A short tour through some of the conflicts that have defined Trumpworld
If “a week is a long time in politics,” as a British prime minister famously said, the four roiling, permanent-campaign years of Donald Trump’s presidency feel like an eon, almost impossible to capture in short form.
But considering the adversarial air that has hung over almost every day of his presidency — described as Fire and Fury, the title of just one of the tell-all books from inside this White House — perhaps the best framework is a short tour through some of the conflicts that have defined Trumpworld.
Jarvanka vs. Bannonism
Remember Steve Bannon? Today the former Goldman Sachs banker–turned–Breitbart News editor and populist is under investigation for financial crimes. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that this man once had the ear of the president and was the most feared power player in the White House.
His battles with Jared and Ivanka Kushner were legendary. Bannon thought Jared was immature, as he said in a 2018 interview, and referred to the couple derisively as “Jarvanka.” But another nickname he gave them — “the Democrats” — is more revealing of the major policy differences that divided them.
Trump’s rough-edged early policies — banning Muslim-origin immigration, building a wall between the US and Mexico, initiating a trade war with China — had more to do with Bannonism than with the smooth, establishment-minded Kushner. Bannon, who opposed the classic Republican tax cuts in favor of a populist economic policy, lost that battle. His subsequent career raising money to privately build the border wall, just as Trump’s interest tapered off, showed the triumph of Jarvanka-ism over revolutionary Bannonism.
But there’s a sobering footnote to this split: If Trump loses, could Bannon make a comeback in the MAGA-verse selling a version of “the Kushners betrayed Trumpism”?
MAGA vs. the GOP VIPs
“Low-energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco.” Trump’s rise to power was as much about destroying the old version of his own party as demolishing Hillary’s Democrats.
Candidate Trump rejected the pieties of the Bush alums who had dominated his party. Where they wanted free trade, he brought in trade wars. Where they fought shooting wars, he mocked their endless conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Emblematic of this shift was the treatment of John McCain, war hero and symbol of middle-of-the-road political consensus, whom Trump shamelessly mocked as a “loser” for being captured in Vietnam.
His relationship with Republican grandees like Mitt Romney was one of antipathy. In return, he earned the undying enmity of what became known as “Never Trumpers,” the Republican establishment diehards who refused to bow to his rule, and many of whom will vote for Joe Biden next week.
Trumpworld vs. the Left
Perhaps the most vicious battle of the Trump years has been the all-out warfare between the right and left over cultural issues. As Trump took the Republican Party rightward on everything from trade to immigration, the Democrats lurched leftward. The most visible symbol of that shift was the so-called “Squad,” the quartet of far-left women elected to Congress in 2018. The results have been a shift to the margins on the environment, with the eye-wateringly expensive Green New Deal, pro-Palestinian politics, and vitriolic hostility to Trump.
The culture wars heated up this summer as America’s COVID-scarred landscape became a battleground. The Black Lives Matter protests turned into mass looting, which Democratic leaders from Joe Biden down largely ignored, with Trump responding with federal forces in places like Portland.
Having failed to enact health care reform — a major disappointment to his conservative base — Trump’s major achievement domestically has been appointing judges. The left has been apoplectic over the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg — giving the Supreme Court a 6-3 conservative majority — but that’s only the cherry on the cake. It comes on top of the appointments of 192 of the 792 active federal judges, meaning a historic victory for the long-term conservative legal strategy in the culture wars.
America vs. China
Without question, the president’s signature foreign policy initiative has been his approach to China. His political rise was set against the background of millions of American industrial jobs lost to the PRC. In 2018 he declared a full-blown trade war with Beijing, to bring back those jobs and reduce America’s trade deficit with the Communist country.
But despite signing an initial trade deal with China in January this year, the global trade deficit remains high at over $600 billion, Rust Belt states have not sprouted new manufacturing jobs, and Trump has gone quiet on trade.
The Communist government’s iron grip on all information flowing out of the PRC has allowed Beijing to portray the coronavirus pandemic as under control — in contrast to the US’s coronavirus woes that play out in American media. This has provided ammunition for Chinese propagandists such as the Global Times to ridicule their Yankee adversaries as “drifting amid chaos.”
Despite those setbacks, Trump has swung the needle on China in a dramatic way — helped by the belligerence of China’s leader Xi Jinping. Trump’s managed to sway the vast majority of the Republican and Democratic parties — as well as much of the European foreign policy establishment — behind the need to finally confront Beijing’s rise. The race for supremacy in artificial intelligence is a new Space Race, the US Navy is gearing up for a major ship-building program to blunt China’s growing blue-water fleet, and on China at least, there’s no turning back to the pre-Trump world.
US vs. Iran
Reversing the Obama-era Iran Deal, which Trump called “the worst deal ever negotiated,” was another major plank of Trump’s foreign policy. Accused by his detractors of simply wanting to spite Obama, Trump in truth was animated by a bold foreign policy conception.
Whereas Obama had sought out the ayatollahs and distanced himself from Israel and the Arab states, Trump’s approach was the reverse.
His extraordinarily close embrace of Israel — moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, cutting funding to UN agencies that perpetuated Palestinian rejectionism — was part of a paradigm shift on the Middle East as a whole.
Ramping up the sanctions on Tehran, killing Revolutionary Guards leader Qassem Soleimani, as well as pulling Israel close, persuaded the Gulf states that the road to Uncle Sam’s good graces led through Jerusalem. That unlocked peace deals with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan — and potentially with Saudi Arabia.
That big prize, though, is waiting coyly to see whether Trump gets reelected, or whether his new Middle East will evaporate under a Biden rerun of the Obama pro-Iran playbook.
America First vs. Multilateralism
Since World War II ended with American troops deployed across Western Europe and the Pacific, US military and economic power has come to underpin a liberal-democratic world order. That strengthened in the wake of the Berlin Wall collapse and the Gulf War, when America emerged as the sole superpower, hawking its political model worldwide.
But viewing the US role as world policeman as encouraging free-riding from allies and triggering belligerence from foes, Trump put an end to it. He refused to get involved in new hot wars in the Middle East. He questioned whether America would defend a Europe under NATO, called Germany “captive” to Russia and the European Union a “foe,” while encouraging Brexit.
That has acted as an electric shock to the Europeans, with French president Macron urging Europe to rearm, saying, “We cannot accept living in a bipolar world made up of the US and China.”
But the flipside of America First has been the willingness to act unconventionally as well. One example was Trump’s unusual — and largely failed — attempt to persuade North Korea’s Kim to give up his belligerence via a close personal relationship with Trump himself.
The Heimish House
Talk to any member of the current administration about why Jews should vote for Trump, and inevitably Israel will come up. “The president moved the embassy, made peace with the Arab states, stood up for Israel at the UN,” they’ll say. And they’re right — Israel has never had such a friend in the White House.
But for those who want to understand the Orthodox community’s overwhelming support for President Trump, Israel — or even pardoning Rubashkin — is not the whole answer. Rather, it’s Minchah at the White House.
The most enduring image from the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE was that of frum Jews of all stripes davening on the White House lawn, for all the world as if they were in Landau’s or Itzkovitz. For sheer heimishkeit, it was totemic.
Eighty years after the Holocaust-era Rabbis March on Washington, when Reform leader Stephen Wise persuaded FDR not to meet the Orthodox delegation and told him that the black-clad rabbis “were not representative of American Jewry,” now those same black-clad rabbis had become the representatives of American Jewry.
More than anything concrete that Trump has done, it’s the sense that “I’ve got your back” that has been rewarded by Trump’s sky-high support in the Orthodox world.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 833)
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