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The staggering responsibilities of the executive office do not appear to have aged President Donald Trump much. Unlike past presidents who have grown visibly wearier on the job, Trump seems to have not aged much over his four years in office. Even in the face of a historic pandemic that has, at the time of this writing, killed over 80,000 people in his country, the president has projected an unflappable vanity. Questioned about the rising death toll at an April press conference, Trump boasted, “You can’t mourn it any stronger than we’re mourning it.”
Most people no longer seem to be sharing this ghoulishly upbeat attitude. Recent polls show that Trump’s support has declined over the past few months, as a wave of suffering from the pandemic ripples across the United States. The administration is widely seen as having botched the response to the coronavirus. And the president himself has compounded the sense of chaos with his incoherent and disturbing messaging during the crisis. Trump has been saying insane things for years, of course, but with tens of thousands of Americans killed by disease and tens of millions more out of work and facing an uncertain future, the joke finally appears to be wearing thin.
Every day seems to be a pivotal turning point for American society lately, but it’s hard not to look ahead to one autumn day in particular as a momentous occasion that will shape this country’s future: Election Day. There is not much reason to believe that the United States will have recovered by the time of the vote. Under normal circumstances, after such a disaster, the incumbent losing office would be all but assured. But Trump also happens to be facing off against a Democratic Party that is bitterly divided — and with good reason. The Democratic split can be attributed both to structural differences as well as those of personality, divisions that have been pored over ad nauseam and need not be relitigated here.
What should be considered is that, one way or another, this election will really be a matter of life and death for millions of people. This is particularly the case for the poor and people in developing countries whose voices are not heard in the electoral process, even though its outcome affects them. The question of whether Trump would be worse on balance than any Democratic candidate is worth sincerely asking. But, when you analyze both Trump’s record in office and future trajectory, it hardly seems debatable. In addition to its hideous response to the coronavirus pandemic — the suffering of which is falling overwhelmingly on the working poor and minorities — the Trump administration is willfully laying the groundwork for global suffering on a scale that will be unprecedented.
Trump ran on a platform that made vaguely populist gestures at times. But in office, he has served as a human ventilator keeping the terminally ill ideologies of neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy alive — both in their most rapacious forms. If the forces that latched onto him get another four-year extension, we could pass beyond a point where we have much less left to rescue. There are several fronts on which a second Trump term would guarantee escalated suffering for innocent people, including health care, xenophobia, immigration policy, income inequality, and the courts. For purposes of illustration however, let me focus on two issues that I follow closely, and which progressives have historically expressed concern about: climate change and war.
Every expert has warned that major cuts in emissions need to take place within the next decade in order to avert calamity. An administration interested in even the minimalist goal of keeping civilization functioning in the medium term should feel compelled to register a response. Yet the Trump administration has made it a point of pride to do the opposite of what is necessary as aggressively as possible. Many of its environmental policies seem to have little apparent logic beyond killing endangered species and ramping up CO2 emissions to trigger the libs. The direst warnings from scientists seem incapable of shaking the administration off its current course. And this problem is time-sensitive: Within roughly a decade on our present course, we will have likely passed a point beyond which catastrophic harm is unavoidable.
To be fair to Trump, past presidents had environmental policies that also brought us to this point. It’s reasonable to ask, then, whether his approach is meaningfully worse. But, according to climate experts who have tracked this subject for years, it is. Trump’s environmental positions go beyond even those of the conservative establishment and corporate America. They align instead with the most extreme fringe of right-wing activists and libertarians opposed to any type of regulatory action to stave off climate disaster.
“In 2012, the Obama administration was doing better on climate policy than a Republican administration would have done. But even Mitt Romney was not completely terrible on climate. He would’ve enacted some policies, he wasn’t totally retrograde or an outright denialist,” said Kert Davies, the founder and director of Climate Investigations Center. “When Trump ditched the Paris accords, many major corporations came out and said that this is a bad idea because they had already begun planning for a reduced-carbon future. It tells you a lot about how fringe the president is on this issue that he’s not even in line with corporate America.”
Over the past few years, in part because of the alarm over the Trump administration’s policies, a powerful grassroots movement has grown to force the issue on climate change. It is having an impact. Whereas in previous elections, it was a struggle for activists to get a single question about the issue addressed, climate policy was one of the major topics of discussion during the last set of Democratic primary debates.
The current likely Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has made weaker commitments on this subject so far than some of his challengers and been justly criticized for his shortcomings by activists. But there is significant reason to believe that he or any Democratic president would do more than Trump on climate and also be susceptible to pressure to improve their stance in office. On this issue, even marginal improvements happen to matter a lot. Even with great effort, we are likely pass the red line that scientists have set: 2 degrees Celsius warming above preindustrial levels. But keeping emissions at a point that takes us up to 2.5 degrees, 3 degrees, or even more warming would make a difference — and accelerate the severity of our catastrophe. It’s not hyperbole to say that every marginal increase in emissions means death and misery for millions of the most vulnerable around the world. The absolute intransigence of the Trump administration on climate is particularly galling since there is a lot that could easily be done with a little bit of political will.
“There is an ocean of difference between what a Trump presidency and a Biden presidency would do on climate policy,” Davies said. “In one you’d do zero, even continue moving backwards, while on the other we’d at least be moving forward again. Even if people don’t think Biden’s policies are up to Bernie’s” — Biden’s progressive rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ended his presidential campaign in April — “there’s a much higher bar now.”
Davies added, “People have woken up on this issue in a way that could not have been foreseen years ago. It is likely that climate policy will be a significant node of the Democratic platform in November, and that it’ll be something beyond getting back into the Paris accords. The dialogue has moved way past that.”
The Democratic Party’s legacy on war is an ugly one. President Barack Obama was responsible for putting in place a drone warfare program that frequently killed innocent people around the world. After he left office, the terrifying executive powers over life and death that Obama created were then handed over to a man who was perhaps the least morally or temperamentally fit to wield them. While Trump occasionally expressed skepticism of U.S. militarism during his first presidential campaign, in practice he has governed with callous brutality, behaving like the ugliest imperialist possible.
Under Trump, strikes in Somalia have ramped up eight times over what they were under Obama. In all battlefields, he has loosened rules of engagement to allow the greater killing of civilians in American wars. Thousands have died in needlessly brutal operations in Iraq and Syria as a result of slackened targeting standards. As commander-in-chief, Trump has gone out of his way to encourage war crimes and even celebrate those who commit them. Harming innocent civilians is one issue, at least, where he has been keeping his campaign promise.
Trump’s foreign policy doesn’t get any better when you zoom out from the actual business of killing people. His administration has given an unprecedented blank check for unilateral Israeli land grabs in the Palestinian territories, setting the stage for institutionalized oppression unseen in the past seven decades of conflict. Trump has revoked arms control treaties that form part of the hidden infrastructure preventing the outbreak of nuclear wars. His retrograde approach to these agreements is setting the stage for the renewal of a Cold War-style arms race. Even a relatively small decision to remove restrictions on land mines will likely kill and maim innocents pointlessly for years to come.
But perhaps the single most aggressive policy Trump is still playing out is his approach toward Iran. After tearing up the Obama-era nuclear agreement, which, whatever its shortcomings, was the most significant step to extricating the U.S. from its endless wars in the region, Trump brought the two countries within inches of war this January after illegally assassinating an Iranian general in Iraq. Even more shockingly, the president has maintained crushing sanctions on that country during the Covid-19 pandemic over the pleas of Iranian human rights activists, Democratic senators, and former high-ranking world officials. A leaked Pentagon document reported in April said that these sanctions had “crippled” the Iranian health care system’s ability to respond to the disease, a development that has made even some hawkish anti-Iran figures queasy.
The president’s Iran policy has already resulted in the deaths of innocent people. In a second term, worse is almost assured. On this issue alone, there is a staggering difference with even the most flawed Democratic position on this issue. Anyone looking to express moral outrage over the suffering of civilians due to U.S. foreign policy need look no further than Iran today.
“The risk of war with Iran is an issue where there is a huge partisan split,” said Stephen Wertheim, deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of the forthcoming book “Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.” “Trump has had many years to pivot from maximum pressure to dialogue and he has not done that with Iran, he has not selected advisers that would allow him to do that. The Democrats, on the other hand, started out as the party that supported the nuclear deal and are likely to try to return to it once in office.”
Trump has periodically given hints that he favors some type of economic-nationalist retrenchment of American resources away from foreign conflicts. His thoughts on this issue have never been systematized in any clear way. But his rhetoric has sometimes given those who hope for such a policy enough material to project an image onto him as an isolationist, despite daily accumulating evidence to the contrary. It has taken the Covid-19 pandemic and his response — blaming it almost entirely on China instead of using it to make the case for domestic retrenchment — to put the final lie to this claim.
“If Trump were an isolationist, if he were in favor of ‘Fortress America,’ he would be focused right now on building defenses in America against future pandemics,” said Wertheim. “That is not what we are seeing.
The Democratic Party has also been historically invested in the dubious goal of U.S. global primacy. Unlike in the GOP, however, there seems to be a meaningful constituency growing against the hawkishness of previous decades, at least on some important issues. The nuclear deal negotiated by the Democrats in particular was the most significant step taken to extricate the U.S. from the cycle of endless war in the Middle East. In general, though deeply flawed and deserving harsh criticism, the Democratic Party consensus is still less hawkish than Trump’s, who has served as an empty cipher for the most unhinged extremists in Washington, D.C.
“Retrenchment in some fashion is the direction the U.S. should be heading, and the public debate reflects that,” said Wertheim, who is a critic of the so-called blob foreign policy consensus in both parties. “No one in the Democratic primaries was trying to sound more hawkish on foreign policy; it was all a contest to say who was going to end endless wars. Regardless of what happens, this is how the debate is being framed now.”
The most damning indictment of the status quo that preceded Trump is that it ultimately gave rise to his presidency. The proposition of simply returning back to those days and calling it a job well done is untenable. But when it comes to the question of a second Trump term, if there is a lesson we can take from history, including recent history, it’s that even when things are bad, they can still become much, much worse without getting better again. The “accelerationist” dream of tearing things down so that something better just might be built in its place is a folly that sacrifices the weakest among us for uncertain gains. Unless you have great personal wealth and are benefiting from Trump’s eye-watering tax cuts on the rich, there will not be any safe haven from what a second term will mean.
Electoral politics are not the sum total of political engagement, of course. Mutual aid and local democracy can flourish without getting involved in the dispiriting business of national elections. For anyone who cares about large structural issues like climate change and foreign policy, however, it’s worth considering how a second Trump term would preclude even a long-term future that is progressive in any sense. From a strategic perspective is also political capital in appearing to be on the right side of history at a pivotal moment. If Trump does overcome the pandemic to win the election and, as would be likely, takes the world further down the path of ruin, amid the pain that ensues it would be good for progressives to look like they had done everything in their power to stop him.
One of my favorite books is the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig’s 1942 memoir, “The World of Yesterday.” In that book, written shortly before his death at the height of World War II, Zweig decried how the world that he had grown up in had suddenly been shattered by politics, “as if it were a hollow clay pot breaking into a thousand pieces.” Our world is no less fragile. People can reasonably disagree over the perennial question of “what is to be done.” But, at the very least, as this pandemic is emphasizing, we should never let the delicacy of the things we take for granted slip from mind.