Tuesday, April 4, 2017

From Obama to Trump: Tracing the Contours of Change and Consistency Between Administrations

On the morning of March 6th, 2017, Donald Trump signed into law for the second time an executive order attempting to stop the flow of migrants and refugees into the United States from six (down from the original seven) Muslim majority countries, this time excluding Iraq on the advice of the Pentagon and the State Department on account of its essential role in the ongoing campaign against ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).1 A year ago, under then-President Barack Obama, a move of unilateral legal bombast of such blanket proportions emanating from the White House would have seemed close to impossible, though most of the American political landscape shares this same tinted veneer of impossibility—an impossibility which, now fulfilled, has morphed into a dangerous and unprecedented absurdity. This essay will trace the foreign policy contours of both the Trump and Obama administrations in order to contrast them and analytically investigative what—and to what extent—has thus far substantively changed in terms of America's policy dispositions in the realm of international relations. Major contrasts in already implemented policies of the Trump administration are plenty, many very dangerous in implication; however, much of the underlying policy infrastructure in foreign affairs remains both expectedly and unexpectedly contiguous with the preceding Obama administration, such as a strategically rhetorical caution with regards to North Korea's missile testing, the continued existence of the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the policy of unilateral American strike intervention in places such as Yemen. Much else, however, has cleanly broken from the previous administration, such as the scrapping of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) trade deal, the above mentioned hard-line xenophobia of the executive orders on refugees and immigration, the advent of the far-right in a more general regard to the executive branch and social landscape, the development of an apartheid-style wall on the border between Mexico and the United States, and an extremely friendly relationship with Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu, extending so far as to probe the possibility of moving the official American embassy to contested Jerusalem, which both Israel and the decimated Palestinian Territories claim as their rightful capital.2 Due to limitations on length, all of the above is sufficient only towards scratching the surface of these issues; or, rather, towards tracing their contours.
There is much in President Trump's demeanour and tone that add to the generally correct impression of discontinuity with previous political orthodoxy, especially that practised by Obama during his time in office. However, despite the tectonic shift in operative ideology, policy content, and rhetoric, it can often be far too easy to overlook some of the analogous similarities and continuity between the two administrations when Donald Trump as an abrasively overwhelming spectacle flaunts himself so readily and constantly through the news media.3 In this time of unprecedented political instability, it is essential to trace these continuities and catalogue said analogous similarities as have been made apparent thus far in order to tease out a deeper context from the web of volatile and widely misunderstood socio-political complexity that is the American political landscape. As such, we can start with Trump's promise, made as a candidate on the campaign trail in April of 2016, to cancel remittance payments to Mexico and redirect the money towards funding his wall on the southern border.4 An important distinction, however, must be made between Trump's rhetoric and truly enacted policy, as it is clearly enacted policy that is of greater consequence than policy promises. This being said, Trump has only been in office for a little over a month at the time of writing, and has not enacted his pledged cancellation of remittances, though he has officially begun development of the southern border wall with Mexico, but has yet to concretely impose any measures to force Mexico's payment for its construction. Rather ironically, then-President Obama was quick to chastise candidate Trump for such a promise when he said, “The notion that we’re going to track every Western Union bit of money that’s being sent to Mexico—good luck with that.”5 What is overlooked in this exchange is the fact that, under legal directives implemented under his administration, Obama cancelled remittance payments to Somalia from Somalis and Somali-American's working in the United States. The intention was to cease these payments so as to avoid the money falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, though it facilitated quite the opposite when people desperate to send portions of their earnings to destitute relatives instead opted to pack suitcases full of money onto planes, often unattended, in the hopes that it would make it to its intended beneficiary.6 Not only did this mean that many Somalis did not receive the money that acted as their primary source of income, but that when the suitcases did not make it to their intended destination, they are far more likely to have instead wound up in the hands of the same terrorist groups the American government intended to financially starve.
On climate, Trump's rhetoric may be as good as policy insofar as the agreement signed in Paris during November 2015 by 194 countries on capping carbon emissions and weaning off fossil fuels over the course of the coming decades is, for all intents and purposes, non-binding. As was reported by the UK's Guardian newspaper this past November, only 4 days prior to the 2016 American election, “The Paris agreement is legally binding in forcing governments to accept and cater for the [cap on global temperature increases by 2 degrees Celsius]. But the commitments on curbing greenhouse gas emissions in line with that goal are not legally binding. This means incoming governments can renege upon them. There are no sanctions for governments that flout the goals.”7 This means that Trump should have no real procedural issue withdrawing the United States from the covenant if he decides not to abide by its terms. There would have perhaps been a chance for the agreement to enjoy a stronger legal standing in America had it been presented as an official treaty and put to the Senate to ratify as such, but as it stood in late 2015, the Senate was stacked with an overwhelmingly obstructionist Republican majority bent on stymieing President Obama's every move. Regardless of this, it is also true that, even if it had been ratified as a national treaty, it could have been repealed by a new composition of senators following another election. Considering the recently-elected Republican majority in both houses of government, the push to repeal would likely have remained as much of a risk as withdrawal is today, and was thus not likely something Obama could have worked to avoid.8 As it stands, however, it seems that Trump has yet to make up his mind in as far as the Paris agreements are concerned, and is, reportedly, being counselled to remain within the pact by his daughter Ivanka and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while being advised to the contrary by former Goldman Sachs banker as well as former Breitbart News executive and the first demonstrably fascistic—or, cryptofascistic—White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon.9 Alongside this, Trump appointed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a man who, when asked whether he believed in global man-made climate change, simply stated that “the climate is changing, and human activity contributes to that in some manner.”10 More substantively, however, and more troubling, is that during his time as Oklahoma's Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA as many as 14 times11 as part of his crusade against the agency he now leads as a self-described “leading advocate against the EPA's activist agenda.”12 In this respect, he attempted to clarify during his confirmation hearings that he believed most environmental policy can be left within the exclusive jurisdiction of the states, distancing himself from the more federalist approach taken by previous EPA administrators such as Obama's last appointee, the air quality and environmental health expert Gina McCarthy.13 Beyond all this, the elephant in the room would be Trump's 2012 Twitter remarks which alleged that “[t]he concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”14 It is absurd past statements like these coming from none other than the new President of the United States that paint a more ideational concern for those in opposition, regardless of who Trump puts in place to oversee matters of environmental and energy sustainability. When Obama attended the signing of the Paris climate agreements, most world leaders and dignitaries present assumed Trump was going to lose the coming Republican primary contests and slip into political obscurity. However, fear-mongering found further legitimization and social license as only a few days prior to the congregation, the French capital had been devastated by a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that took the lives of 130 people, and injured hundreds more.15 Immediately, the environment became fertile ground for political gain through fear by the likes of the far-right French Presidential-hopeful and National Front leader, Marine Le Pen.
Trump himself, then just a candidate in the Republican primaries, also capitalized on the Paris attacks, stating that things “would have been different” if Parisians had been carrying guns.16 Thus far, despite incoherently belligerent pledges made on the campaign trail, the Trump administration has kept anti-terrorism policy and operations coherently contiguous with those of his predecessor, having given the green light to a Navy SEAL raid on an al-Qaeda branch (AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) compound in Yemen in late January 2017. The raid itself had been developed under Obama's administration, but the Pentagon advised waiting for a moonless night to launch the operation, the next of which would not come until after Obama's term ended on January 20th. In itself, the raid resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, as well as several civilians including the 8 year old daughter of Anwar al-Alwaki, an al-Qaeda operative who also happened to be the first American citizen extra-judicially assassinated by drone strike in 2011 on the orders of President Obama.17
During his time in office, Obama oversaw the rapid expansion of the weaponized drone program begun in earnest under his predecessor, George W. Bush. Intended as a strategy to deal with the proliferating asymmetrical threats facing the American military machine without putting any actual personnel in harms way, these remote drone operations consist of two main tactical approaches. The first are known as 'personality strikes,' the criteria for which “require the operator to develop a high level of certainty about the target's identity and location, based on multiple sources such as ... imagery, cell phone intercepts and informants on the ground.”18 Personality strikes, then, are designed to be accurate and specific in their choice of targets. On the other hand, the second main tactical option are known as 'signature strikes,' which are notoriously vaguer in their strike criteria. When planning and orchestrating signature strikes, “the United States assesses that the individuals in question exhibit behaviors that match a pre-identified 'signature' (for example, pattern of observable activities and/or personal networks) that suggests that they are associated with al Qaeda and/or the Pakistani or Afghan Taliban organizations. Because the identity of the target is unknown, even during the strike, it is possible that these persons are innocent civilians, a possibility that both [the Obama] and former [Bush administration] officials concede.”19 As a result of such indiscriminate attacks, innocent victims are galvanized by anger, fear, and despair, only to then become radicalized and easily lured into joining—and thus growing and perpetuating—extremist organizations like al-Qaeda, ISIS, or the Taliban. This is one particular realm of American foreign policy and its consequent blow-back that is unlikely to change under the Trump administration, and the remote drone program in particular could see significant growth in its military application as Trump looks to 'get tough' on such groups as listed above. In this respect, many see the new administration's so-called Muslim ban as a bit of cruel and deliberate irony, insofar as the countries to which the travel ban applies have been the target of American bombings, both discriminate and indiscriminate, over the course of the past three decades.
It can be soundly argued that the Obama administration was responsible, alongside the preceding Bush administration, for fuelling violence and chaos across the world which resulted in the continued destabilization of these regions, thus contributing to the circumstances conducive to the ongoing international refugee crisis. It seems incontrovertible, however, that Obama was, on net, much more open to and receptive of refugees and immigration from all corners of the globe during his tenure than his successor is, or likely ever will be. In 2016, under Obama's watch, the United States granted entry to some 85,000 refugees, 38,901 of whom identified as Muslim.20 As it stands, this means “the U.S. has admitted the highest number of Muslim refugees of any year since data on self-reported religious affiliations first became publicly available in 2002.”21 This data set, however, belies a deeper and more disturbing point of similarity between the Trump and Obama administrations: in the first five years of Obama's Presidency, ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) issued deportation orders to over 2 million people, most of whom were disproportionately Latin American including “hundreds of thousands of parents of U.S.-born American citizens.”22 Trump, by contrast, has yet to truly begin his pledged mass deportations of illegal immigrants, but already there has been debate over so-called 'sanctuary cities' which have committed to denying federal authorities the requisite information and access needed to identify and deport undocumented immigrants within their local jurisdictions. On its face, it seems strange that these cities did not make themselves available as 'sanctuaries' at all during the Obama era, but upon closer inspection, the nuance in deportation criteria has indeed altered to an extent which may soon be stymied due to legal overreach. Whereas the Obama administration gravitated into a primary focus on the deportation of undocumented immigrants who were shown to be involved with gangs or credibly accused of serious crimes such as murder or drug trafficking, in mid-February 2017, the Trump administration broadened the criteria for deportation so as to make “[a]ny immigrant who is in the country illegally and is charged or convicted of any offence, or even suspected of a crime [...] an enforcement priority, according to Homeland Security Department memos signed by Secretary John Kelly. That could include people arrested for shoplifting or minor offences.”23
It is a challenge to attempt an ideological classification of Trump, as he appears to exist primarily as a cult of personality deeply cultivated through the media with a rather impulsive Presidential disposition which, at its most coherent, seems to be operatively transactional. He is against strictly globalized free trade, though he still believes in American global imperialism as demonstrated in his adding $54 billion to the military budget via dollar-for-dollar cuts in other departmental funding, including the EPA and international financial aid through the State Department.24 Obama, on the other hand, is much easier to categorize in terms of his double neoliberalism, first in the form of his support of neoliberal economic theory, and second, in the form of his operative neoliberal multilateralism on the world stage. Both are demonstrated aptly in his dedicated pursuit of the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have expanded global free trade and integrated the markets between the signatory nations into the international system to an unprecedented degree. On another level, Trump's ascendancy represents the rise of what is broadly known as the so-called “alt-right” (alternative right) to the American political scene and, by implication, the globe. The most forward example of said ascendancy would be the appointment of former Goldman Sachs banker and Breitbart CEO Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist, a man known as an open white supremacist25 and anti-Semite.26 In this regard, the operative ideological composition of the American executive branch is, in many ways, unprecedented. It is also in stark contrast to the ideological make-up of the Obama administration, as well as the entire political orthodoxy that has both implicitly and explicitly reigned since the end of the Second World War. Through a more constructivist lens, a certain cryptofascism of immense ideational consequence has come to inhabit the American executive branch, one that speaks broadly of 'taking back the culture' for those of white and ultimately European descent. Though it would be naive to explicitly define the new administration as openly and operatively “fascist,” it is not only entirely fair, but is also entirely true that all of the ingredients are now present, and if a particular political, geopolitical, or domestic attack incident appeared as a convenient catalyst, then the administration would likely not only be required to respond, but would respond vigorously and comprehensively via an authoritarian and 'dystopian' overreaction. To clarify, it is essential to define fascism so as not to allow the reader to mistakenly conflate it with its other more specific historical connotations. To do so, this paper will rely on the definition synthesized and provided by Alex Schulman in his study for Human Rights Watch titled “PurgePolitik: The political function of decadence in fascism,” in which he asserts that “we cannot circumscribe fascism as a simply political system that held power and prestige from about the early 1920's until the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, but rather as a set of sociopolitical and cultural tendencies that, while particularly ascendant in that period, threaten to break through in various forms at any time.”27 Through his scholarly synthesis of multiple other academic sources looking at fascism as a political phenomenon, Schulman comes up with a list of nine demonstrable 'symptoms' or signs of fascism, eight of which are disconcertingly applicable to the new Trump administration and its political standard bearers. For the purposes of this paper, only the eight applicable symptoms will be listed and elaborated on. The first is a “virulent antiliberalism and anti-individualism,” demonstrated quite presciently in the Trump administration's aggressively adversarial relationship with the media, which Stephen Bannon explicitly labelled “the opposition party” that should “keep their mouths shut,”28 alongside the banning of multiple news organizations from White House press briefings. Second is the “[e]mphasis on the aesthetic structure of politics, on [...] emotion, usually involving some sort of cult of personality at the center”; third, “[a] totalizing system where a single party under a single “great leader” is associated with the will of the entire nation-as-organism”; fourth, the “[e]xaltation [...] of the new against the old, [and] of charisma over rationality”; fifth, “[e]xcessive militarism, whether imperialistic or simply focused on a fetishization of martial discipline at home,” demonstrated in the increased military budget and aggrandizement of imperialistic martial values; sixth, the “[f]etishization of masculinity, defined as aggression and a will-to-power, as a virtue”; seventh, the “[f]etishization of continuous struggle as a virtue, variously defined”; and, finally, the eighth and final symptom, a personal addition of Schulman's, which is the “purgation of [social, cultural or political] decadence” as an excessively prevalent motif.29
It can be soundly argued that the United States has been a 'totalitarian democracy' since the legal ratification of the U.S. PATRIOT Act (a terrifyingly clever Orwellian acronym which stands for the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act”) under the Bush administration in 2001.30 As such, the first prerequisite circumstances toward a more fascistic polity have been present since 9/11, but the machinery of state has now, 16 years later, fallen into the hands of an unpredictable ethno-nationalist administration under the helm of a dangerously narcissistic and temperamentally unstable 'Great Leader' who has a serious disdain for complexity. So, though it may not be explicit fascism, it is operatively fascistic in a way that is entirely unprecedented in the history of the United States of America. As well, as a result of the unipolarity of American hegemony in a largely globalized system, there is little to delineate the domestic and international spheres due to the sheer scale and reach of American imperial and economic influence.31 The Obama administration, though nominally liberal in contrast to the invasively over-abundant right-wing political extremism so widespread in the American body-politic, ultimately still worked primarily to maintain and preserve American imperialism, thus acting as a bridge between the regressive right-wing extremism of the Bush administration and the fascistic ethno-nationalism of Trump and his cabinet, and even working to inadvertently increase the tools of coercion available in the arsenal of the executive branch. Much has changed drastically in the transition from Obama to Trump, but ultimately, the deeper machinery of the state has remained a totalitarian democracy ready for further abuse by fascistic elements of the far-right since the attacks of 9/11. Guantanamo Bay is about to get a new and expansive lease on life.

PLEASE NOTE: THIS WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AS AN ESSAY FOR MY INTERNATIONAL POLITICS COURSE. 

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Vukadinovic, Radovan. "America In The New World Order". Medunarodne studije 1, no. 2-3 (2001): 5-20.
Zeljak, Cathy. "The USA Patriot Act." Problems Of Post-Communism 51, no. 1 (January 2004): 63-65. Military & Government Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2017).
1"Trump Signs New Travel Ban Executive Order", CBC News, last modified March 6, 2017, accessed March 6, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/trump-travel-ban-revised-1.4011197.
2Tovah Lazaroff, "US Delegation In Israel To Study Relocation Of Embassy To Jerusalem", The Jerusalem Post, last modified March 4, 2017, accessed March 6, 2017, http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/US-delegation-in-Israel-to-study-relocation-of-embassy-to-Jerusalem-483221.
3Douglas Kellner, "Donald Trump And The Politics Of The Spectacle", American Nightmare 117 (2016): pp 3-6.
4Andrew Cockburn, "A Policy Of Hypocrisy", Harper's Magazine, April 26, 2016, accessed March 6, 2017, https://harpers.org/blog/2016/04/a-policy-of-hypocrisy/.
5Ibid.
6Andrew Cockburn, "A Policy Of Hypocrisy", Harper's Magazine, April 26, 2016, accessed March 6, 2017, https://harpers.org/blog/2016/04/a-policy-of-hypocrisy/.
7Fiona Harvey, "Keep It In The Ground: The Paris Climate Agreement Is Now Official", The Guardian, last modified November 4, 2016, accessed March 7, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/04/the-paris-climate-agreement-is-now-official.
8"Legally Binding? It's Nonsense! - COP 21 Paris Summit", COP 21 Paris Summit, last modified 2017, accessed March 7, 2017, http://climateparis.org/legally-binding.
9Coral Davenport, "Top Trump Advisers Are Split On Paris Agreement On Climate Change", The New York Times, last modified March 2, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017.
10"Sen. Bernie Sanders Questions Scott Pruitt", C-SPAN, last modified January 18, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017, https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4648453/sen-bernie-sanders-questions-scott-pruitt.
11Brady Dennis, "Scott Pruitt, Longtime Adversary Of EPA, Confirmed To Lead The Agency", The Washington Post, February 17, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/02/17/scott-pruitt-long-time-adversary-of-epa-confirmed-to-lead-the-agency/?utm_term=.f708ca1eab91.
12Scott Detrow, "Scott Pruitt Confirmed To Lead Environmental Protection Agency", NPR, last modified February 17, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/17/515802629/scott-pruitt-confirmed-to-lead-environmental-protection-agency.
14Donald Trump, "Donald J. Trump On Twitter", Twitter, last modified November 12, 2012, accessed March 7, 2017, https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/265895292191248385?lang=en.
15"Paris Attacks: What Happened On The Night", BBC News, last modified December 7, 2015, accessed March 7, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34818994.
16Jeremy Diamond, "Trump: Paris Massacre Would Have Been 'Much Different' If People Had Guns", CNN, last modified November 14, 2015, accessed March 7, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/14/politics/paris-terror-attacks-donald-trump-guns/.
17Eric Schmitt and David Sanger, "Raid In Yemen: Risky From The Start And Costly In The End", The New York Times, February 1, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/01/world/middleeast/donald-trump-yemen-commando-raid-questions.html.
18C. Christine Fair, Karl Kaltenthaler and William J. Miller, "Pakistani Opposition To American Drone Strikes", Political Science Quarterly 131, no. 2 (2016): 387-419, accessed March 7, 2017, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/doi/10.1002/polq.12474/full.
19Ibid.
20Phillip Connor, "U.S. Admits Record Number Of Muslim Refugees In 2016", Pew Research Center, last modified October 5, 2016, accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/05/u-s-admits-record-number-of-muslim-refugees-in-2016/.
21Ibid.
22Alex Street, Chris Zepeda-Millán and Michael Jones-Correa, "Mass Deportations And The Future Of Latino Partisanship", Social Science Quarterly 96, no. 2 (2015): 540-552, accessed March 8, 2017, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/doi/10.1111/ssqu.12158/full.
23"Trump Administration Plans Could Lead To Vast Increase In Deportations", CBC News, last modified February 21, 2017, accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/us-immigration-trump-1.3992271.
24Michael Steinhauer, "Trump To Seek $54 Billion Increase In Military Spending", The New York Times, last modified February 27, 2017, accessed March 11, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/us/politics/trump-budget-military.html.
25Jonathan Ofir, "Steve Bannon’s Judeo-Christian ‘Camp Of The Saints’", Mondoweiss, last modified March 11, 2017, accessed March 13, 2017, http://mondoweiss.net/2017/03/bannons-christian-saints/.
26Ben Sales, "Stephen Bannon: 5 Things Jews Need To Know", The Times Of Israel, last modified November 14, 2016, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.timesofisrael.com/stephen-bannon-5-things-jews-need-to-know/.
27Alex Schulman, "PurgePolitik: The Political Functions Of Decadence In Fascism", Human Rights Review 8, no. 1 (2006): 5-34.
28"Trump Aide Bannon Lambasts US Media As 'Opposition Party'", BBC News, last modified January 27, 2017, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38766620.
29Alex Schulman, "PurgePolitik: The Political Functions Of Decadence In Fascism", Human Rights Review 8, no. 1 (2006): 5-34.
30Cathy Zeljak, "The USA Patriot Act", Problems Of Post-Communism 51, no. 1 (January 2004): 63-65, Military & Government Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed March 13, 2017).

31Radovan Vukadinovic, "America In The New World Order", Medunarodne studije 1, no. 2-3 (2001): 5-20.

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Whatever you do, do it for its own sake.
When the universe looks on with indifference, laugh, and shout back, "Fuck You!".
Rembember that to fight meaninglessness is futile, but fight anyway, in spite of and because of its futility.
The world may be empty of meaning, but it is a blank canvas on which to paint meanings of your own.
Live deliberately. You are free.