Donald Trump’s budget proposal is visionary. (And Steve Bannon is a romantic.)
|“There’s no question this is a hard-power budget. It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget. And that was done intentionally.” – Mick Mulvaney, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, 3/15/17
The Trump Administration released their 2018 budget for the federal government last Thursday. Blustery, almost bellicose, they clearly wanted it to make a point. It’s the budget equivalent of President Trump’s recent photo op wearing a Navy flight jacket and standing on aircraft carrier. All that’s missing is a Rambo-style bandolier.
Okay, we get it. It’s a ‘hard-power’ budget. The problem is ‘hard-power’ (or for that matter diplomatic soft-power, or economic power, or moral suasion) are all tools. They are not a strategy or objective. ‘Hard-power’ tells us something about how they envision themselves but disturbingly little about what they hope to do.
Here is where the budget as whole starts to paint a vision.
“There is only one class in the state, the Volk, (not the rabble), and the king belongs to this class as well as the peasant.” – Johann Gottfried Herder, German Philosopher (1744-1803)
In June of 2015, Matthew Cooper wrote a Newsweek article entitled ‘Donald Trump: The Billionaire For Blue-Collars’. Reportedly, candidate Trump loved it. By the 2016 Republican National Convention no less than Liberty University’s Jerry Fallwell, Jr. was calling him “America’s blue collar billionaire.” (So, yes, I guess candidate Trump’s signature image is the tweet pic of him eating KFC while aboard his private jet…)
Johann Gottfried Herder was a Prussian intellectual born in 1744. His work as a critic and philosopher ended up being a touchstone in literary Romanticism, German nationalism, and modern race theory. He was a leader in defining a vision of nationalism that was powerfully idealistic and seductive. Nations were defined not just by geography or political boundaries but by their language and custom. Each nation had a character, an essence. A leader and his people could be united in a single whole. And they need not include those who are not part of their nation, like the Poles, the Jews, or the Roma. Or, eventually, the Communists. Or the Muslims. Or the refugees.
This early strain of German nationalism got battle-tested in the early 19th century after Napoleon’s defeat of the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon was inspired by his own aggressive nationalism, trying to export French Republicanism using cavalries and cannons. He brought with him the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ and a vision of a French administrative state that he hoped would shape all of Europe. And Russia. At gun point. Or else.
These two visions, republican nationalism and romantic nationalism, remain a force in the world to this day. And one of them is a force in the current White House.
“If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our foretathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was Vienna, or Tours, or other places….” – Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, 2014
President Trump’s 2018 budget is proposing a 10% increase in ‘hard-power’ military spending. They propose cutting 29% from ‘soft-power’ institutions, like the State Department and United Nations. They pay for it by eliminating 19 federal agencies and 61 federal programs. What’s unclear, though, is why they are building one tool while deconstructing others.
In the last century, America’s foreign policy has been explicitly anti-communist (i.e. the Truman & Reagan doctrines) and pro-capitalist (i.e. the Roosevelt Corollary, Carter Doctrine, and Obama’s ‘Pivot to the East’). But when not fighting European hegemons, our foreign policy has tended to stay more narrowly self-interested: we’ve fought for oil, free trade, and military bases around the globe, but we haven’t tended to be drawn into the romantic nationalist adventures. At least until the George W. Bush administration. And even then, President Bush explicitly avoided using anti-Islamic ‘crusader’ narratives. This was a bi-partisan consensus. Until now.
Steve Bannon sees Trump’s ascension in global and historic terms. His perspective is grounded in a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative that sees a ‘Judeo-Christian West’ pitted against Islam since at least Battle of Tours in 732 AD. In this view, ISIS, the Syrian refugee crisis, and ‘the Bowling Green Massacre’ are all seen as evidence, as additional confirmations. It is something more than fire-up-the-base xenophobia, it is a vision of this Administration’s role in history. It is a vision where nationalism is needed to stiffen the spine for a fight with a divinely inspired enemy.
Pair this with Bannon’s ‘economic nationalism’ and stated desire to ‘deconstruct the administrative state’ and the vision of the budget starts to come into focus. It retrenches from international institutions to ‘protect’ our sovereignty and defunds all the federal agencies that they see as serving the ‘rabble’ instead of the ‘real Americans’. (Fun fact: Steve Bannon made a documentary in 2011, “The Undefeated”, about Sarah Palin.)
“Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmit in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while a strong autocratic politics – and war – are interesting.” – Susan Sontag in An Argument About Beauty
To be clear, I’m not sure about any of this. I’m not sure why President Trump is proposing to super-size the world’s largest military. Honestly, a part of me wants to dismiss it as adolescent posturing. Or staking out a bargaining position. Or delivering pork to red states. But another part of me recognizes I should take it at face value. Yes, it’s ridiculous that he’s cutting Meals on Wheels. But he’s also rapidly militarizing. With an Islamophobic nationalist whispering in his ear.
‘America First’ was originally the rallying cry of foreign policy isolationists. Minnesota’s own fascist sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh, nearly made a political career of it. Lindbergh and the America First Committee were staunchly opposed to America’s entry into Second World War on the side of the Allies. And they were actually pretty effective, boxing-in FDR until the Pearl Harbor attack.
A march to war is not inevitable. Steve Bannon is not the President. Half-baked grand ideas can get chewed up and spit out by the churn of actual events in the real world. (I’m looking at you North Korea.) Military leaders who lived through the self-inflicted wound of Iraq will hopefully urge caution. Finally, Bannon and Schmitt and Herder are wrong about liberal democracy. It’s not a weak system. It’s resilient system. It’s demanding. It’s balanced by entrenched, competing interests. And it exposes bullshit over time.
Donald Trump’s grandfather had the good sense to leave Bavaria at the age of 16. By the time he left, in 1885, the army and the country itself had been unified by the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. No fan of democracy, deeply conservative, but an undeniably skillful political force, he assembled twenty-six unwieldy territories into a nation named the German Empire. The seductive force of romantic nationalism, however, was not strong enough to hold Friedrich Drumpf. He emigrated to New York City rather than be conscripted into Imperial German Army, the machine that Kaiser Wilhelm II drove into the first World War.
Real people get it. They understand that they pay the price when 70 year-olds buy-in to their own historical fantasies. This is another of those times. In spite of the President’s bomber jacket, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is not a bad 1980’s action movie. This is happening here. And it’s happening now. And though it’s alarming, it’s not too late to stop it.
Phew. Now that was my analysis on Trump budget. Tell me, what do you think? And then, share this article with your friends too – I’m interested in their perspectives too.