Letter from the US: Korea crisis could play into Trump's authoritarian agenda

The threat by US President Donald Trump to unleash nuclear war against North Korea is not a Trumpian “excess”.

That has been made clear by his Secretary of Defense, retired Marine General James Mattis, who backed Trump. The administration is demanding that North Korea freeze its nuclear program, including the testing of missiles.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasised diplomacy, this is in no way a contradiction to Mattis’ and Trump’s position. What Tillerson seeks by “diplomacy” is the same demand that the North freeze its program, in return for nothing from the US.

Pyongyang cannot agree to this demand. It knows that if it agreed to a freeze, it would just be the first step towards giving up its nuclear program entirely. If that happened, the US would invade and finally finish the open-ended Korean War by overthrowing the North’s regime. This would directly threaten China.

The situation has become very dangerous.

Trump’s trajectory

The crisis bolsters Trump’s claim that the US needs an authoritarian regime headed by him. To understand better how this state of affairs has come about, it is useful to review Trump’s trajectory.

Over Trump’s more than six months as president, as well as calling him out over his lies, abrupt changes of position, racist and sexist comments and more, the establishment media has complained he has not acted “presidential” by refusing to accommodate the political establishments of not just the Democrats but also the Republicans.

A New York Times op-ed said: “In Donald Trump’s White House, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer were more than chief of staff and press secretary. They were the president’s connection to the Washington establishment: the donors, flacks and apparatchiks of both parties whose influence over politics and the economy many Trump supporters wish to upend.

“By firing Mr. Priebus and Mr. Spicer … President Trump has sent a message: after six months of trying to behave like a conventional Republican president, he’s done. His opponents now include not only the Democrats, but the elites of both parties.”

Early in his term, Trump fired FBI director James Comey, a Republican who, during the George W. Bush administration, backed the use of torture including waterboarding and other reactionary measures Trump backs. He was not fired for those policies but for his disloyalty to Trump.

During last year’s election campaign, Comey took the unusual step for an FBI director of intervening in the election by opening public investigations into both major party candidates, the Democrats Hillary Clinton and Trump.

Comey appeared to be seeking to hold something over whichever candidate won, like the notorious witch-hunter and former FBI director J Edgar Hoover did.

One week before the election, Comey publicly said the investigation into Clinton was still open. After the election, Clinton charged that she lost because of Comey and Russian interference.

Once Trump was sworn in, Comey dropped his threats against Clinton and continued his investigation into Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia to fix the US election. Suddenly Clinton and the Democrats were singing Comey’s praises. Trump, however, fired him for refusing to drop the investigation.

Trump has recently publicly humiliated Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for excusing himself from the investigation — clear disloyalty. As of now Sessions is hanging on, doing his best to kowtow and grovel before Trump by vigorously carrying out his policies, from immigration attacks to threatening jail for those who “leak” Trump’s secrets.

When the Republicans were unable to overturn Obamacare, in part due to their internal battles, Trump blamed Congress, where the Republicans hold majorities in both houses. He continues to demand the Republicans overturn Obamacare — which he knows is dead in the water — so he can keep attacking them for their failure to do so.

Trump’s approval ratings are low compared to other presidents at this stage in their term, holding in the 35-40% range. But the approval ratings for Clinton are even lower, and for Congress lower still — in the single digit range. Blaming the “do-nothing” dysfunctional Congress does not hurt Trump’s administration.

Pushing ahead

In spite of his low approval ratings, Trump is going full steam ahead. While courts have blocked his sweeping Muslim bans, his Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is using “extreme vetting” to accomplish most of what he wants. ICE has been unleashed to engage in brutal deportations of Latinos, building upon the quieter but huge policies of Obama — “the deporter in chief” until Trump came along.

He has used executive orders — a tool to strengthen the executive at the expense of the legislative that has been steadily built up for many decades — to give the go-ahead to the fossil fuel energy giants, while his Environmental Protection Agency is being dismantled under the leadership of a climate change denier.

Voter suppression in Republican-controlled states in recent years has been given a boost by Trump’s efforts to “investigate” how “three million undocumented” workers managed to vote last November. He claims “explains” his loss of the popular vote.

Public education has been under attack by both Democrats and Republicans, with progressive cuts to funds and attacks on the teachers’ unions. Trump’s new education department head, billionaire Betsy DeVos, is carrying the attack further. She is well known for attempts to divert funds from public schools to private (especially religious) ones.

Trump’s refusal to “act presidential” and stop his incessant tweets attacking the media, the establishment and anyone in his administration who is not 100% personally loyal to him leaves many puzzled. Some have expressed hope that Trump’s latest pick for White House chief of staff, General John Kelly, will tame Trump.

Kelly was Trump’s head of the Department of Homeland Security, which is unleashing immigration agents against the Latino community. This fact should give progressives some pause, but hope springs eternal in the breast of naive believers in the system.

Kelly might bring some military discipline to the White House staff of self-interested advisors jockeying for favour, but the idea he’ll discipline Trump is laughable.

Shoring up his base

What Trump is doing is not crazy or stupid on his part, but calculated to consolidate his hard base.

Trump knows how fed up many are with the establishment, in a context where the real income of 80% of the population has fallen since 2005, according to the Financial Times.

Seeking to tap into the anti-establishment anger, Bernie Sanders proposed pro-worker reforms in last year’s Democratic primaries. In the Republican race, Trump took the opposite path — appealing not to solidarity but racism and bigotry.

Trump’s successful approach was to appeal to white racism — blaming immigrants, foreigners, Blacks and other non-whites as the cause of the suffering for whites in the lower 80%. He won over the most out-and-out racist sections of all classes, who remain his loyalist base.

This hardcore is smaller than all of those who voted for Trump, but it still numbers in the millions. These people were seen at his rallies, cheering on the violent treatment meted out to Black protesters.

He demagogically appealed to white workers and small businesspeople with his “America First” economic nationalism, which dovetailed with his white nationalism.

Far from appalled, this group applauds his attacks on the media and the rest of the establishment. His appeal remains strong among those who voted for him. About 90% of those who voted for Trump say they would do so again. His support among Republicans in general remains strong.

The Congressional establishment did score one victory over Trump. That was the bipartisan lopsided vote to impose new sanctions on Russia, supposedly for its “meddling” in the US elections.

Trump wants to better relations with Russia, and did not like this bill. He was especially incensed by a clause that says he could not change these or other sanctions, which he says is an unconstitutional invasion of presidential powers.

For its part, Germany vehemently opposed part of the proposed sanctions that would have stopped its project with Russia of piping natural gas to Germany. The bill was rewritten to remove any sanctions against US firms doing business with Russia on energy. It remains unclear how, or even if, Trump will carry out these sanctions.

After Trump signed the bill, the Russian government needled him, charging that he ignominiously capitulated to “the establishment”.

Strongman image

In his election campaign, Trump presented himself as the strongman who could cut through the disarray in the political establishment. Both parties are riddled with deep internal contradictions. Neither has come up with realistic proposals of how to deal with the suffering of the 80%.

Trump, with his demagogic “solutions”, promised he would do so — just trust him. He pledged to take personal charge of the government to drain the establishment “swamp”. In other words, he promises an authoritarian presidency, with the trappings of formal democracy and a tamed Congress.

It would take significant struggle to reach this goal. For the establishment, the investigations into his Russian connections and his finances are their best current hope of stopping him.

There have also been significant protests from below against Trump’s reactionary agenda against wide sections of the oppression — which the establishment is seeking to co-opt and divert into its campaign over alleged Russian influence,

By concentrating now on shoring up his base, Trump is preparing his troops for the battles down the line. His authoritarian drive is still in its early stages.

Part of shoring up his base is Trump’s courting of right-wing groups outside of Congress. He schmoozes with Sean Hannity of Fox News and leaders of groups such as the Heritage Fund. The head of the Christian fundamnetalist Family Research Council, Tony Perkins, was behind Trumps recent ruling that banned transgender people from the US military.

The Trump administration has used its first six months to solidify the support of these and other groups in the conservative movement — “including small-government Tea Party followers; abortion opponents; evangelical Christians and other culturally traditional voters”, the NYT reported in an article about Trump’s “warm embrace of the right”.

Trump has taken a new step in his anti-immigrant drive, which aims to drastically slash legal immigration, justified with the president’s racist “America first” rhetoric.

When Stephen Miller, a Trump policy advisor, gave a press briefing defending the new restrictions, a reporter raised that they were unfair. Miller ripped into the reporter, charging he had revealed his “cosmopolitan bias”. “Cosmopolitan” has long been known as a dog-whistle for “Jew” — and is this way by the alt-right, where anti-Semitism runs deep. 

Another group he is cultivating is the police. At a recent police ceremony, he urged the cops to rough up suspects and not overly worry about their rights — to the cheers of the assembled police.

Trump is appealing to military officers by appointing generals and admirals to high posts in his administration. He has also given generals full reign to decide military policy in Washington’s wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. The support of at least a major section of the armed forces is crucial for Trump to make a real move to establish his vision of an authoritarian presidency.

Most socialist groups in the US see no danger that Trump could seriously establish an authoritarian regime. In contrast to them, the left-wing activist and writer Naomi Klein is sensitive to this possibility. She recently told Democracy Now! that in the event of a major shock, such as serious a terrorist, a major economic downturn, or some other comparable event, Trump could declare a state of emergency that could usher in an authoritarian regime.

An intensification of the crisis in Korea could also be such an event. There is nothing like a war threat to rally the population around the flag and leader.

Ruling class attitudes

Another aspect is the attitude of the decisive — wealthiest — sections of the capitalist ruling class. It is important to keep in mind that when talking about the “establishment”, we are not talking about those at the top of the capitalist class.

Trump, despite being a billionaire, is not part of those heights, which are dominated by established large ruling class families with their wealth spread across family members, in foundations and hidden in other ways. But he is not opposed to them and does not include them in his attacks on “the establishment”.

On the contrary, he looks to them for support. He indicates this in his appointment of multi-millionaires and billionaires to his administration, as well as generals.

Right now, the big capitalists like what they see in this administration. This is reflected in the galloping stock market — leaving aside more fundamental economic factors. They like Trump’s deregulation and other pro-business policies.

They would like to see more of his promises put in place, such as big infrastructure programs and tax reform in their favour. They know the stumbling block is the political establishment in Washington, which can’t agree on whether or how to do all this.

If the big capitalists conclude that Trump is an obstacle in the future, they will clip his wings. Or if they grow impatient with the disarray in Washington, they could throw their support to a Trump authoritarian presidency — or that of another figure — to establish stability.