The Surprisingly Durable Myth of Donald Trump, Anti-Imperialist

The Surprisingly Durable Myth of Donald Trump, Anti-Imperialist

The Surprisingly Durable Myth of Donald Trump, Anti-Imperialist

The Establishment focus on personal scandals helps cover up the former president’s reckless belligerence.


Amid the sordid crimes of the American Empire, running from the Mexican-American War under Polk to the Forever Wars that have marked the 21st century, there have been a few brave souls who have stood as the nation’s conscience. These dissidents have repeatedly mounted principled opposition to plunder, torture, and conquest. The roll call of anti-imperialist heroes includes Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, and Barbara Lee.

Does former president Donald Trump deserve a place in this pantheon?

This might seem like an absurd suggestion, but as Trump runs for the Republican nomination he is playing up the idea that his foreign policy record is more pacific than that of Establishment figures like Joe Biden. In a February speech, Trump warned about a hawkish Establishment made up of “Washington’s generals, bureaucrats, and the so-called diplomats who only know how to get us into conflict but…don’t know how to get us out.” Trump offered himself as an alternative to this Establishment—which he insisted was in danger of provoking a Third World War with Russia.

This celebration of Donald the Dove has lately been echoed not just by MAGA Republicans but also by some ostensibly left-wing thinkers. In February, Glenn Greenwald interviewed Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and the two found common ground on Greenwald’s insistence that “the energy behind opposing American interventionism—American wars—is much more on the populist right than the populist left.” Greene cited Trump’s opposition to “never-ending wars” as an example.

The most detailed and thoughtful argument for this position came in a recent article by Marxist scholar Christian Parenti in Compact—a magazine that has tried to cultivate an alliance between the MAGA right and disaffected leftists. Parenti’s contention is that Trump’s recent arrest for falsifying business records was actually a political witch hunt on the part of the Establishment, motivated by a hatred of “Trump’s anti-imperial foreign policy.” Parenti also refers to Trump’s “anti-militarist policy.” According to Parenti, “To the frustration of those who benefit from it, Trump worked to unwind the American empire. Indeed, he has done more to restrain the US imperium than any politician in 75 years.”

In support of his argument, Parenti notes that Trump didn’t start any new wars, that he “ordered the withdrawal of one-third of all US military personnel from Germany” and “ordered the Pentagon to explore withdrawing troops from South Korea.”

The South Korean withdrawal Trump urged on never happened, which raises one major problem with Parenti’s thesis. Trump’s foreign policy, like his presidency in general, had a lot of bluster and shouting (including threats to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea). But Trump, unschooled in policy-making, had less control over his administration than almost any modern president. He was unusually beholden to both the permanent bureaucracy and the conventional Republicans hawks (like Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, and John Bolton) who staffed his administration. Which meant that Trump’s chest-thumping about withdrawing from NATO and other moves away from empire amounted to little more than hot air.

Parenti’s own account of Trump’s actions gives the lie to the idea of Trump as anti-imperialist. As Parenti reports,

By early summer 2017, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become so worried that they held a meeting with Trump at the Pentagon at which they attempted to explain how America’s informal empire functions. Trump didn’t dig the presentation. Calling his generals “dopes and babies” and “losers,” he demanded to know why the United States wasn’t receiving free oil from the Middle East.

In his anger, Trump reportedly said, “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off.… Where is the fucking oil?” It’s a strange anti-imperialism that wants to, in Trump’s phrasing, “take the oil.”

That’s because the battle between Trump and the Establishment was not actually between anti-imperialism and imperialism. Rather it was a contest between two rival forms of imperialism. Trump wanted raw imperial plunder—as practiced in its classic form by European nations during the 19th and early 20th century, and by the United States in its relationship with Central and South America. This is an imperialism of naked territorial conquest, resource plunder, and alliances with local comprador autocrats.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff—like the larger American Establishment—has little appetite for this naked policy of looting in the name of enrichment. Rather, in a manner that goes back to the creation of the national security state under Harry Truman and Dean Acheson at the dawn of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the Establishment prefers that American global hegemony wear the decent drapery of internationalism and institutionalism. Instead of selfish appeals to “America First,” global hegemony is secured by claiming the form of support for an international liberal order—one maintained by alliances like NATO and SEATO as well as through agreements like NAFTA. This is imperialism in the name of international law, human rights, and free trade.

Trump came to power fueled by popular dissatisfaction with that bipartisan liberal internationalism whose claims to be improving the world were discredited by both the Forever Wars and the global economic meltdown of 2008. But Trump’s alternative of nationalist unilateralism was neither anti-war nor anti-imperialist. It should be rejected not just because it was ineptly and haphazardly implemented. It should also be rejected because it legitimizes militarism just as much—if not more—than mainstream liberal internationalism.

Trump’s foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, where he formed a close personal alliance with Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, was one of “more rubble, less trouble.” The idea was to unleash the Pentagon by getting rid of restrictions on military violence against civilians and abandoning hypocritical rhetoric about human rights. The results were an intensification of the War on Terror.

In a response to Christian Parenti, Zack Beauchamp of Vox notes:

In 2017, Trump became the first US president to order an attack on the Syrian government, bombing an airfield in retaliation for chemical weapons strikes, something Obama famously refused to do. In 2018, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and bombed Syrian government positions again. In 2019, Trump approved airstrikes on Iranian soil, only to call the planes back literally while they were in the air. And in 2020, he had General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, assassinated while the Iranian leader was near the Baghdad airport.

It’s true that Trump didn’t launch full-scale wars the way George W. Bush did—but that wasn’t for lack of trying. In addition to the Middle East, Trump repeatedly threatened violence against countries such as Mexico, Venezuela, and North Korea. (He is still interested in launching an attack on Mexico under the pretext of fighting the drug cartels.) As Beauchamp points out, Trump’s pardoning of American soldiers guilty of war crimes also has to be factored in his foreign policy legacy. It’s likely to encourage US soldiers to be even more indifferent to civilian life.

What’s striking, however, given Trump’s record of belligerence, is that he rarely gets called out for his reckless warmongering by Democrats. This relative silence has helped feed the myth of the anti-war Trump. Democrats, going back to Hillary Clinton’s ill-fated campaign of 2016, have tried to win the support of Republican hawks by arguing that Trump is weak on Russia. Clinton even claimed in 2016 that Trump was likely to be too supportive of Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel (which turned out to be the opposite of the truth).

Parenti is right about one thing. He complains that the arrest of the former president has led to a “Trump-centric media feeding frenzy.” There has long been a too-personalized attack on Trump—one that focuses on his allegedly unique transgressions. The focus on Russiagate and the impeachment of Trump over Ukraine policy were clearly efforts to mark him as a foreign policy heretic with the goal of creating a bipartisan consensus against him. If Trump was, in Hillary Clinton’s words, Putin’s “puppet”—then Republicans and Democrats could unite against him. But Trump was never really Putin’s puppet. Rather, he was, and is, a belligerent nationalist trying to achieve normal goals of US hegemony—but unilaterally and not through traditional alliances.

The pursuit of a bipartisan consensus in defense of the foreign policy status quo has come at a steep cost. Trump has been allowed to recast himself as an anti-war president because Democrats still haven’t made any effort to describe what his foreign policy really was.

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