Donald Trump is holding up the severed head of the Statue of Liberty.
It’s a striking image for a magazine cover. But it’s not the front of the Nation or the ACLU newsletter. It’s this week’s issue of Der Spiegel, Germany’s version of Time magazine. To punctuate the point, one of Spiegel’s articles declares Donald Trump “the world’s most dangerous man.”
Der Spiegel is channeling a widespread European sentiment. It took only a couple weeks for the Trump administration to make transatlantic relations so toxic that Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, felt the need to slap an orange alert on the orange-haired president. The new administration has seemingly “put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy,” Tusk wrote in a letter read round the world. In his urgent missive, Tusk identifies the United States as an external threat to Europe comparable to Russia or the Islamic State.
Because Brussels can no longer depend on Washington, Tusk’s letter amounts to an EU declaration of independence. What’s next? German activists dumping Snapple iced tea into the Rhone?
I can feel Tusk’s pain. The European Union faces a serious existential crisis, and Trump has made matters worse by supporting the EU’s dissolution. But this is just one of the fronts in America v. World.
The Trump administration has alienated seven Muslim-majority countries by attempting to ban their residents from entering the United States. One of those countries, Iran, is the subject of escalating rhetoric from National Security Advisor Michael Flynn — he “officially put Iran on notice” on Friday — which threatens not only the nuclear agreement but raises the potential of war.
China has been “on notice” ever since Rex Tillerson, in his confirmation hearing for secretary of state, suggested that the United States would stop Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. North Korea has been warned not to test an ICBM. The Islamic State is presumably bracing to be bombed out of existence.
Trump himself has blasted Australia for its refugee policy, Japan for its currency manipulation, Germany for the temerity of acting like a sovereign country, and Mexico for the misfortune of bordering the United States. Some presidents pride themselves on visiting as many nations in the world as possible. Donald Trump, the Don Rickles of American presidents, prides himself on insulting as many nations as he can — late at night and with fewer than 140 characters. So sad!
There are several pariah states in the world. The head of Sudan is a mass murderer. No UN member states recognize the independence of Transnistria, a Russian puppet state that seceded from Moldova. North Korea is effectively frozen out of the international economy.
But these are small countries. What does it mean for international relations when the most powerful country in the world becomes a pariah state?
Trump’s got it wrong. It’s not America First.
It’s America Alone.
The Powerful Pariah
It’s not the first time that Americans traveling abroad have had to pretend that they’re Canadians out of fear or embarrassment.
The George W. Bush years featured torture, extraordinary rendition, and military invasions that went terribly, horribly wrong. The Reagan era brought the world close to nuclear war. Nixon’s term-and-a-half was full of dirty tricks at home and abroad. It wasn’t only Republican presidents who sullied the reputation of the United States, but these three took an almost perverse delight in thumbing their noses at international norms.
Previous U.S. administrations have taken an a la carte approach to global policy, picking and choosing what they want from the kitchens of the world. The Trump administration, on a strict diet of fast food, refuses to order anything on the menu, except perhaps a small bowl of borscht — and it’s even reserving judgment on that.
Yet it was the United States that cooked up this whole world order in the first place and seasoned it specifically for American tastes. After World War II, the global economy ran on the dollar. America had disproportionate influence over institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The U.S. military ensured access to the necessary raw materials to fuel the rise of a large American middle class. The U.S. government facilitated the spread of American music and movies.
But the United States couldn’t go it alone. It needed secure allies to reduce the threat to the American homeland and stabilize the global economy. A united Europe emerged as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Alliances with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines were supposed to prevent the spread of Communism throughout Asia. Washington also needed Europeans and Asians to become middle-class consumers of American goods and services: their prosperity was linked to our prosperity. American car manufacturers and software producers need access to a global market. American businesses rely on international talent — otherwise known as immigrants — to fuel innovation.
Being a pariah, meanwhile, is generally bad for business and the economy, as any average North Korean or Eritrean could tell you. The reaction of American businesses to the Trump administration’s executive order on travel restrictions for Muslims — with protests coming from Starbucks, Silicon Valley, and major executives — indicates just how big the cleavage within the Republican Party will grow if Trump remains on this trajectory.
Meanwhile, consumers are building their own domestic BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement, like #grabyourwallet, to target the Trump web of oligarchs. The prospect of a trade war with China, Mexico, and other countries that provoke Trump’s ire has Wall Street in total freak-out mode.
Other countries are poised to take advantage of America’s new pariah status. Germany finds itself the default “leader of the free world.” Russia has become a more pivotal wheeler-dealer. China is fancying itself the great helmsman of the global economy. “If people want to say China has taken a position of leadership, it’s not because China suddenly thrust itself forward as a leader,” a Chinese foreign minister official told reporters. “It’s because the original front-runners suddenly fell back and pushed China to the front.”
Even the Islamic State is cheered by the loss in U.S. stature. As Samia Nakhoul writes for Reuters, “Jihadists are still celebrating Trump’s election triumph in online forums, saying it vindicates their argument that his views show the United States’ true face and that his policy will polarize communities, one of the militants’ goals.”
Immediately after September 11, Jean-Marie Colombani penned the famous essay in Le Monde in which he asserted that “we are all Americans.” It was not an entirely complimentary article, however. Further down in the essay, the French journalist observed, “America, in the solitude of its power, in its status as the sole superpower, now in the absence of a Soviet counter-model, has ceased to draw other nations to itself; or more precisely, in certain parts of the globe, it seems to draw nothing but hate.”
The Trump administration is not interested in drawing other nations to itself. It seems reconciled to inspiring hatred. The new crew is comfortable with the solitude of its power — and the zealotry of its vision.
Reza Aslan’s 2013 book Zealot is an attempt to extract the historical Jesus from all the layers of commentary that has blunted his message over the centuries.
Aslan argues that the real Jesus was a revolutionary who wanted to sweep away the corrupt Jewish religious authorities of the time, cleanse the land of foreign elements, and champion the interests of all Jews who’d been left behind by the economic changes of the 1st century CE. This Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple. This Jesus preached only to the Jews and kept his distance from the gentiles. This Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”
Because of the failure of various Jewish revolutionary movements of the time, the writers of the Gospels distanced themselves from the insurrectionary events that led to the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. They emphasized instead a different kind of Jesus, one focused more on heavenly concerns and not the matters of the material world.
The historical Jesus was a zealot. Like his predecessor Hezekiah, Jesus believed in an uncompromising assault on the orthodoxy of the time, namely the collaboration between corrupt Jews and the Roman authorities, and a restoration of a Jewish theocracy in Palestine.
Steve Bannon is a zealot in two senses of the word. He is an extremist who doesn’t believe in ordinary political compromise. But he’s also a zealot in the more historical sense that Aslan outlines.
He wants to cleanse America of all foreign elements — not just immigrants (who stand in for the non-Jews of Biblical time), but also “globalists” (who stand in for Rome). He wants to chase the moneychangers of what he calls “crony capitalism” from the temples of American life (and don’t most of our banks and financial institutions resemble ancient temples?). He speaks to those left behind by economic change. He is opposed to Islam, secularism, and any religious sentiment that contradicts his own Salafist interpretation of Catholicism. And he comes not to bring peace — domestically or internationally — but to bring a sword, the same sword that Trump wields on the cover of Der Spiegel.
Jesus became a pariah for his efforts. He was opposed by the Jewish orthodoxy that he wanted to eliminate. He was crucified by the Roman authorities he wanted to oust from Palestine. Only much later did he become a symbol of power and authority when the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity in the 4th century CE.
Bannon is comfortable having the United States raked over the coals by international leaders, the Trump administration “crucified” in the press, and his own name vilified by protestors in the street. To effect a thorough, bottom-to-top revolution in domestic and international affairs, the United States must risk pariah status. Such is the way new orders are born. Nor is Bannon alone in his efforts. He is joined by both religious zealots (like Mike Pence) and geopolitical zealots (like Mike Flynn).
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is not particularly religious, not particularly ideological, not particularly interested in the world beyond what his stubby fingers can grasp. He is merely a meat puppet, a random Tweet generator, a distraction on two legs, a convenient stalking horse. He’s old and greedy, interested only in the short con. He wants to be admired, not reviled as a pariah. But he’s also capable of monumental self-deception, which extends to his mistaken belief that the “real people” have all rallied behind him.
Bannon and his fellow extremists, by contrast, are in it for the long haul. As zealots, they’re willing to put up with pariah status for as long as it takes. Make no mistake: it will get ugly. The liberal internationalists that they excoriate as “globalists” are putting up a fight. So is the not-so-silent majority.
The question is: How long will the wealthy of Wall Street and the well-connected of Washington continue to follow Bannon and company down this road of reactionary revolution?
Cross-posted with Foreign Policy In Focus.