The perverse and dangerous course of Donald Trump’s presidency took a new turn when he declared, in early May, that the United States would ‘pull out’ of the international agreement on Iran. This, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was signed in 2015 between Iran, the European Union, Russia, China and the US, to monitor and verify Iran’s reduction in its nuclear capacity to a level far below that required for the making of an atomic weapon. Despite constant inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its assurance that Iran was indeed complying with the agreement, Trump has permitted the two regimes most sympathetic to his purposes - Saudi Arabia and Israel – to influence his decision – if anything so categorical as a ‘decision’ is possible in a man, subject to impulse, but also, and what is worse, obsessed with a malignant desire to undo the work of his predecessor.
The remarkable consistency in the first year and a half of his incumbency has been the desire to reverse everything that Barack Obama achieved. However modest the attainments of America’s first black president, the unravelling of everything he accomplished may appear a curious project, but it offers clear insight into the troubled psychology of Trump. The fact that Trump’s mantra is ‘to make America great again’ suggests it has fallen from the eminence it occupied in the world, and that his is to be a work of restoration. Although the emphasis has been on bringing back outsourced work, reclaiming the industrial dominance of rust belt, re-shaping the world trading system in favour of the US, Trump’s morbid fascination with Obama suggests there is also a more sinister purpose in his desire to efface all traces of the president who preceded him.
Seeking to erase the minorities’ contribution
The origin of this resentment is not difficult to discern. Trump carries in his train the long, tortured history of a racism which, far from being allayed by the rise of an urbane and sophisticated liberal like Obama, took on a new vibrancy when Obama came to power. If Trump’s desire to turn back the clock to when American power was uncontested includes a longing for economic supremacy, it also associates the decline of one particular form of industrialism with the social emancipation of minorities, in particular the descendants of slaves. By suppressing their contribution to the liberalising of America, Trump hopes that, by a form of sympathetic magic, he will also erase the years of what had seemed, perhaps falsely, to be irreversible progress.
The compulsion to react against Obama without regard for consequences has characterised Trump’s early presidency. It is concentrated on re-creating an imagined paradise in which, not only domestic minorities, but the rest of the world, know their place and respect American ‘might’
This obsession with the past takes small account of the continuing superiority of the US in the new economy, the world of informatics, computing, artificial intelligence, the economy of knowledge, the mining of the human psyche and the weaving of new networks of relationships and social behaviour – also a form of highly contemporary industrial production, even if far removed from the coalfields of West Virginia and the derelict steel towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. The preoccupation with manufacturing industry is nostalgia, the desire to ‘return’ to that seductive golden age, located in a changeless 1950s, the idyllic suburbia of a summer place, conservative morality and intact families, where men won bread and women gave way to ecstasy over the latest appliances that would grace their home and save their labour. Trump appears to disregard those areas in the present day in which America has retained its inventiveness, its creativity and capacity for endless innovation.
It is difficult to extricate Trump’s ‘policies’ from his personal – and eccentric – vision of reality; a reality in which he is the principal player and all the rest heroes or villains, tending towards or detracting from, his self-regard as the embodiment of all that's best in an America, which is both imaginary and archaic.
No regard for consequences
From the beginning, his reaction against Obama urged him to lay waste his presidency, to make it appear as if Obama never existed, had not been there, had not occupied the same pew, sung the same psalms, worshipped at the same American shrines. His earliest actions included approval of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines, which had been suspended by Obama on environmental grounds. He ordered a review of national monuments, and declassified land designated for protection, particularly four national parks in the western states covering 1.3 million acres. It was less a desire to trash the sublime beauties of America than an urge to trample on Obama’s garden. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change was part of the same pattern: Trump doesn’t do consequences.
In the social sphere, too, he was busy with the work of obliteration: Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, rescinded Obama-era guidelines which had required more urgent investigation of sexual assaults in colleges and universities. This reversed a recommendation to be more attentive to assaults on women, in favour of male students who had complained that campus judgements favoured female accusers. The epic struggle over the rollback of Obamacare was inconclusive, although a mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance that included contraception and sterilisation procedures was successfully eliminated. Trump’s tax reforms waived a penalty against Americans who did not purchase health insurance, part of a libertarian impulse to permit people the superlative freedom to be as poor as they choose to be. He also banned transgender people from serving in the military.
Perhaps his most malicious and illiberal ‘promise’ was to remove what he called ‘Obama’s illegal executive order’ to protect from immediate deportation hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought to the US as children. Although deportations, frequent under Obama, have scarcely increased under Trump, the latter's bellicose rhetoric and growing number of arrests of non-criminal immigrants have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
The compulsion to react against Obama without regard for consequences has characterised Trump’s early presidency. It has not been capricious or arbitrary, as some have claimed, but is concentrated on re-creating an imagined paradise in which, not only domestic minorities, but the rest of the world, know their place and respect American ‘might’.
The vengeful undermining of Obama’s admittedly rather exiguous legacy is not entirely unproductive – if Trump really can encourage North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, although scarcely worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize as the egregious British Foreign Secretary averred, could be seen as a positive achievement where Obama failed.
But that is not really the point. For Trump is the great eraser – expunging, cancelling every action that others took towards building a society of inclusion, tolerance and humanity; and replacing it by the construct of an American fantasy which makes the products of Walt Disney look like earthy realism.
(Jeremy Seabrook is a London-based author and columnist. He has been described as ‘one of England’s most imaginative and creative writers reminiscent of George Orwell’ by the Guardian newspaper)