Trump, ideology, and American exceptionalism

Lately, I’ve been reading about the Vietnam War.

When I first studied Asian and American history at university, the Soviet Union still existed. Although there weren’t any Vietnamese narratives of the War available in English then (at least none that I could find with the DOS catalogue at The University of Queensland library) and although post-colonialism was not A Thing for my undergraduate lecturers, one thing was very clear to me.

The United States consistently erred by denying agency to the Vietnamese.

Either Ho Chi Minh was a puppet of Moscow and/or Beijing, or the agendas being played out in Saigon were “inscrutable”. (There’s quite a stunning degree of Orientalism in many accounts of the War.) Similarly, it was impossible that America could lose.

I was attracted to explanations that were grounded in study of Vietnamese history and culture, some that now themselves seem problematic. But I was on the right track, even if for the Western academy in the 1990s, the Subaltern was not yet able to speak for herself.

We’ve gone through several world orders since then — our imaginaries of the global political and economic systems post the end of Soviet Communism have oscillated between ‘End of History’ narratives (whether centred on liberal democracy or globalisation) and narratives of Imperialism. The ‘civilisational’ opposition between the West and terrorism was mirrored by its critique from the left.

What we largely haven’t done, in talking world politics, is imagined the world as a plurality, or considered how ‘our’ narrative looks from the perspective of those who are subordinated and objectified by these discourses. There are some fascinating histories which show globalisation (and colonisation) as complex and multifaceted processes. In other words, these analyses recognise agency is multifarious and “the West” is not the only subject at work.

Yet, this recognition seems almost completely absent from our political debates.

One curiosity in rereading older histories of the Vietnam War is how jarring the rhetoric of mission embodied in US exceptionalism now feels. “Free world” — what even is this in 2017? In the 1960s, American isolationism had been defeated and militarised liberal internationalism was a bipartisan consensus.

The decline of the US as a “hyperpower” — economically strategically, and even militarily — saw a complementary ideological retreat. In the Bush years, “bringing freedom and democracy” was a strategy that was both questioned and questionable, and one that became increasingly identified with a particular tendency within the Republican Party and the foreign policy elites — the neocons. The neoconservative “Project for the New American Century” recognised implicitly that the consensus around US leadership had fractured, both through the weight of events and ideologically.

There has always been a “Realist” element in American foreign policy. To some degree there’s an alternation between more and less ideological programmes — Nixon, for instance, triangulating between Mao Zedong and the USSR, was followed by a renewed emphasis on human rights in the Carter Administration, and then by Reagan’s confrontation with “the Evil Empire”. But foreign policy Realists have had to pay lip service to America’s global mission and the criticism of pragmatists like Henry Kissinger has as much to do with his disbelief in exceptionalism as it has with his amorality and sins.

Donald Trump shatters both paradigms. He may be a pragmatist, but he’s hardly a small r realist because his view of the world is fantastical. He can’t be a big R Realist because he won’t play by the rules. And he pays no lip service to ‘universal values’ which it is purportedly the mission of the USA to spread, either through soft or hard power. “America First” is incapable of bearing that rhetorical weight, and Trump doesn’t even try. His ethno-nationalistic nativism is empty of the sorts of ideological and theological content that has traditionally filled the core of American exceptionalism.

That Trump fails to subscribe to or articulate these verities should be no surprise. The truth is he is the apotheosis of American celebrity: decentred, yet a haunting always present absence. There’s no there there. President Trump will continue to be more incoherent than imagined. There’s no point ascribing logic to his discourse because it has no grounding in truth or reality. This is what anti-politics looks like. Welcome to the desert of the real, as they say.

Among the many reactions to President Trump, there is a reluctance to admit that the Emperor has no clothes. And what if the Emperor is not particularly interested in the Empire? That’s the conclusion you need to draw from the array of protectionist and nativist actions and positions taken. Believing the ‘free world’ is Still A Thing also explains the rush to embrace Xi Jinping as its unlikely new leader, after Angela Merkel made it plain she wasn’t auditioning for the gig.

Xi and the Chinese Communist Party, of course, have their own agenda. Admitted to the World Trade Organisation in 2001, China sought to participate in the construction of the rules for the international political and economic order, only to find that these rules were inflexible, and not open to revision. There may have been a Washington Consensus, but there was no scope to do anything other than “accede”. Increasingly after the Global Financial Crisis, China began both to disregard the orthodox nostrums of international economics (and why wouldn’t they?) and to realise that there really was no path to partnership within ‘international’ regimes.

This explains much about Xi Jinping’s programme — from One Belt One Road through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to its own multilateral trade agreements, China has begun to write its own rules and to exercise its own hegemony in the Asia Pacific. Barack Obama’s Asian Pivot and the Trans Pacific Partnership were counter moves, now dead and buried through a combination of populist agitation (from both left and right) and Trump’s ethno-nationalism.

Whether Trump knows much about this is open to question.

So far, Trump has done exactly what he said he’d do, revealing the endless stream of hot takes on how wise statespeople would restrain him, how he would soon morph into something akin to a ‘normal’ Republican president, and so on, to be (predictably) hot air. I see no reason to doubt his animus towards China will simultaneously move from rhetoric to action.

What interests me, though, is that one aspect of American exceptionalism is still persistent.

And that aspect is the one I began with — the assumption that America can do what it likes, and that the objects of its tender attentions or its aggression can’t fight or speak back. Of course, it’s not hard to see the link between Donald Trump the Man’s behaviour and the psychopathology of narcissistic aggression but it’s more interesting to ponder why a set of assumptions, premises and patterns of action inherent in the projection of American power isn’t so labelled when the parallel is clear.

The reason is ideology. As I’ve been arguing, in “the West” we’ve mostly swallowed global narratives of American origin whole, even if some of us have sought to critique them (usually by reversing them rather than seeing them for what they are — attempts to construct a particular hegemony). Trump’s every word appears to be premised on his belief that what he wants, he will get.

It’s blatantly obvious, again, that China will not be a passive object for a trade war, and more importantly, it has already begun to construct its own counter-narrative. In Australia’s own region, some may have noticed The Phillipines tilt towards China because Duarte’s rejection of the US was so loud as not to be ignored. But more quietly, states like Thailand have increasingly been building closer ties to China. In Thailand’s case, that’s partly because of American objections to military rule. At the same time, poorer countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are increasingly within the Chinese sphere of influence, again because (up until now) American and NGO aid and international lending have always come with very big strings attached because these regimes are not complying with ‘universal values’ as understood in the US.

Largely this goes unnoticed because “the West” is blind to what it does not want to see.

It’s vital that we understand globalisation as an intricate process with multiple subjects. There are many Asian views of globality whose rationales are quite distinct from those Made In The USA. But it’s also vital, in interpreting what Trump means for the world, that we discard the myth of American exceptionalism — all of it, not just the theology of the salvific mission of the US. To my mind, the most important news story I’ve read today is the New York Times Report that Mexico may pre-empt the renegotiation of NAFTA. Whether or not that occurs, what should be clear is that Mexico has agency, and in a global order whose rules are being shredded, that really matters.