Paul Ryan meets with Donald Trump and Mike Pence on Capitol Hill after their election. Public Domain.
A bare couple of months after Trump’s inauguration, he is already being widely touted as the worst president in US history. His bombast, splenetic tweets, unsavoury remarks about women, and scapegoating of minorities provide plenty of ammunition for opponents to vilify the new leader of the free world. Moreover he has had the temerity - no other word suffices - to assault the media for disseminating fake news, a risky activity even for so powerful a figure as the president. They have responded in kind by spearing some of Trump’s outlandish misstatements and, more significantly, by doing their best to undermine his senior cabinet nominations and to suggest that either he or his cronies or both are engaging in covert skulduggery with Russia and its supposedly villainous leader Vladimir Putin. One of the ironies of this spat is that while the president’s “alternative facts" are easily spotted and readily seized upon as evidence of his flakiness, the long, continuing and disgraceful story of media lying passes largely without comment. Where fake news is concerned, Trump is in diapers compared with mainstream media.
Will Trump prove to be the disaster that many predict? No one can yet tell. To date we have mostly his words on which to pass judgement. However, if he is to surpass his recent predecessors in deception, brutality and damage to the international standing of the United States, then he has a way to travel.
Oliver Stone’’s and Peter Kuznick’s “Untold History of the United States” furnishes a well-documented account of the last hundred years of betrayals, duplicity and often dangerous brinkmanship of US administrations. From it we learn, for example, that Harry Truman reached the White House thanks to the ugly manipulations of Democratic Party bosses. The popular choice as Roosevelt’s vice-president in the 1944 election would have been Henry Wallace who had been vice-president during Roosevelt’s third term and who is widely regarded as one of the most far-sighted and humane men ever to old high office. Party bosses - notably its conservative members - considered Wallace too left wing, too friendly to “labor” and found means to keep him off the ticket. Sounds familiar? Bernie Sanders’ supporters have good reason to believe that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) conspired in a similar way to deliver the 2016 candidacy to Hillary Clinton despite her unpopularity and ineptness on the stump.
Had Wallace been on the 1944 ticket, he would have become president in 1945 when Roosevelt died, and he would probably not have agreed to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the consequent loss of countless innocent lives. According to Stone and Kuznick, Truman exulted over the atomic atrocity in Japan - claiming it was the happiest day of his life. Not that he cared much for the fate of people of other races. He professed hatred for Asians, referred to Jews as “kikes”, Mexicans as “greasers”, and blacks as “niggers”.
Among Truman’s other felicities was the establishment of the CIA with a mission that included subverting undesirable governments by any means including assassinations and coup plots. He also launched the arms race with the Soviet Union - under the delusion that with the atom bomb the country had acquired permanent military superiority and could therefore ensure a neat combination of US hegemony and world peace.
It is with Truman that hysteria about "the communist threat" and the need for "containment" began. And from there ran a river of US direct military as well as covert intervention in other countries that started with the Korean war in 1950 and continues through to the present day. Vietnam and Iraq are mere saliences in an unbroken tale of US meddling - often violent meddling - in the affairs of other nations.
After Truman, the fight against communism became the cloak beneath which American governments have pursued commercial gain and control of key assets in foreign countries. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the process by having the CIA - in league with the British - topple the Iranian government under Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh so as to leave the Shah - Mohammed Reza Pahlavi - in power, thereby ensuring that US oil companies would have a major share of Iran's oil output. The ploy worked for 25 years - at least for the oil companies - until the Shah was overthrown, by which time the US had, unsurprisingly, replaced the British as enemy number one in the eyes of the Iranian people.
Next on Eisenhower's coup list was Jacobo Arbenz the democratically-elected president of Guatemala who had the effrontery to challenge the United Fruit Company which virtually controlled the country's economy. Egged on by the US media - the New York Times included - the CIA engineered a coup, replacing Arbenz with a US puppet, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas. So began thirty years of murderous rule with the full financial and political backing of the United States.
Eisenhower’s gunsights were also focused on post-revolutionary Cuba and it was under his auspices that the CIA began secretly to train an invading force of Cuban exiles to “retake” the island. On assuming office, Kennedy took up the challenge and sanctioned the invasion - an iconic failure - even though shortly afterwards, he expressed sympathy for the Cuban Revolution and regret at US support for the Fulgencio Batista, the ousted dictator, who had presided over a country riddled with poverty and corruption.
Another Kennedy inheritance from Eisenhower was US intervention in Vietnam whose purpose was to roll back the perceived threat of communism. By the time of his assassination in November 1963, there were US 16,000 military advisers in South Vietnam. Kennedy’s’ successor, Lyndon Johnson took up the cudgels with enthusiasm, sending combat troops and launching a program of bombing raids - Operation Rolling Thunder - that began what was to become a failed but brutal long-term assault on the country and its people.
In 1964, Johnson had the CIA organise the overthrow of João Goulart, Brazil’s reformist president and his replacement by a military regime which acted as it was supposed to do by launching a vicious campaign of repression, incarceration, and torture against anyone suspected of left-wing sympathies. Victims included Dilma Rousseff who went on years later to be elected president of the country only to be “removed” in what was effectively a soft, right-wing coup. Indonesia also figured on Johnson’s list of countries with regimes deserving of overthrow. When President Sukarno was ousted in 1965 and replaced by General Suharto, the US watched benignly as hundreds of thousands of “communists” were massacred by the new regime, and the US embassy in Jakarta reportedly provided the Indonesian army with lists of communist party members to be eliminated.
When we come to Richard Nixon and his sidekick Henry Kissinger, it is hardly possible to exaggerate the ugliness of their activities and the responsibility they shared for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian citizens as well as the destruction of their crops, livestock, forests and wildlife. The US-backed coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende in 1973 is no less an example of the ruthless disregard for other countries political systems displayed by the Nixon government. No need here to comment on the Watergate scandal and Nixon's ignominious resignation as US president, except to add that, like Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson before him, he was anything but transparent about activities of which the public might disapprove.
Of Trump’s immediate predecessors, Ronald Reagan was arguably the most inept and least well-informed of all US presidents. His administration was also among the most thuggish. On Reagan’s watch, death squads began operating in El Salvador, right-wing paramilitaries in Nicaragua received covert US funding in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, US troops invaded the little Caribbean island of Grenada, and both sides in the Iran - Iraq war of the early 1980s received money and arms. In the case of Iraq, deliveries of US ordnance included chemical weapons of the kind Saddam would employ not only against Iran but also notoriously against Halabja. Faced with uncomfortable questions about some of these activities, Reagan would claim either that he knew nothing about them or couldn’t recall the details. He was perhaps the only president of whom such declarations of innocence might be judged credible because he often showed little comprehension of key issues and had a disarming tendency to nod off during important meetings. I remember watching a live interview with Reagan in which he met an interviewer’s question with blanket silence and a rather foolish grin, as if his frontal lobe had gone for a nap. One columnist wrote of the “task of watering the arid desert between Reagan’s ears…”. He was the Teflon president - responsible for nothing that might prove inconvenient.
Perhaps the most egregiously deceitful of recent US administrations was that of George W. Bush. Bush team fabrications began with expressions of astonishment at the 9/11 atrocity about which they claimed to knew nothing, despite repeated briefings on the threat from the CIA and from the US Commission on National Security. Subsequently, the president and his cronies - Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle cooked up reasons to launch invasions of two countries - first Afghanistan then Iraq.
Both actions led to years of chaotic violence and slaughter that continue to this day. Who of those who witnessed it could forget Colin Powell's embarrassing presentation to the UN about Saddam's weapons programmes, or the fallacious story of Saddam’s malign nuclear intentions fashioned by Dick Cheney, then picked up and regurgitated by Tony Blair in one of the most meretricious speeches ever delivered to the UK House of Commons? All the key arguments made by the US and UK governments in support of the Iraq war were fraudulent - some of them astonishingly brazen such as Bush's statement to Congress in January 2003 that a report from the British Government confirmed Saddam’s acquisition of weapons-grade uranium from Africa. What perhaps is less well remembered is that in the days and weeks following 9/11 the US government began singling out Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin for interrogation and detention. Trump is not the one who introduced anti-Muslim sentiment on the high plains of Washington - though he made use of that sentiment in trying to cast doubt on Obama’s patriotism.
A little more than a month after 9/11, Bush signed the Patriot Act greatly expanding government powers of surveillance on US citizens. And so began the never-ending war on that great abstraction - terror. Torture as a routine method of interrogation for terror suspects was a notable innovation of the Bush administration.
What of Obama, the president many of us wanted so desperately to believe in? On the plus side, supporters may point to Obamacare (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) currently being dismantled by Trump on largely spurious grounds. Set against this one, short-lived success, however are failures to close Guantanamo, to attend in any serious way to the continued growth in inequality, poverty and social deprivation, or to address the problems of unemployment and urban decay in the rust-belt states whose reaction at the ballot box helped to put Trump into the White House. Even on deportation of “illegal” immigrants, Obama has shown the way, his deportation tally amounting to 2.5 million - a figure comparable with Trump’s ambition to deport 3 million.
On the international stage, Obama has proved as militaristic as his predecessors. He has launched airstrikes or military raids in at least seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, sanctioned assassinations of individuals instead of having them duly prosecuted according to law, and upped the use of drones to kill designated enemies regardless of innocent lives lost to collateral damage and misdirected targets.
The US is one of the countries that have refused to sign the 2008 international convention against the use of cluster bombs. Under Obama, approval for major arms sales to authoritarian regimes has been no different from what one would have expected of previous presidents and what we may anticipate from Trump. And the latter’s stated policy of further increasing US expenditure on upgrading the country’s nuclear capabilities merely continues a policy Obama already had in place. In Latin America, meanwhile, Obama has pursued the familiar US agenda of support for right-wing governments, and tacit approval of coups against left-wing governments of which there have been three during his term of office: Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, and Brazil in 2016. Venezuela remains in the firing line.
If Trump differs from previous recent presidents, it is not so much in his belligerence, unsubtle and occasionally offensive language, lack of grace and political know-how, but in the transparency of his opinions and prejudices. He makes public what he thinks even when what he thinks turns out to be wrong, foolish, or causes offence.
Many on the left of centre consider Trump’s electoral triumph to be a catastrophe. Social media are rife with hostility towards the new president. One German editor has reportedly recommended assassination as the easiest way to get rid of him. Bernie Sanders seems to be running his own anti-Trump campaign, telling The Guardian that though he opposed George Bush “every single day”, unlike Trump, “Bush did not operate outside of mainstream American political values.” Bernie is correct, of course, though not in way he wants us to understand. Bush operated exactly according to the secretive, ruthless, unprincipled, profit-seeking, bullying values that have characterised several US administrations since World War II. Therein lies the fallacy at the heart of so much hand-wringing about the new president. So far we have mainly Trump’s language as a guide to what he will do. But even if he performs as horrendously as many of us fear, his administration may well end up being no worse for humanity at large than those that have gone before.