There’s a song on the Lemonheads’ underrated 1996 album Car Button Cloth that I love for very personal reasons. “The Outdoor Type” is a jangly pop tune in which the narrator admits that he had earlier misled his partner about his true interests:
I can’t go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend;
What if something’s on TV and it’s never shown again;
It’s just as well I’m not invited, I’m afraid of heights;
I lied about being the outdoor type.
I love this because I also misrepresented my enthusiasm for rock climbing to someone I very much wanted to spend more time with. And I was thinking about the lies we tell people we’re trying to lay because of the spate of recent articles trying to convince us that former U.S. President Donald Trump is an anti-imperialist.
Sen. J.D. Vance claimed in January that the most important part of Trump’s legacy is his foreign policy. “My entire adult lifetime has been shaped by presidents who threw America into unwise wars and failed to win them,” Vance wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. “In Mr. Trump’s four years in office, he started no wars despite enormous pressure from his own party and even members of his own administration.”
Trump “has done more to restrain the US imperium than any politician in 75 years,” Christian Parenti wrote in Compact recently. This, Parenti claimed, is the real cause of his prosecution by the Manhattan district attorney. “Trump has been investigated, impeached, and indicted not because of the crimes of which he is accused,” wrote Parenti, “but because he has dared to oppose the imperial foreign policy favored by elites.”
Sohrab Ahmari, a former neoconservative now aligned with the Trumpist right, and one of the founders of Compact, followed up with a piece hailing Trump as “the one figure who in my lifetime has meaningfully rolled back the self-righteous imperium” scolding the anti-war left for not embracing Trump as its true hero. “The left suddenly turns ultra-principled when it comes to judging Trump’s record as an anti-imperial president: He wasn’t a total pacifist! He talked about ‘taking their oil.’ What about Yemen? Come on.”
These pieces foretell a larger effort to seduce the anti-war left with the idea that Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary, is an attractive partner for the project of reining in the American empire—that he really is the Outdoor Type. (Although for Vance, who went from outspoken Trump critic to cravenly falling in line when his political ambition required it, a better tune might be Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With.”)
These pieces all rest heavily on the claim that Trump launched no new wars. That’s true as far as it goes. But it was certainly not for lack of trying. Trump might not have started any wars, but he massively inflamed existing ones—and came close to catastrophic new ones.
Let’s review the record. Despite inveighing against “endless wars,” Trump massively escalated the country’s existing wars in multiple theaters, leading to skyrocketing casualties. In Afghanistan, he substantially upped the amount of airstrikes, leading to a 330 percent increase in civilian deaths. In Yemen, he escalated both U.S. counterterrorism activities and support for the devastating Saudi-led war against the Houthis. According to the United Kingdom’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were 2,243 drone strikes in just the first two years of Trump’s presidency, compared with 1,878 in the entire eight years of the Obama administration.
Trump also came very close to tweeting the country into a nuclear war with North Korea in late 2017 and early 2018, a completely self-inflicted incident that seems to have been bizarrely memory-holed. Trump “didn’t merely threaten to attack North Korea if it possessed the ability to strike the U.S.,” wrote the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz. “He ordered the Pentagon to develop new plans, over the resistance of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to do so.” According to former Pentagon official and Asia security expert Van Jackson, who wrote a book about the crisis, “The world was closer … to nuclear war, at that time than any time, since the Cuban Missile Crisis. And it was totally avoidable.”
In 2018, Trump bowed to Washington’s neoconservative hawks and withdrew from a working nonproliferation agreement with Iran, resulting in Iran scaling up both its provocative activities in the region and its nuclear program. According to current U.S. assessments, Iran could now make enough fissile for one nuclear bomb in under two weeks, should it decide to do so. Under the agreement Trump abandoned, it would’ve taken Iran at least a year.
The list goes on: Trump put the U.S. on a path to “great-power competition” with China, incited a failed coup in Venezuela, and increased support for reckless, repressive clients around the world. Indeed, Trump was seen as such a dangerous interventionist that Congress passed the first war powers resolution in history to try to end his support for the Yemen war. Less than a year later, Congress passed a second resolution to brush him back from a potential war with Iran after he OK’d the assassination of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Qassem Soleimani. Both measures passed with Republican support, making opposition to Trump’s militarism one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement during his administration.
Trump’s defenders praise him for demanding that NATO allies meet their spending obligations, but of course, he’s not the first to do that. Indeed, Trump’s argument against NATO and other partners, such as South Korea, was that they should pay up for the protection racket. Parenti noted that in a summer 2017 meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump “demanded to know why the United States wasn’t receiving free oil from the Middle East. ‘We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off. … Where is the fucking oil?’” Trump repeated this in October 2019, telling a meeting of police chiefs that “we’re keeping the oil” in northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops were deployed.
If you think that demanding tribute from partners and client states is “anti-imperialism,” then I’d suggest that word does not mean what you think it means. If anything, Trump was simply more honest about imperialism than the foreign-policy wonks who cloak their undying commitment to U.S. primacy in language about human rights and the “rules-based international order” or whatever. This is the hypocrisy that Trump exploited very effectively.
This is where we do need to give Trump some credit. When Vance wrote that “Donald Trump’s presidency marked the first real disruption to a failed consensus and the terrible consequences it wrought,” he was not totally wrong. As a candidate, Trump performed an important service for the country by helping reveal that much of the so-called “foreign-policy consensus” is held almost exclusively inside the Washington beltway. During the 2016 primary, he gored a number of presumably sacred cows, including memorably and correctly declaring in a primary debate that the Iraq War had been a disastrous mistake (while also lying about having opposed it). The American people had long come to the same conclusion. The only people in the country actually shocked by his assessment were onstage with him.
Acknowledging that Trump helped pry open a long overdue foreign-policy debate does not mean, however, that progressives should allow themselves to be seduced by the fanciful notion that a corrupt, misogynist racist is, either on purpose or by accident, either anti-war or anti-imperialist. Trump’s notorious comment about “shithole countries,” among many other bigoted remarks over the years, reveals a clear commitment to the very racial hierarchies that underlie imperialism: There are classes of people fit to rule and classes of people fit only to be ruled.
Imposing an “anti-war, anti-imperialist” frame on Trump’s foreign policy is simply an attempt to conceal its utter incoherence. Trump attacked China’s policies one moment, and then offered fulsome praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping the next. He tweeted threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, ordered the Pentagon to draw up war plans, then proposed meeting for photos in Singapore. Trump has no coherent foreign-policy agenda because he has no coherent position on anything except his own self-glorification. Everything revolves around him and his ego, and that’s inherently incredibly dangerous.
President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy record has been a mixed bag, to put it gently, but let’s compare it to Trump’s: Unlike Trump, Biden didn’t just talk about withdrawing from Afghanistan; he did it. Unlike Trump, he didn’t massively increase the number of U.S. drone strikes; he massively decreased them. Instead of escalating support for the Saudi war in Yemen, he reduced support for it and appointed a special diplomatic envoy to help end it. Rather than support coups in Latin America, Biden has shown support for its democratically elected leaders. Years of organizing by progressives have helped him do this.
Has Biden gone as far as progressives want? No. Not even close. He has continued support for repressive partners, maintained inhumane immigration policies, and his human rights agenda is still largely comprised of statements about his human rights agenda. He broke his promise to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement. While his rhetoric cautions against a new cold war with China, his policy is driving the United States steadily into one. But it’s worth noting that the areas where Biden has most disappointed progressives are those where he hasn’t differed from Trump enough. The idea that a Trump administration would be more receptive to progressives’ ideas is daft.
Donald Trump was right about Americans’ disenchantment with the existing foreign-policy establishment. The United States desperately needs a renewed global approach that is both more responsive to the American people’s needs and does not simply export violence and poverty onto the rest of the world. Progressives need to build and work with an effective transpartisan coalition to make that change. But progressives also need to be clear eyed about who their real allies in this project are, and which leaders are genuinely committed to that project, and who’s just trying to talk them into the sack.