by Mindy Clegg
Actor Ryan Reynolds recently directed two commercials for the dating website Match.com that summed up this year for many. A bored Satan in Hell gets an alert on his phone. His eyes widen and soon he’s meeting a young woman under a park bridge—who insists he calls her twenty-twenty. It’s a love at first sight, full of references to the year of hell.
A second commercial parodies the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally.
A good bit of comedy to be sure. This year continues to dole out a serious amount of misery. Although it feels like this year is “happening to us,” in reality the things going on are a product of complex interactions between all of us on a global scale. If nothing else good emerged, this year magnified some of the core problems in our modern political, economic, and global social systems. In this month’s essay, I argue that 2020 has become a summation of failures not only of the current administration, but of the larger failures in our systems that we’ve left to rot for far too long now. The Trump administration did not find a pristine political and economic landscape on which to impose their will, but merely continued the already existing process of strangling the government in the bathtub, advocated by Grover Norquist.
Many of us have not been happy with the political landscape of the last few years due to the ongoing political chaos caused by an incompetent presidential administration and the seeming inability of most Democrats to stand up to them. Economic policy provides one example. Trump, influenced by Steve Bannon, deployed a variant of “economic nationalism”. He pushed for mostly bilateral economic agreements. The domestic economic impacts created by Trump’s policies took some time to appear, in part because he inherited an expanding economy. The Obama era saw a slow expansion after the economic nadir that came at the end of the Bush years. According to Robert Reich, Trump’s economic policies have not carried on the (already uneven and slow) economic expansion of the Obama era. The administration consistently points to the record highs of the stock market as evidence of successful policies, but as the host of the radio show Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal regularly intones like a mantra: the stock market is not the economy. Trump employed destabilizing economic force and threats to get his way.
The stock market is not the economy?
— Kai Ryssdal (@kairyssdal) October 29, 2019
His trade war with China was an example of that thinking. The “easy to win” trade dispute with the world’s second largest economy did not really bear the economic fruits that the Trump administration promised, even as they managed to carve out some concessions from the Chinese government. Meanwhile, Asia Pacific nations inked a trade deal to replace the flawed and defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). America seems to be losing ground in the region, even among our allies. Trump also promised to tear up and replace the long criticized North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) agreement from the Clinton era. However the resultant document, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), was little more than cosmetic changes to the NAFTA rather than the entirely new agreement promised. Some argued that Trump’s bilateral and more forceful approach benefits the American worker and business owner, but this has not been the case. The entire regime of modern neoliberal trade is bad for ALL workers (not just in the US), privileging the needs of capital over people; which is one of the serious flaws with agreements like the TPP and NAFTA and American economic imperialism. Of course there needs to be greater criticism in the public realm of these sorts of agreements, but the approach favored by the Trump administration has not been an effective antidote to neolibrealism, as his businesses benefit from the current system. A key problem has always been the eroding power of unions and stagnating wages—and Trump isn’t exactly union friendly. A better way forward includes support for businesses that invest in their workers (as well as for corporations owned by workers), work alongside instead of against unions, and offer living wages and benefits for their employees.
The economy was already stalling when the pandemic hit. Such an event would have caused social and economic distress not matter who was in the White House, on that there is little doubt. But Trump’s hubris, narcissism, and racism exacerbated the problem. Experts in the field of infectious disease have been warning about an age of pandemics for a while now. This has become increasingly clear on a regional and global level with diseases such as Ebola, SARS, and various flus having a greater global impact over the past couple of decades. Due to this, the two previous administrations had some experience with pandemics, especially the Obama administration. Obama’s people left the incoming Trump team a handbook for dealing with pandemics based on their experiences, failures, and successes, which they ignored. Whether driven by the Republican anti-government orientation, the administration’s belief they could come up with a better plan, or Trump’s racist attack on Obama’s legacy, it’s proven to be a homicidally stupid decision, with now well over 312,000 Americans paying the price for it as of this writing. It really could have been different. But the pandemic hit Democratic strongholds like New York City the hardest at first, so a political decision of malicious neglect was made by key members of the administration. “Herd immunity” served as a fig leaf to “solve” the problem. They knew the reality of this disease early on, which makes Trump’s downplaying and politicizing of the pandemic even worse. Turns out it was also a stupid move for the administration, as many of the places hardest hit moving into the election were swing states that supported Trump in 2016. The current third wave breaks daily records for cases and deaths, while any gains made in helping people as the economy staggers are coming undone. Sen. Mitch McConnell refuses to take up anything sent over from the House to address the economic impacts of the pandemic unless he gets his way on shielding corporations from lawsuits (a pet cause). History will judge these actions around the pandemic as not only cruel, but racist as well, given how hard hit communities of color have been. It also reflects how little long-term thinking this administration has deployed about public and economic health, focusing on the extreme short-term. We’re expected to believe this is a deeply “pro-life” president, too. I suppose so, if life begins at conception and ends at birth.
The Trump era also revealed the cracks in American foreign policy, one of the few areas of consistency between our two major political parties over the last century or so. As some are fond of saying (with good reason), the empire is bipartisan. Despite claims to the contrary, the Democrats are not “soft” on our enemies nor are the Republicans more bellicose than their dovish colleagues. From administration to administration, the goals have been markedly similar: American interests come first, via soft power and economic pressure if possible but via force if necessary. The world must be made safe for the market, but with a promise that the market would lead to democracy (despite little evidence of this coming true). War was never off the table for either party. The Democrats drove the build up of troops in Vietnam (Kennedy and Johnson) while the Republicans unleashed the current mess in the Middle East with the second invasion of Iraq (Bush 43). Both parties actively contributed to those conflicts. Both parties regularly vote yes on the Pentagon’s budget with almost no debate, year in and year out. There is plenty to criticize in this approach to America’s role in the world as the only remaining “superpower”—in the modern era, imperialism has done little to improve the world and much to hurt it. There is much to hold America accountable for in helping to destabilize the world over the past century.
Some on the right who claim to embrace anti-imperialist views believed Trump would be an antidote to endless conflict and imperialism. In addition to being in lockstep with the views of economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or Rand Paul, Trump also ran on ending the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump’s order to draw down troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Somalia was supposedly evidence of his more dovish, money-saving approach to foreign policy. The truth is that he merely wishes to regionalize (think Nixon and Vietnamization, where Cambodia became a battleground) and privatize those conflicts, both of which have economic considerations that benefit private interests. Take the Abraham Accords, the crown jewel in Trump’s foreign policy. The provisions include plans for future arm sales to signatories who agree to normalize relations with Israel. One of the most recent announcements from the Accords was with Morocco, which now has US backing for its actions in Western Sahara where much of the local population opposes integration with Morocco. This is a major reversal of American policy on the issue. Trump seems eager to privatize war, too. Erik Prince, notorious former owner of Blackwater, has been advocating for his company stepping in to the conflict in Afghanistan for a while now. Prince’s close ties to the Trump administration indicates that the draw down is less about ending war and more about privatizing it. Private wars with little to no public oversight is hardly a dovish policy.
Last, a major through-line of Trump’s policy includes ensuring a strategic advantage for the Saudis in their Cold War against Iran, an enemy they have in common with Israel. Trump’s actions are poised to cause more violence rather than curtail it. In 2018, he pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), brokered by the Obama administration with Iran and the EU in 2015—a landmark agreement that could have borne real fruit from decades-long antagonism with the Islamic Republic. This year US conflict with Iran rose to new heights, beginning with the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in Iraq. Another assassination, this time of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh on Iranian soil, brought these tensions back to our attention. Thought there appears that was no direct action by the US government, the Iranians pin the blame on Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. That could well be true. Not long before the attack Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly met the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman, and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. On the heels of this, some analysts have predicted that the Trump administration will carry out a direct attack against Iran prior to January 20, and leave the Biden administration to clean up the mess. That is most certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
The reality is that ending America’s military adventurism needs more than just troop draw downs or arms deals disguised as peace treaties. It needs a deep understanding of why conflicts are happening in the first place and what all involved really want or need out of any agreement. The Trump administration did none of the hard work, nor did they bring all actors to the table to deal with the deeper underlying issues in this ongoing regional Cold War. The Iranians have only been further alienated and the Palestinian people have been all but abandoned by the Arab states signing onto these agreements. This does precisely what the Saudis claim they do not want—leave an opening for the Iranians to step in. One can easily predict a new round of Iranian backed violence in retaliation. And the two-state solution is now dead with no working alternatives other than full on apartheid. This state of affairs guarantees yet more Palestinian misery, meaning more might be willing to embrace violence to save their community. These “deals” have only ensured that this already volatile region of the world will become even more unpredictable in the coming years. Even with the best of intentions, the incoming Biden administration will struggle to rebuild the tenuous rapport the Obama administration had with Iran. It’s likely that the Palestinian people will completely refuse to negotiate since the US has systemically cut them entirely out of shaping their own future.
The late historian Eric Hobsbawn might have dubbed our current era the Age of Stupid. In the 1970s, after events like COINTELPRO and Watergate, many Americans became far more mistrustful of their government—rightfully so. Mistrust of government is not inherently bad. We should welcome healthy skepticism and criticism of our elected officials. This is how we hold them to account after all. After the upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, and all we learned in the subsequent years about how administration after administration abused our trust—left and right—especially in the field of foreign affairs. Such skepticism was more than warranted. However, the modern Republican party has leaned hard into that mistrust. They stoked mistrust of government along with white resentment to accomplish their goals of endless cuts to taxes and to public welfare programs, rolling back protections for minority groups and women, and to stall any sort of meaningful action on climate change or finally dealing with the legacy of slavery and segregation and the genocide of the Native Americans. Inspired by libertarian Barry Goldwater and far right groups like the John Birch Society, the modern Republican Party no longer has any real platform to stand on that actually engages with the problems we all face together.1 There are many serious issues that demand more than tax cuts and deregulation from our government. The Republican approach to this pandemic further reveals how little their embrace of “pro-life” values actually means. The utter nightmare we’re all living through with this pandemic coupled with the refusal of the current President to accept the outcome of the election that by all accounts was incredibly secure shows how little the leadership of the GOP care about actual governing. As a result hundreds of thousands of our fellow Americans have needlessly died. As for the election, hundreds of people of good will are now living under a constant barrage of death threats for the “crime” of doing their job. One worries that once Biden is sworn into office, that he’ll attempt to go back to “normal” and ignore the past four years. But doing so only normalizes what is happening. This puts the United States and the world at a tipping point. We are facing global existential issues that we must be dealt with soon. The US bears some responsibility for getting us to this point, and we need to be focusing on solutions to the problems the world faces—real solutions, not half-measures and not those that benefit the global north over the global south. We of course can’t change the past, but we can move ahead. Some would rather continue playing at the culture wars instead, but Trumpism is a dangerous distraction that has spiraled out of control. Continuing to embrace this cultural war would only put humanity on a path of destruction for all of us. That does not mean this administration should be let off the hook for what they’ve done these part four years. In fact, to get past what has happened, we must hold people to account for their actions, otherwise this will happen again. But we also need to remember that we can make government work for us, as we are the government. If this year’s election showed us anything, it revealed that the sort of people power practiced by Stacey Abrams can improve things. Whatever our political views, let’s heed her advice and become more involved in shaping our government.