Politics / February 16, 2024

Donald Trump Threatens to Start a Global Protection Racket

His promise to abandon NATO members who fall short of military spending targets puts international stability at risk.

Sasha Abramsky
Donald Trump baseball bat
Donald Trump holds a baseball bat while participating in an event in the Blue Room of the White House in 2017.(Andrew Harrer-Pool / Getty Images)

As I look from the West Coast this week, the world seems increasingly dangerous by the minute. And, no, I’m not talking about mudslides in Los Angeles or windstorms in the High Sierra, though it is true that the weather has played its fair share of dirty tricks on California in February. Nor am I talking about the horrific mass shooting in Kansas City this week—though the relentless litany of massacres in modern day America is surely one of the most dispiriting developments of recent times.

Rather, I’m thinking about the perilous state of American democracy. Special counsel Hur’s poison pen letter in which he declined to prosecute President Biden for his mishandling of classified documents but went out of his way to cast doubt on Biden’s mental acuity and memory drastically increases the risk that Donald Trump could be reelected come November. Biden doesn’t have much time to turn around the dismal polling numbers he’s been facing for the past half year—and Hur’s report makes that task vastly more difficult. Las Vegas oddsmakers now have Trump as the most likely winner of the presidential election. Meanwhile, far from moderating his worst impulses as the election nears, the GOP front-runner’s behavior is, if possible, getting even cruder and more erratic, soiling everyone and every institution he interacts with.

Trump’s head-spinning statement last week that he would encourage Putin’s Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” with NATO members who don’t devote at least 2 percent of their GDP to the military would have doomed any other presidential candidate at any other moment in US history. After all, primary season is usually pretty unforgiving. Howard Dean, for Christ’s sake, was finished after he let out too primal a scream following some welcome primary results. Biden’s own efforts to win the 1988 nomination were derailed after he purloined a few phrases from the speeches of an overseas politician.

Trump being Trump, however, and the GOP base being what the GOP base currently is, the party has hardly unified in outrage at this assault on the international order, and this explicit invitation to piracy. Supposedly rational politicians such as Lindsay Graham—who prides himself on his national security credentials—rushed to Trump’s defense. Graham’s rationale? “Give me a break—I mean, it’s Trump.” In other words, don’t judge Trump by the rational political and moral standards one would judge every other human being by. Judge him by his own standalone code of conduct. Let Trump say and do what no other mere mortal could say and do. If that’s not the Führerprinzip, then I don’t know what is.

If Donald J. Trump were a peacenik, I might give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he got carried away by his own semiliterate bombast, that all he was really trying to do was to raise uncomfortable questions about the purpose and value of NATO 35 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After all, it’s perfectly healthy in a democracy to debate the value of old military alliances and the wisdom of a foreign policy based on the idea that your nation must for all time maintain a global military posture of a scope and scale virtually unprecedented in human history—certainly, many of the great left-wing parties of Western Europe have debated these very issues for three-quarters of a century, and much of the British Labour Party leadership under Michael Foot in the early 1980s opposed continued membership in NATO. If Trump’s minions in Congress who are holding up billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine and Israel were doing so out of a genuine loathing of the military-industrial complex and of a defense lobby run amok—if they’d all been up nights reading C. Wright Mills on the “new power elite,” and polishing up on Gandhian nonviolence philosophy—if they had a genuine policy beef with, say, the brutalist “you’ve got to destroy a village to save a village” philosophy undergirding Israel’s morally calamitous actions in Gaza, I’d again say that was a perfectly valid debate to bring out into the open.

But by no stretch of the imagination can Trump be thought of as a warrior for peace—this is the same man who asked his advisers why we have nuclear weapons if we aren’t going to use them, who wanted to shoot immigrants on sight at the southern border, and who plotted to send in the US military against domestic racial justice protesters. This is the same man who fantasized about military parades, complete with displays of the latest hardware, running through the heart of Washington, D.C. And this is the same man who declared that he wanted to have generals as loyal to him as Hitler’s top brass were to the Führer—and who has recently advocated executing the erstwhile chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for not being in lockstep with him in the weeks after the November 2020 election.

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Similarly, with a few exceptions—the libertarian-leaning Rand Paul arguably being a case in point—most of the Republicans opposing military aid to Ukraine and Israel aren’t doing so out of any particular distaste either for militarism or for the specific alliances with Israel and Ukraine, but because Trump has essentially ordered them to stalemate government in order to embarrass Biden and the Democrats. More generally, to imagine the GOP as an anti-war, anti-violence, party—despite its fanatical embrace of a vision of the Second Amendment that arms the country to the teeth with high-velocity rifles, and despite high-profile Republicans such as Arizona’s Kari Lake essentially threatening civil conflict if Trump is found guilty on his felony charges and sentenced to prison—is an absurdity.

Trump has repeatedly said that all he wants is peace. But advocates of peace don’t publicly announce that they would welcome another country’s invasion of a neighbor. What Trump was doing in making such a statement had nothing to do with promoting global peace and everything to do with destabilizing international relations and openly converting NATO into a protection racket. One can imagine bad dialogue from a Mafia-themed B-movie. “Pay up or my buddy over to your east will come in with some tanks and artillery and planes and, who knows, maybe even nuclear weapons, and fuck you up in a way that you and everyone else in your neighborhood won’t soon forget.”

The idea that a man like Trump, an amoral huckster seemingly gleeful at the prospect of small, vulnerable countries being chewed up and spat out like the husks of sunflower seeds by large, bullying powers, could once again be perched on the edge of the awesome power of the presidency, is beyond nightmarish. By the skin of our teeth, we survived Trump 1.0 with our democratic institutions still roughly intact. If Trump finds his way back to the White House—with an assist from special counsel Hur and a flurry of own-goals from an aged, fragile, Biden—he’s giving every indication that version 2.0 will be far, far worse. God only knows, the current international order is deeply flawed. But what Trump’s advocating is a whole different ball game. In such a world, alliances become nothing but shakedowns, and Great Powers pick off smaller countries with impunity, cheered along by a gloating, preening, narcissistic US president too uncaring to realize the enormity of the damage he is unleashing with every inflammatory, thoughtless, and cruel statement that comes out of his mouth.

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Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s Brain, The American Way of PovertyThe House of 20,000 Books, Jumping at Shadows, and, most recently, Little Wonder: The Fabulous Story of Lottie Dod, the World’s First Female Sports Superstar. Subscribe to The Abramsky Report, a weekly, subscription-based political column, here.

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