Skip to main content

the history lesson trump never got

"what's the worst that could happen?"
dear america,

hi, it's me again. the one who likes to criticize and mock a lot but still feels like you have some pretty awesome potential. i've been as guilty as anyone in wallowing in the horrorfest that is your federal election, but, as the candidates have tumbled, the debates have passed and even the primaries have failed to yield much excitement, one thing has become apparent: your shit is fucked up.

as i watch the likelihood of a donald trump presidency become ever greater, i feel like i need to call your attention to a couple of things. now, saying that you might elect donald trump president is like wearing your underpants on top of your clothes with an extra pair on your head as a statement of your ability to make decisions and take care of yourselves, so you'll forgive me if this missive is a little more patronizing than usual.

there are lots of reasons why trump would be a terrible president. here are seven of them. here's another five from a more right-wing perspective. or if you'd prefer, this right-wing site came up with forty of them. or you could listen to the words of this angelic-looking ten year old hillary clinton supporter, who came up with three of her own. [seriously, her first reason is the most perfectly worded put-down of trump that has been made in the campaign thus far.]

for my part, i'm going to stick to his big performance this week, playing "man who has a workable foreign policy for america". i'm certainly not the first to criticize his plans. the guardian seized on an unsettling number of inconsistencies for the length of the speech he gave. and cnn's underused fareed zakaria used his weekly show to break down some of those same points, as well as to put the donald's policy in some historical perspective. [spoiler alert: andrew jackson is having a terrible week in the press.]

i'm not as informed as either of those sources, but i do feel like i can add a little to the discussion by filling in what was covered in history class on those days that trump played hooky.

america's allies aren't contributing more to nato because they don't want to, and, if pushed, they'd walk away from nato rather than invest more. zakaria alludes to this in his editorial, but i figure it warrants a little more detail. i should clarify when talking about nato, trump doesn't mean all its members. he's referring to a handful of western european states [and canada, probably] who have wealth and a well-equipped military. nato serves those countries fine, as long as it maintains a buffer between them and russia, them and terrorists, or them and basically anyone they want to avoid. however, even america's strongest allies have hesitated to back plans like expansion into the ukraine and georgia feeling [correctly] that it would antagonise russia and bring no meaningful advantage. the instant that western european countries feel like participation in nato is exposing them to greater risks, costing too much money, or making them vulnerable to their own populations by forcing them to defend policies that are deeply unpopular at home, the jig is up. and that would leave america with a lot of small partners, newly established partners and impoverished partners, but no heavy hitters.

i feel for both america and [a little] for trump in this regard, because as much as it's easy to criticize the u.s. for taking on the role of the world's policeman, their ascendancy to the role did not take place in a vacuum. but now that it's done, the u.s. needs to find a way of scaling back their commitments and a way to accept that relinquishing the role they've embraced for so long will mean admitting that they cannot control the rest of the world and will need to hash things out with others as equals.

the u.s. military is pointlessly large. this is linked to one of the inconsistencies identified by both the guardian and zakaria [that trump wants to expand the military while also saving money], but it goes beyond that. america's military is huge and equipped with the best weapons on the planet, the product of a spending glut that has continued unabated for decades. but i didn't just say it was large, i said it was pointlessly large, and that's really the most important point. there is no empire in history that has been able to stave off its own decline through military strength. the greeks, the romans, the mongol khanate, were renown for their military strength and tactics. but eventually, you're a minority trying to plug holes in a dozen different hotspots and the more you start focusing on one, the more your enemies take advantage in another. nor does military strength automatically bring military victory. you'd think that the lessons of vietnam would still be pretty resonant, but then again, trump sat that one out.

and here's the kicker: being as large and equipped as it is, the american military has massive financial commitments that will continue to cost billions per year, even if new expenditures were slashed down to the bone. salaries and benefits for armed service members, as well as their health care costs, are a large one, but consider also that there are many pieces of equipment [like, say, anything with the word "nuclear" attached to it] that needs to be maintained in perpetuity, lest it turn on its creators. and none of that can guarantee anyone's safety.

when trump says he will build an army so powerful, no one would dare take it on, i think of what happens every time someone is stupid enough to say they've built a system that can't be hacked. america has had an army so powerful that no should dare to attack it for many years. all that sabre-rattling does is make the target nice and clear.

as a supposed financial wiz, trump should be more concerned about how to wean america's economy off the military-industrial teat.

just because someone is your ally doesn't mean they're your friend and trump needs to learn that before he says another word about other countries getting nuclear weapons. his statements on the topic have been fuzzy, in that way that broadcasts that he could be persuaded by a number of different arguments, but doesn't have any solid opinions of his own. [which may be the problem with a lot of his policies.] fdr used to refer to stalin as "uncle joe" when he and churchill wanted to make sure the communist dictator had their back against hitler; didn't mean they had each other's best interests at heart.

when trump starts to wander into the forest of military policy without his gps, he's prone to saying that he's open to the idea of certain countries, like japan, getting nuclear weapons, because they have america's back. i feel a little cruel for disabusing him of this friendly view of the world, but japan has no one's back but their own, which is just how things work among nation states. japan is a solid ally now, but those things change. and that's why it's a bad idea to give nuclear weapons to anybody, even your best friend.

you can't put the geneva convention genie back in its bottle. now that trump has heartily and repeatedly endorsed the use of torture and the use of military force against the families of suspected terrorists and/ or opposition military leaders, he has no possible way of arguing with those who wish to exempt themselves from any sections of the convention. that's not to say that he can't or won't make those arguments if [when] it happens, but it's going to be a short discussion.

the geneva convention is written to legally bind its signatories to a certain standard of behaviour in the same way that legal codes bind citizens. if donald trump wants to make the case- and he has- that the u.s. should be able to use any means to defeat terrorism, including those currently forbidden by international law, he's saying that the world needs to return to a time when every country did whatever it took to take care of their own and that there was no rulebook.

before he embraces the post-war crime world, trump should sit down with someone who knows something about history and world affairs and play a little game called "the hypothetical situation room": turkey, long an american ally, considers kurdish military groups to be terrorists and, indeed, there have been terrorist attacks in turkey even within the last few months. in order to protect their people, turkey therefore feels itself justified in using military force against not only members of the turkish pkk [kurdistan workers party], but their families and friends. however, kurds both inside turkey and in the neighbouring countries of iraq and syria [where the kurds have been fighting isis] argue that this amounts to the turkish beginning a campaign of genocide against all kurds, on the basis their allegiance will always be to their culture over their country. how should that situation be diffused, without invoking laws against war crimes [or against genocide, since there's no reason that shouldn't be on the table as well]?

i like to use the turkish- kurdish conflict as an example in these cases, because it does touch on a lot of problematic areas, but also because the u.s. has an equivocal relationship with both sides. there are plenty of world leaders who are just dying to have their legal shackles removed in these situations. and their removal could shield people like those responsible for the atrocities in rwanda in 1994. i'm not certain that even donald trump would welcome the sort of attention that comes from being the legal precedent in those cases.

someone should [although i haven't seen anyone step up] remind aspiring precedent trump that using the exact same tactics as your enemies means that you're no better than they are. maybe he doesn't want to be, but he does seem to think that chopping off heads is bad, so i don't think that he's completely given up on the whole good-bad dichotomy yet. somebody please buy this man a copy of animal farm.

ultimately, america, it's your choice. trust me, we're all very aware that no one can tell you what to do. but let me put it a different way: you deserve better.

for decades, your foreign policy experts have been awful. that's not because i disagree with them on a lot of things, but because it's just demonstrably true. these people have been wrong about everything and that's cost you money and lives and it's made your lives more dangerous. these people imploded the middle east when they invaded iraq because apparently none of them could be bothered to read a few articles on wikipedia. they got america sucked into a spectacular military defeat in vietnam because they didn't think it was a big deal that the communist insurgents from the north had huge support among the general population in the south. they thought it was a good idea to give arms and support to rebel groups in afghanistan to fight the ussr, because how could giving a lot of weaponry to religious zealots possibly go wrong? these people have been homer simpson incompetent for decades, which would be hilarious if it didn't keep ending up with your kids coming home in boxes.

so please, america, when you're choosing your next commander in chief, choose one who's worthy of you. choose someone who knows a few things about history and the world, or at least choose someone who has the humility to admit they might not have all the answers. we're pulling for you.


StacyHgg SHGG said…
This is a scary time for us in the US. Our people seem to have lost their darn minds, thanks for a great read. And very good (and true) points
Kate MacDonald said…
Thanks, Stacy. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it! And much though I enjoy the inspiration for blog posts, I'd gladly sacrifice that if it meant that the people running were qualified, dignified and humble.

as long as you're here, why not read more?

don't speak

you might think that it sounds dramatic, but linguistic genocide is something that happens. people in power will go to great lengths to eradicate certain languages, not just for the sheer joy of making the world a lesser place, but as a way of beating down the culture that's associated with it. language has a unique reciprocal bond with culture, and every group that has attempted to break down another has recognised that forbidding a cultural group from communicating in their own language is an extremely effective way to tear apart their culture.

there are lots [and lots and lots and lots] of examples of this sort of thing, some successful, some not, but far too many to cover in one blog post. however, i thought it was worth looking at some languages that have been the subjects of active repression, and what the political consequences of that have been.

devastation :: the native north american languages :: it should come as no surprise that the largest genocide in history [by a ma…


just a short time ago, i waxed prosaic about trump supporters who felt betrayed by their candidate pursuing in office the exact things that he said he would. short version: i have no sympathy.

today is a bit different. in the wake of america's bombing of a syrian air strip, in response to a chemical weapons attack by the syrian government, my facebook and twitter feeds were peppered with plaintive shades of "we believed you". these are the people who heard trump say that he wanted the united states to step back and focus on defending its own. indeed, trump did say such things, over and over; america cannot be the policeman of the world. even arch-liberal cynics like me had to admit that this was a refreshing argument to hear from someone outside the paul family, and, could easily have been turned into trump's greatest argument against hillary clinton. [he chose to go another way, which also worked.]

trump also said, repeatedly, that america needed to invest heavily …

long division

after the united states election last year, there were the usual calls for the country to unite behind the new president. that never happens anymore, because, since george w. bush scored a victory in 2004, having launched the country into a war in iraq for no reason, the people on the losing side of a presidential election have been pretty bloody angry about it. democrats hated bush 43. republicans really hated obama. democrats really hate trump.

it didn't help that trump didn't make the typical conciliatory gestures like including a couple of members of the opposite party in his cabinet, or encouraging his party to proceed slowly with contentious legislation. barack obama arguably wasted at least two and as many as six years of his tenure as president trying to play peacemaker before he felt sufficiently safe to just say "screw you guys" and start governing around the ridiculous congress he was forced to deal with. not-giving-a-shit obama was the best president in …