Campaign Confetti
by Michael Brenner on 18 Mar 2024 0 Comment

Anna Chapman has resurfaced. It had been a while since the erstwhile Russian spy (Anna Vasilyevna Kushenko) had been in touch. A long-time sleeper agent sheltering in Rip van Winkle country on the Hudson River, she had been exposed in Bloomingdale’s lingerie department by a sharp-eyed FBI agent. Repatriated, Anna serves in a shadowed corner of the Kremlin as a special adviser on recondite aspects of American politics and policies. Normally, we communicate using a simple code; so, I was surprised on this occasion by the receipt of an encrypted message that required me to seek assistance from a venerable former CIA man who retains a mastery of both Russian language and Intelligence methods.


The gist of Anna’s brief communication was a request for insights into the unfathomable Presidential election season. It seems that the boys in Moscow could make no sense of the bizarre scene which, to their unpracticed eye, crossed elements of the Rio Mardi Gras with 4th of July fireworks. All very entertaining, but troubling. Could I help – for old times’ sake? What they needed was not a deep interpretation; rather, a pointed users’ guide that was straight-from-the-shoulder, unvarnished, candid.


Here is what I composed:


-       Joe Biden will not let go. Nor change. He is an aged man who firmly holds to everything that defines his sense of self, of the world, and of how to cope as President. That means ideas, persons – friends and enemies both, and methods. These rigidities prevent any adaption to shifting circumstances. The wheel is lashed in place. The ship of state is locked on course – straight ahead. So it is for foreign policy, domestic policy and electoral strategy.


-       This disposition is reinforced by Biden’s entourage. They are a loyal crew accumulated over the years from the Obama era, his long tenure in the Senate and as a mainstay of the Democratic Party establishment. For the most part, narrow-minded and unimaginative old pals who cater to Biden’s fixed orientation and need for undisturbed consistency. The entire team, like Biden himself, represent the sclerotic condition of the Democrats who have been on a steady downward spiral since the Reagan days, bereft of conviction and spirit. In other words, Republican-lite – except on social issues like identity politics and abortion. As a consequence, they habitually are on the back foot – fending off ferocious Republican attacks and depending on the excesses of the increasingly radical Republicans for whatever electoral victories they can eke out. That is how they managed to get beaten by a psychopathic, neo-Fascist showman in 2016, almost lost again in 2020, and now seem headed for another defeat.


-       It had seemed that the lifeblood is draining out of the Biden candidacy. A sure sign was that he was becoming the target of mockery on late-night talk shows and SNL – a position long held by Trump. Attention focused on his evident diminished capacities in a way that emphasized the impression of his being a weak leader. His surprisingly forceful State of the Union address has gone a way toward reversing that negative image. Whether he can sustain it remains to be seen. Let’s remember that Biden never was particularly popular or attractive in the public’s eye. He sought the party’s presidential candidacy a number of times beginning in 1988 and never got anywhere. As for the 2020 election, it was in essence a referendum on Trump – few opted for Biden based on his persona or program.


His performance in the White House has done nothing to enhance that image, especially over the last year. His failure to get a grip on the immigration problem has cost him. Not only is this widespread upset at the flood of unprocessed illegals sweeping the cities (with no federal aid forthcoming), but he has allowed state governors led by Greg Abbott in Texas to usurp powers that rightly lie with Washington without as much as a public remonstrance.


Then there is Palestine. That is proving a double liability. A significant slice of the Democratic electorate is appalled at his complicity in the Israeli crimes in Gaza. Unless there is drastic change in his course, they will refuse to vote for him – instead, staying home in droves or voting for a 3rd party protest candidate. Moreover, his weakness in allowing himself to be treated disdainfully by Netanyahu highlights his lack of leadership.


-       Despite these obvious liabilities, Biden insisted on seeking re-election for two reasons. One is his vanity. The other is encouragement from the Democratic establishment (and fat cat donors) who prefer to risk losing with Biden rather than to open the way for somebody else who might challenge their stranglehold on the party or doing things – like cracking down on abuses in the financial sector and Silicon Valley – that are abhorrent to them. This is a replay of what happened in 2020 when they coaxed Biden out of retirement in dread of Bernie Sanders breaking their hold on the party.


-       The Biden foreign policy approach is simplicity itself. It is shaped by the notorious Wolfowitz Memorandum of 1991. Its core principles: the United States should use all the means at its disposal to establish American global dominance; to that end, it must be ready to act preventively to stymie the emergence of any power that could challenge our hegemony; and to maintain full spectrum dominance in every region of the globe. Ideals and values are relegated to an auxiliary role as a veneer on the application of power and as a stick with which to beat others.


Classic diplomacy is disparaged as inappropriate to this scheme of things. For Biden himself, a confident, assertive, hard-edged approach to dealing with others derives naturally from belief in Americanism as a Unified Field Theory that explains, interprets and justifies whatever the US thinks and does. Were Biden re-elected, this outlook will remain unchanged. And were he to be replaced by Kamala Harris mid-term, which is likely, inertia will keep everything on fixed course.


The TRUMP phenomenon is subject to several misapprehensions.


1) There has been no tidal swing in voter sentiment from 2012 until today. The differences in party preference in one direction or another are in the order of a few percentage points. So, too, the partisan demographic distributions. The same holds for Congressional elections.


2) What has changed is the dramatic radicalization of the Republican Party now dominated and energized by the MAGA militants. A significant majority of Republican supporters back drastic measures that are illicit or unconstitutional – of the sort that Trump has taken and pledges to go beyond in a second term. Those attitudes represent an extremity of the admittedly gradual shift to the Right in political discourse and party platforms within both parties. The causes are multiple – prominent among them being the sheer ineptitude, passivity and philosophical confusion of the Democratic establishment.


3) To understand the Trump phenomenon, we should abandon conventional political concepts. MAGA dynamics are not those of a party, of a party faction, or even a movement. It is a cult – exhibiting all the traits of that odd species of social grouping. Cults emerge when public authority loses legitimacy, when there is widespread estrangement from public institutions, when established values and norms erode – along with the credibility of the institutions that they are rooted in; when there are strong undercurrents of anxiety, when anomie infects persons and traditional groups.


Today’s America is riddled with cults, of which MAGA is the biggest, the most personalized, and by far the most consequential. There is the LBGTQ cult that – in its most extreme forms – has men competing against women in athletic events based on no more than a subjective claim that they ‘feel’ female. There is a plethora of celebrity cults, the Taylor Swift craze being the latest (if she could actually sing, official deification by Congress would be in order, or at least a statue on the Washington Mall).


There is the super billionaire cult. There are the Evangelical ‘End of Times’ cults grounded on the Book of Revelation. There is the Mixed Martial Arts cult. There is the anti-China Yellow Peril cult. There is the long-established gun cult – an immutable amalgam of frontier legend and macho strivings. The conditions conducive to the emergence and depth of these cults also serve as facilitators of the Trump-led MAGA cult.


4) How would a second Trump presidency act? Domestically, there certainly would be a comprehensively more autocratic rule. Many of the steps already enunciated could seriously call into question the institutional integrity and legal framework of the American political system. By contrast, prediction as to foreign policy aims and objectives is a low-confidence exercise. Trump himself has no worked out conception of the world system, the United States’ place in it or strategies for advancing national interests. Those interests are loosely conceived; they boil down to setting narrow American needs and wants as the sole reference marks.


For Trump, everything is transactional. It’s all a zero-sum game. The principal measure of success is tangible gain, in monetary terms. Power and control are to be accumulated for that purpose. No deal with whomever is precluded. Let’s recall the agreement he hammered out with North Korea’s Kim in Singapore – albeit quickly undercut by deputies who arbitrarily reversed the sequence of reciprocating concessions so as to make it unpalatable to him. The exception to this liking for one-on-one bargaining is Iran, toward whose mullahs he is strongly antagonistic.


On individual issues, the Trump policies will be impulsive and segmented. There is no plan. Trump neither wants to save the world, recast it in America’s interest or build a structured empire. Rather, it is to be in a position where the US can extract from it whatever it wants. Hence, keeping bases in Syria and Iraq for their own vague sake is not worth the cost. An across-the-board enduring confrontation with Putin’s Russia is not a notion that appeals to him. He is a bully who deep down avoids dangerous fights. In all likelihood, he would push for a negotiated settlement on Ukraine.


That said, it is reasonable to judge that the escalating economic sanctions on Russia imposed during Trump’s term put the lie to the accusation that he is ‘soft’ on Russia and would move swiftly to implement a policy of conciliation. He does admire strong leaders and relishes dealing with them – not isolating them. They are manly protagonists who strengthen his own sense of virility in going head-to-head with them. Those occasions allow Trump to show his true mettle in a way that insulting those whom he sees as weaklings cannot. The same holds for China. Here, there is a greater sense of a contest over who is king-of-the-hill. However, he has no antipathetic feelings about the Chinese. 


The instinct will be to drive hard bargains with Beijing, especially on economic matters. Likely, he will keep in place the Biden policies designed to undercut and weaken China’s growth potential as you would any rival. Going to war with China over Taiwan, though, is not a prospect to contemplate. No more talk about the inevitability of a military showdown within five or 10 years. Still, there will be strong institutional pressures to strengthen the commitment to an independent Taiwan which could lead to mounting tensions with attendant risks.


5) The Middle East is trickier. Israel /Palestine is the one issue that would defy Trump’s characteristic modus operandi. Whatever the exact situation in January 2025, the effects of the horror in Gaza, the profound repercussions throughout the region, the passions engendered in the country – together they will not allow for dithering, impulsive gestures or showy Presidential interventions. What they will demand is carefully crafted multifaceted strategies along with sustained skilful diplomacy. Those are not Trump’s fortes.


Overall, how a second Trump administration will handle foreign policy depends very much on who winds up in senior positions. Let’s recall that Trump-I featured John Bolton and Mike Pompeo – both of whom are soulmates of Victoria Nuland.




The lights are dimming all across the SHINING CITY ON A HILL – never to brighten again in our time.


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