Trump Everlasting? Rage, and the Dying of the Light
In a beard and barber shop called Big Moustache in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, Dimitri tells me, “I love your country’s culture, but I hate your country's politics.”
“So how short do you want it?” the 28-year-old barber asks in French, as he reaches for a pair of scissors. A former aircraft repair technician in the French navy, Dimitri (he asks that I not use his last name) proceeds to list off the American TV shows he grew up watching—Dexter, South Park, How I Met Your Mother—and then the Netflix shows he currently watches, and adds that he “basically only listens to American music,” mainly soul and motown.
“Ray Chaaaarles!” he exclaims when I’ve Got A Woman comes up on the playlist.
By the time my haircut is over, I’ve learned that Dimitri has been to the major tourist sites in New York, Arlington National Cemetery in Washington (a stop on a pre-arranged tour), and that he would love to spend a year working in the U.S. as a way to improve his English—preferably somewhere on the West Coast.
“My view of the U.S. since Trump got elected is of a giant about to stumble—and if it does, it could squash some of us,” says Max van Esso Castellet, a 26-year-old data scientist from Barcelona, echoing a growing skepticism towards the United States among Europeans, even in the under-30 demographic, which views the U.S. more positively across the board.
Julien Cavadini, a 30-year-old reservist in the French Air Force, blames Trump for having “aroused more tensions” around the globe, from Russia to China.
And Ottavio Harambe-Guan DeLupé, a 26-year-old personal trainer who grew up in multiple European countries and now lives in Rwanda, doesn’t beat around the bush. “Trump’s election distorted my view of what America and democracy are supposed to stand for globally,” he says.
Their voices are representative of general sentiment in Western Europe, where a whopping 86% of people view Donald Trump negatively, including 90% of the French, who qualify him as “racist” (87%) and “dangerous” (81%). According to French pollster Ifop, less than half of the country now considers the U.S. a dependable ally, and nearly 80% see it as an economic adversary. Just 11% of Germans “have confidence in the U.S. President,” with a clear majority considering Trump to be a bigger global problem than either Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. In the United Kingdom, more than 1.8 million people looked past the “special relationship” and signed a petition demanding that the sitting American president not be granted a state visit; hundreds of thousands of them turned out to protest when ‘The Donald’ finally did set foot on their shores.
“Trump is so despicable in the eyes of so many Europeans that politicians are eventually going to realize that more vociferous anti-American politics in Europe has an untapped political constituency,” says Brian Klaas, Assistant Professor of Global Politics at University College London and author of The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy.
If European publics view the U.S. President with no small amount of distaste because of his racist invective, unapologetic sexism, pompous incompetence, authoritarian bent, and all around general nastiness, current European leaders are skeptical in large part because of the way he has upended American foreign policy.
“The overwhelming feeling, certainly at an official level, is that Trump has created a huge amount of uncertainty,” says Peter Wilson, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.
In the face of that uncertainty, European leaders are increasingly realizing that the traditional, stable presence of the U.S. as a trustworthy friend, partner, and ally may be waning. They worry that Trump himself is antagonistic to the idea of a “Western” family built upon the rule of law, self-restraint, and liberal values, and the global institutions that accompany them, and far more at home among the family of autocratic leaders, like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Rodrigo Duterte, whose gut instincts he shares and whose unchecked authority he envies.
Like the ‘strong leaders’ he admires, Trump, who otherwise has no real governing ideology, believes in zero-sum transactions: a winner implies a loser, and if somebody else isn’t losing, then who’s winning? It’s a worldview that lends itself more to divide-and-conquer diplomacy than to the underlying logic of liberalism and multilateral institutions, i.e., mutual benefits, and positive-sum trade regimes.
“Trump has chosen to express his open hostility to the E.U., preferring to play at a bilateral level,” Benoît d’Aboville, a retired French career diplomat and France’s Ambassador to NATO from 2003 to 2005, told me by email.
Over the phone, Charles Hecker, Senior Partner at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy, says that Trump has put all of the United States’s traditional political, economic, and military alliances under pressure. “Organizations and countries that the U.S. has considered allies for the past 50 or 60 years, Trump treats with suspicion, and almost as if they were enemies,” Hecker says, citing the E.U. and NATO specifically.
Indeed, amidst frequent threats to impose tariffs on European steel or automobiles and to withdraw the U.S. from the World Trade Organization, the funding withdrawn from the United Nations, and pulling out of the Paris Agreement, perhaps no multilateral institution has drawn greater ire from Trump than the West’s preeminent defensive alliance: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1939—eight years before NATO was founded—Karl Deutsch, then a young Jewish scholar in Czechoslovakia, saw the specter rising in Germany and fled to the United States. He had been an outspoken opponent of nationalism as a student at Charles University in Prague, and once in the U.S., continued his research into identity and the formation of political community at Harvard. Hardly the first social theorist with an interest in how groups of people form identity, Deutsch brought with him a feature of the Czech language, which rather than English’s single word ‘nation’ has two separate words: narod, a nation as a people, and politiky narod, a nation as a political community.
Perhaps consciously or not, that inherent linguistic separation revealed itself in Deutsch’s later work, which drew lines between identity, communication, and nationalism in a way that he thought could form a map for building a future liberal, international order. More specifically, what interested him was the idea of a “security community,” which he defined as a group of people who had become integrated enough to form what he called “We-feeling,” a “sense of community” based on the long-term expectation that change and dispute resolution would happen peacefully through common practices and institutions.
Looking out at the Atlantic in 1957, Deutsch wrote in his book Political Community and the North Atlantic Area that while the United States and Western Europe did not yet constitute a security community (there was still too much distrust among NATO members, he decided), the fledgling NATO had enormous potential to become far more than a military alliance like the ones that existed before the first and second World Wars.
With that prediction, Deutsch presented an early challenge to present-day international relations “Realists,” who think that states struggle with one another to achieve security and advance their own material power within international anarchy, and are preoccupied with how the ‘balance of power’ is distributed throughout the system. “Constructivists,” in contrast, don’t dispute a starting place of anarchy, but think that the way the overall system operates can be shifted through the creation of norms and values, identity, and self-restraint.
For example, think about the last time you were at an intersection. Chances are a small miracle occurred; lights flipped from green to yellow to red, causing two sets of cars to slow down and come to a halt, as perpendicularly located lights changed to green, causing two other sets of cars to release their brakes and roll forward. Most likely there was no police officer standing at the intersection ready to enforce the rules, and probably no red-light camera either.
In fact, there might not have even been any cross-traffic, but I bet that you, if you were driving, obeyed the signals nonetheless. Red means stop, green means go:, the biggest car, truck or bus doesn’t just do what it wants and damn the rest. Traffic lights, we have realized, make everyone better off in the aggregate, and so we abide by the marginal inconvenience they sometimes cause in deference to the greater order they create.
But on a deeper level, it’s not that we consciously make that positive-sum calculus at every intersection, or that we live and act under some perpetual fear of being caught and paying fines, or even just that most of us don’t drive Hummers and are aware of our relative lack of power vis-à-vis larger vehicles. Rather, as the Constructivists might point out, we have internalized the lights as a norm of behavior, and even beyond that, we identify with other drivers, trusting that they have these same norms and will operate from the same common set of basic assumptions.
While some academic Realists like John Mearsheimer or Kenneth Walt maintain that NATO was never more than a transactional arrangement to balance against Soviet Power after World War II (and is inherently obsolete in a post-Cold War world), for others like Alexander Wendt, Victor Cha, David Haglund, Thomas Risse-Kappen, and Emmanuel Adler, NATO is the Constructivist organization par excellence, in the sense that membership socialized states in different ways, acting for some even as a precursor to E.U. membership. Among its members it removed the need to fear one’s neighbor’s worst intentions, often acted as a stepping stone to E.U. accession, and in conjunction with the E.U., socialized bureaucracies and populations to redefine both their identity and their ‘interests’, fundamentally altering the way that states related to each other within the common political community.
While collectively still the second highest in the world after the United States, European defense spending is nevertheless extremely and historically low as a percentage of GDP. The past 70 years constitute a brief, bright moment of peace in an ensemble of bloody European centuries. European nations have been extraordinarily uninterested in fighting each other, and have instead focused on becoming fabulously rich and crafting an almost borderless chunk of landmass. For all its imperfections, the European Union has been successful beyond the thin thread of a dream that traces its way from Jean Monnet to Victor Hugo, and before him to George of Podebrady in the early 1460’s.
Amidst a host of complex interacting variables and inputs, this was able to happen because the “security dilemma” had been solved in a way pulled almost straight out of The Three Musketeers, the “all for one and one for all” of Article 5, NATO’s collective defense clause. Just so long as everyone else—friend and foe alike—believed that the signatories meant it.
It’s not that the E.U. and the U.S. are somehow going to find themselves on the brink of conflict in the future—they won’t—but rather that the way their two publics identify with each other truly matters for the type of enduring, close partnership that exists today. The thing about trust is that it’s hard to gain and easy to lose. And Donald Trump, behind the wheel of a Hummer, is blaring through all the reds.
Before the infamous July, 2018 press conference where Trump obsequiously announced to the world how smitten he was with Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denial of (by now thoroughly documented) interference in the 2016 U.S. election—and nefarious activity across Europe before and since, including the Brexit referendum—the U.S. head of state paid a begrudging visit to his European allies.
Rather than offer reassurance on his previous questioning of Article 5, he sowed more doubt by threatening to pull out of the alliance altogether, calling other members “delinquent” and demanding “unpaid bills” immediately (demonstrating a continued and profound failure to comprehend how the organization functions), and then days later characterized the E.U. as a “foe” when it came to trade. In classic Trump style, he has pulled his base and his party along to a policy position that would have seemed nigh impossible before his rise. Republican voters today are less likely to support NATO and a majority are in favor of his proposed tariffs (at the time of polling, including on the E.U.). The percentage who consider Russia an “ally” has doubled since 2016.
In the days following Trump’s visit, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said that Europe could no longer rely on the United States, and called for greater European solidarity. In August, he went even further, saying, “The overlapping of values and interests that has shaped [the U.S.-Europe] relationship for two generations is decreasing,” and calling for the E.U. to be a “counterweight” to the U.S. when necessary. Though his aggressive tone was enough to draw a rebuke from Merkel, the general sentiment was echoed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said during a speech to French ambassadors that Europe could no longer place its security in the hands of the United States, and must create and bolster the necessary defense institutions to guarantee its own sovereignty.
“The partner with whom Europe built the new post-world war order appears to be turning its back on this shared history,” Macron declared.
Volt Europa, a pro-European movement styled on Macron’s 2017 En Marche campaign, which is hoping to become the first pan-European political party to win seats in the European Parliament in 2019, is considering making European defense a major component of its platform.
“We don’t wish for Trump to pull away more, but this is a natural outcome if he does,” Andrea Venzon, Volt’s youthful Italian president, told me over the phone from Berlin. He likens the impact of U.S. isolationism to both Brexit and increased assertiveness from the Kremlin—something that will make European countries circle the wagons.
“Donald Trump has created a real and lasting rift between the United States and Europe,” says Klaas, who asserts that the small cracks that began forming as a result of Obama’s pivot to Asia have now become “Trumpian ravines.”
Before Trump was elected, The Economist identified the man who would readily step into that breach: Vladimir Putin. His two overarching geo-strategic goals, the British magazine wrote, were to inject as much division as possible into the E.U. and NATO, with an “overarching aim to divide and neuter that alliance.” To that end, Putin (former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, continually warns against conflating the oligarch “mafia state” that Putin heads and “Russia”) has funded far-right nationalist European political parties, makes ample use of Russia Today and Sputnik as tools of information confusion, interfered in elections, and, of course, outright seized control of Crimea.
In an aggressively worded piece for Politico, MollyMcKew (who served as an advisor to former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili from 2009 to 2013, following the five day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008), expands on Putin’s end goals. She writes that the Russian President, who once served as a spy in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, is fighting a non-traditional, non-linear “war” with the ultimate aims of “replacing Western-style democratic regimes with illiberal, populist, or nationalist ones,” eroding basic ability of populations to distinguish truth at all, and replacing the a stable global order undergirded by the U.S. and Europe with a far more anarchic one in which Russian influence is amplified. To that end, and in utter defiance of established geopolitics since the Cold War, Trump seems to be doing Putin’s work for him.
Hecker, who spent two years as a reporter with The Moscow Times in the 1990’s before covering Russia for Control Risks, says that while he doesn’t think Putin wants to instigate complete chaos in the U.S. or the E.U.—which is a major market for Russia’s gas exports. Nevertheless, he says that the Russian leader will “exploit any lack of accord in Western alliances, in some instances by taking active measures, in other cases taking the opportunity where we shoot ourselves in the foot.”
In March 2016, Anne Applebaum briefly sketched out a scenario titled “This Is How the West Ends” for Slate. And yet, more than two years into the Trump presidency, for as many tweets, threats, aggressive handshakes and petulant stares at international gatherings, that and the numerous other worst-case predictions have not been entirely borne out. Emmanuel Macron, not Marine Le Pen, won the French presidential election in 2017, both the U.K. and the E.U. will probably fudge a withdrawal agreement just in time to give Brexit a gradual soft landing, and for all of Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric, U.S. foreign policy seems to be two track—what Trump says, and what the bureaucracy actually does.
“In spite of the hostility of Trump against NATO and also all multilateral organizations, the White House still understands how the U.S. benefits from NATO, both strategically and politically,” says d’Aboville.
At least, the career American bureaucracy at the State Department and elsewhere still does (including some of Trump’s own senior advisors, as detailed in the shocking anonymous New York Times op-ed that describes a “Resistance” within the Administration working to restrain an “amoral” President’s worst impulses). Indeed, as radical right parties rise in Europe—parties that Trump has actively sought to spur on and that Steve Bannon is attempting to unite in a grand coalition—the E.U. and U.S. share a similar fate when it comes to the internal crises of national identity and globalization.
Despite everything, Klaas sees no reason to assume that the transatlantic alliance is dead and buried, pointing to 2020 as a chance for Americans to shift course and put a more traditional and sympathetic president in the White House. Such a president would have an astounding amount of work to do to repair relations and rebuild trust, but accomplishing that feat wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented. After all, relations between Europe and the United States rebounded from Bush-era “freedom fries” to the glowing crowds that greeted Barack Obama, who was as loved across the Continent as Trump is despised.
“There will always be political community across the ocean as long as the U.S. and the E.U. continue to share the same values. That will underpin a largely functional relationship,” says Hecker.
The only question is, will those values continue to lap at both continental shelves? Or will they slip beneath the waves, taking us with them to the Atlantic’s murky depths?
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