Donald Trump apparently doesn’t read books. The far right gang around him do.
The book that springs to mind looking at their outpourings in the last week is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. It was popular in hard right circles when it came out 20 years ago, as the Steve Bannon generation of fascistic ideologues were cutting their teeth in a post Cold War World.
Huntington gave a racialised rationalisation for the widening military conflicts and interventions of the US, which he said would characterise the new “World Order” rather than the disappearance of conflict through global trade and what became known as neoliberalism.
China was already beginning to rise. There was much anguish in the US about “American declinism”. And the backlash in the Middle East to decades of US and foreign power domination, and to local tyrants, was also underway. Both have developed apace since. Declining US power has not stopped them.
Huntington claimed that the conflicts arose from a fundamental “clash of civilisations”. He divided the world into 10 supposed fixed civilisations (though the number varied) – Western (of course), Islamic, Orthodox (Russia), Latin American, Sinitic…
There was no reality at all in the categories – “Orthodox civilisation” was defined by Eastern Christianity; “African civilisation”, geographically by just the southern two thirds of the continent of Africa.
The logic of the enterprise was to justify the imperial clashes the US would engage in.
So to rationalise both war in the Middle East and increasing military tension with China, Huntington came up with the nonsense idea that there was a common “Islamo-Confucian” civilisation, which brought together Muslims and Chinese as a joint enemy of the US, leading the superior bloc of “Western civilisation”.
Now the Trump gang are lashing out at Muslims in general, putting Iran “on notice” of possible military action and musing about a major war in the South China Sea.
In doing so – as with the planned turn to protectionism – they are putting forward their plan to secure the interests of American capitalism and imperialism. They are also talking up trade wars with Germany and the EU capitalist bloc. Deep US interests have had to grapple with a rising China and the question of the Middle East long before Trump entered the White House.
George W Bush tried to do it, with Tony Blair, in 2003. But their efforts came to nought in Iraq. They were defeated there – that’s the principal reason why Trump falsely claims he was against the Iraq war: it was a loser.
Barack Obama modified the strategy. Not boots on the ground, but drone wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a “pivot to Asia” based upon building up a trading bloc and deepening military alliances against China. That is a zone of trade protectionism in itself – just that it was to stretch beyond California, across the Pacific and into southeast Asia through the TPP trade deal. That deal is now dead.
Obama’s Middle East policy also failed, especially when he lapsed back into the delusions of regime change in Libya and Syria.
China’s rise continued under both Bush and Obama. They attempted to manage it. But they could not make it serve a renewal of US dominance. In any case, Obama is out now.
So there is a continuity in what the Trump gang is doing. But there is also a break – a very dangerous one.
The war on terror necessitated anti-Muslim racism at home and abroad. But it was not driven as a “race war” or a religious war. Those who referenced Huntington were marginal in the Bush administration. The ideology instead was that the exercise of “shock and awe” in Iraq would provide a “demonstration effect” in the region that would rapidly lead to political change and the embrace by new, pro-Western and liberal regimes of the global order, US-centred corporate power and all the neoliberal fantasies.
Blair reheated the old European “liberal imperialist” ideology of the 19th century, making a keynote speech in Chicago in 1999 – before 9/11 but at the time of the Nato war in Kosovo. The idea of imperialism and colonialism as a “civilising mission”. He brought it to the table of the neoconservatives who came to power with Bush.
They regarded the Islamic Middle East as “backward”. But they saw themselves as civilising it, arrogantly believing they could “nation build” by war and occupation (and, naturally, profiteering and pillaging – as 19th century European imperialists had done).
They cannot be civilised
The Trump gang does not believe you can “nation build”. And Theresa May said much the same when she was in Washington.
They share the old idea that Muslims are inferior, but believe they are irredeemable. You cannot civilise them, or the Chinese. You have to crush them. That means crushing them as a people, a “rival civilisation” – eliminating the threat.
So those who thought that a rejection of Bush-Obama era “regime change” was somehow a rejection of war were seriously mistaken.
It actually means more war, but with an even more barbaric and dangerous justification, ideology and conduct.
The war on terror has beaten the bloody path to this. As the anti-war movement pointed out at the time, a war on something called “terror” would have no boundary, no point at which an armistice could be declared, no peace negotiations, no post-war, but endless war.
Trump deliberately talks now of “Islam-ic terror”, not of “jihadi terrorism” or “Islam-ist terrorism”. However imperfect those latter two terms are – and they have always suggested there is something specifically Muslim that is the problem – they did leave space for saying there are “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”.
George Bush was at pains to point out – whatever the hypocrisy – after 9/11 that he was not going into a “war of civilisations”. At the time, even Tony Blair said the same – though in the years since he has increasingly claimed that the fundamental problem is within Muslims as a whole, the “good” are covering up for the “bad”, all are implicated in “the problem”.
The Trump gang is going further – and saying so is no backhanded compliment to what went before.
From what we know of them already, at the heart of the gang are people sympathetic to the idea of a war of civilisations – the superior eliminating the threat of the inferior. Trump himself has said, “It is not true that all men are created equal.”
War – the major wars that Trump’s gang say they are prepared to contemplate – are barbaric in themselves. Does this alternative ideology and justification, then, make any actual difference?
Trump’s defence secretary General “Mad Dog” Mattis oversaw the near annihilation of Fallujah in Iraq – all in the name of nation-building and creating a liberal global order. The British empire in China and India oversaw the starvation of at least 12 million Chinese and six million Indians between 1876 and 1878 through a deliberate policy of exporting food from the famine areas in the name of free trade. All under the Victorian ideology of the West civilising the Rest.
The slaughter of the First World War was unparalleled up to that point – motivated by a simple clash of rival powers (not supposed civilisations) and justified to the public by modern national chauvinism.
Liberal capitalism has its own horrors. But it is also capable of producing reactionary forces and ideologies which take that horror even further. Trump has arisen from the crisis of neoliberal order, and through the main party of US capitalism.
War and eliminationist racism
On one level Hitler’s regime in Germany in 1939 was merely carrying out the expansionist war policy which the aristocratic military in 1914 had pursued and which was to meet the agreed aims of German big business, to be achieved by one means or another. German capital and its state functionaries wanted the end of the enfeebling Versailles Treaty. Hitler ended it.
But the German expansion eastwards in the Second World War came with a new ferocity and barbarity, flowing from the worldview of the masters of the Third Reich.
The anti-Semitic policies of the 1930s in Germany – legal discrimination and segregation against Jews, daily propaganda campaigns, Jewish Germans marked out as no longer full citizens, and therefore not protected by either the law or the normal values pertaining to proper citizens – gave way to the Holocaust from late summer 1941 onwards.
There were stages and thresholds crossed to turn an ideology for the elimination of the “malign influence” of a people in national life, “corrupting the national organism”, into the physical annihilation of millions of people on account of who they were.
One of the key elements enabling the others was the ideology shaping the kind of war that was to be fought to the east of Germany.
It would be mass, mechanised murder, for sure – as was 1914-1918.
It was to be a war of conquest and grabbing resources (Trump says once the US was in Iraq it should have just taken all the oil). That was also the case on all sides in the First World War.
But in addition, it was to be something else: an “ideological-race war of annihilation”; a war of existence – of “being or not being” – the existence of the “superior” race and its civilisation to be secured by the destruction of inferior cultures and the elimination of the people who bore them (peoples and races used interchangeably).
That was the ideology for the invasion of the “Judeo-Communist” Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. It was translated into orders down to unit level to ignore “the rules of war”, such as the protocols against torture and killing prisoners. And it was in the crucible of that horrendous theatre of war that the ultimate barbarity of the Holocaust was forged.
The point is not some direct comparison – still less equivalence – between Trump and Hitler.
It is merely this: imperialist wars generate of necessity murderous racism. The US war in Vietnam killed two million people and maimed millions more. You cannot do that day in day out without regarding the victims as somehow less human than yourself as perpetrator, whether torturing peasant farmers or incinerating them from B52 bombers.
And that inhuman racism gave rise to the mindset of the US force at My Lai, who systematically tried to annihilate a whole village – going door to door – for no military purpose but with a state of mind we can describe only as genocidal.
Abu Ghraib and the occupation of Iraq revealed similar horrors of our own time, accelerated by the dispensation from “normal rules” that the US state gave itself in the abnormal war on terror.
But if the racism arising from the mass murder of war becomes not an incidental though necessary feature but firmly embedded in the reasoning for war itself, in its commanders’ choice of targets, of weaponry, of methods of terror (which is what war means), of the war’s aims, then a threshold may be crossed.
Not callous disregard and sickening excuses for mass murder. Not the haphazard My Lai massacre, covered up by an embarrassed US high command.
But extermination as policy. Extermination of the inferior culture-race. The elimination or amputation of a civilisational rival, which happens to be a strategic adversary as well.
We have already glimpsed over that threshold from the bloody peaks of the war on terror and ensuing disasters unleashed to halt the Arab Spring.
We know full well what the US war machine – the largest among its rivals and in the world – is capable of. Now in the part of the US state machine nested in the White House are people who are more than comfortable with the use of the terrible power. They also at the very least entertain fantasies of racial supremacy and a worldview which sees conflicts over plunder as coming down ultimately to conflicts between superior and inferior peoples.
How will that develop? We do not know. But are we really to wait and see?
The time to stop the Trump gang is now.