Everybody knows Donald Trump is an opportunistic, lying asshole. Hell, that was his defenders’ main point this weekend, when they tried vainly to save the president from Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 3 article in The Atlantic, in which multiple former U.S. officials and senior military officers revealed—anonymously—that Trump in private is the same as Trump in public: a narcissistic twit who lacks a tenth-grader’s understanding of American combat history and thinks the nation’s war dead are “losers” and “suckers.” Trump, one senior White House official told The Daily Beast, “means no disrespect to our troops; it’s just that the way he speaks, he can sound like an asshole sometimes.” Sometimes!
On Labor Day, however, Trump held a press conference and funneled his Big Asshole Energy into a different demagogic faux-populist defense. Those retired military officers hate him, the wealth-inheriting tycoon said, because they’re deep-state war profiteers. “They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” said the man who has increased U.S. bombing in Afghanistan by 800 percent over his presidential predecessor, dropping more bombs on the nation in 2019 than in any year since the military began keeping those records in 2006.
“Some people don’t like to come home, some people like to continue to spend money,” said the man who vowed in late 2017 to “once and for all, stop the endless budget cuts to our military” and has bragged about increasing the military’s budget in every year of his presidency, a runaway spree that even honest conservative think tanks call “crazy.”
But America’s expensive wars, Trump claimed on Labor Day, were not his fault. Responsibility for them went to the generals and to another shadowy group: “One cold-hearted globalist betrayal after another, that’s what it was.” It should be lost on no one that Trump made sure to deploy the “globalist” slur—with its echoes of past anti-Semitic conspiracy plots—to push back on Goldberg’s story. (“He may be a globalist,” Trump once said of Gary Cohn, his outgoing Jewish economic adviser, “but I still like him.”)
By Monday evening, Trump was on Twitter, retweeting self-identified anti-imperialist and longtime horseshoe-theory vindicator Glenn Greenwald, who compared Trump’s blather to Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning to the American people about the “military-industrial complex”:
This isn’t exactly new brand positioning for Trump, but a long-standing extension of his “drain the swamp” scam, in which he is a dovish anti-establishment savior of the little guy. In this case, he loves the comparisons to Eisenhower—who, it should be noted, spent decades as a uniformed soldier at war and delivered his speech against the militarism industry as he was leaving office. In this bad-faith Republican fantasy, Trump also figures to look like populist Marine veteran Smedley Butler, who in 1935 wrote that “war is a racket” for big business. (Butler also earned two Medals of Honor in combat and became an ardent anti-fascist who detested the American Legion, which now enthusiastically supports Trump.)
Some well-paid pundits were falling for this Donald-as-dove garbage in the lead-up to his 2016 election against bona fide liberal hawk Hillary Clinton. Even cold geopolitical realists and neoliberals got into the game last year, when Trump canned the war-addicted neoconservative John Bolton as his national security adviser. (“Bolton’s firing ends Trump’s hawkish phase,” one gullible optimist wrote.)
But today, there is no excuse for reasonable people to pretend Trump is fighting the good fight against U.S. imperialism or runaway military expansion. To pretend thus is to forget entirely about the years of accusations and political assassinations to goad Iran into an open conflict; the civil war in Yemen, in which tens of thousands of women and children have been killed by U.S. proxies, who deploy with American bombs and aircraft; and the mind-boggling expansion of Afghanistan bombing, which has predictably killed scores more civilians and has not led to victory or even withdrawal: U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan may actually be higher now than when Trump took office. (I say “may” because the Trump administration, breaking with its predecessors, simply refuses to publicly reveal how many troops the U.S. deploys, something a dove would totally do.)
Do enemies of the military-industrial complex secretly entice Middle Eastern allies to sign peace deals in exchange for a delivery of U.S.-built F-35 fighter jets? Trump does. He loves the F-35, the largest military boondoggle in human history, so much that he constantly brags, quite incorrectly, that the aircraft is literally invisible. He loves space-age military technology so much that he forced the military to accept its first new branch since 1947, the Space Force, which is already shaping up to be a boon for thirsty defense contractors.
To consider Trump an enemy of the American militarism business, you would also have to forget why he was impeached, so let me help with that: He held up the sale of “coveted overpriced” Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine as leverage to persuade the Ukrainian president to announce a criminal investigation against Joe Biden’s son. Trump did that because he believes—to paraphrase convicted influence-peddler Rod Blagojevich—that American military hardware is a fucking valuable thing. (Trump, of course, sprung Blago from his prison sentence earlier this year; commutation power is a valuable thing, too.)
For the past four years, and again on Labor Day, Trump has claimed without warrant that “we’re getting out of the endless wars.” Who still believes this bullshit? Only the bullshit-consuming Trump base, and a handful of platformed “left” anti-imperialists who still find value in appearing on Tucker Carlson and allying with alleged GOP war skeptics who might as well put triple parentheses around the words “globalist” and “cosmopolitan” when they use them.
Consequently, I write here not to convince anyone of Trump’s obvious, hardware-worshipping affection for war and violence but to remind you of what kind of a dove Trump is attempting to pose as: an incoherent populist, glomming onto a few borrowed words that activate people’s emotions. As a businessman, as a politician, as a human being, this disingenuous bizarro-Trump self-marketing has profited him richly—and it has ruined almost every person, corporation, or institution that has ever invested any money or faith in him. It has also bumbled the United States into destruction, death, and disorder. If you buy Trump or his partisans as anti-imperialists, you may as well buy a casino from them while you’re at it.