audience for the president’s edicts and elaborate theatrical sideshows, among which we find, in no particular order: the mobilization of the army on the Mexican border, the launch of missiles against Assad, the trade war with China, and the choreographed “prime time summit” with Kim Jong-un. There are all the twists and turns of reality TV, but which now have victims that are all too real: the immigrants stuck in tent camps at the border, the Kurds abandoned to their enemies, the environment destroyed by false “green policies” contracted to the industrial lobby, the treaties left in tatters.
However, in this maelstrom, it seems that we can discern the possible beginning of the end for this most dangerous of the populist regimes: the beginning of an inexorable downward spiral, just like the one that seems to be taking shape for the Dow Jones. It is a decline fueled by a combination of political erosion, economic crisis and legal jeopardy (only last week, the Trump Foundation, in which the three sons of the president were involved, under accusations of financial and tax crimes, announced an agreement with state prosecutors that it would dissolve). But the downfall could be a long and difficult one, and he will have time to do plenty of damage yet.