Donald Trump, Cuba, conservatism and the American fifth column

By Unknown or not provided - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16928237

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

Immoral laws are meant to be broken – at least that’s what those of us with morals believe. Donald Trump’s violation of the US embargo against Cuba wasn’t an act of civil disobedience but one of a man with a disregard for the rule of law.

“There is only one course open to someone like me – to die, but to submit to the law!”

– Mahatma Gandhi

I like so many Floridians personally believe the US embargo against Cuba is an immoral policy (though it is unwise politically to oppose it in southeast Florida) and would typically be willing to excuse Donald Trump’s willingness to do business in Cuba, against what I consider a cynical and highly politically motivated immoral US policy. The embargo has been bad for Florida, so if Trump were a more sympathetic figure perhaps his defiance of the unwise policy would yield him some unexpected support in the Sunshine State.

But Trump is no martyr for a cause. He is someone who has consistently put the interests of himself over the country. Nor is Trump a lone wolf or simply someone who lacks the basic intellectual skill to be President – his candidacy represents a return of American and western conservatism to its 20th century past. Much like Nigel Farage did in the UK culminating with the Brexit vote, Trump is using nativism and general naivety to undermine American interests and the strength of our nation abroad.

Trump’s Cuban embargo defiance will hurt him with the GOP  base voters of Cuban-Americans in southeast Florida while winning him none of the support from liberals and libertarians that might normally come from such a position. That is because Trump is wholly disingenuous – but unlike media portrayals of him as a buffoonish one-off, he actually represents a revival of core-conservatism based around fear, isolationism, authoritarianism and a lack of accountability. 

Conservatives throughout the 20th century would claim to be nationalists and patriotic. But as World War II taught us, it was the right in western democracies that found common cause and sympathy for nazism/fascism. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric echoes of that of the America First Committee, a largely right-wing group from the early 1940s that opposed American intervention in European wars and after June 1940 rallied Americans to oppose President Roosevelt’s attempts to skirt (immoral) neutrality laws and arm the British. By this time Winston Churchill’s United Kingdom was fighting Hitler and his allies virtually alone, but the conservatives who made up the America First Committee weren’t concerned about Nazism – much like their European brethren on the right they had a certain sympathy for Hitler and tended to be Anglophobic.

France’s quick fall in World War II was contrasted to its heroic fight in World War I. Why was World War II so different for France? My simple analysis has always been that right-wingers in the French Government had a sympathy for Nazi Germany and thus lacked the will to fight the Germans with the same zeal France had exhibited in World War I. The right in France preferred their ideological cousins to an alliance with Britain (who many on the French right viewed as a bigger enemy than Nazi Germany though France and Britain had been allies for years).

Vichy France the successor government installed in June 1940 to the French Republic backed Nazi Germany, imposed various Anglophobic and anti-semitic laws and condemned the perils of Republicanism and Democracy. Those who led the Vichy Government had been part of the conservative government that had authored French doom in May and June of 1940. At the same time their ideological cousins in the United States taking cues from Vichy pushed the “American First” agenda and quickly raised lots of money and developed a major public profile. Much like the Vichy Government, the America First crowd relied on a large measure of Anglophobia and subtle anti-semitism to get across its point.

Today, GOP opposition to  President Obama’s foreign policy often resembles the behavior of the America First crowd in 1940 and 1941. The Republicans oppose any initiative backed by the President – if President Obama wants to militarily intervene somewhere the GOP opposes the scope of the mission and if he wants to embark on a peace initiative they tend to ridicule it. However, these Republicans have been so bitter and spiteful toward the President for petty political reasons. Yet they cannot be accused of being unpatriotic or a “fifth column,”  because they are acting politically and when push comes to shove would back the US in a foreign conflict. In contrast, Donald Trump’s foreign policy ideas and rhetoric isn’t simply political in its opposition to President Obama and the Democrats – it might be downright anti-American and could undermine the safety and security of the nation.

Authoritarianism is Trump’s bread and butter and we’ve already seen he gravitates to those with a similar personalities like Vladimir Putin. It might come as a stunner to Republicans supporting Trump but he’s more likely to respect Nicolás Maduro, the Iranian Mullahs and the Castro brothers than the elected leaders of western Democracies. The Democrats have certainly made much of Trump’s Putin relationship though honestly it seems many are trying to push Cold War-era Russophobic buttons in the way the relationship is presented. Trump does not believe in the use of American “soft power” and credibility to settle disputes abroad. In fact, he constantly derides diplomacy as “stupid,” and doesn’t believe in engaging in multilateralism.  The nativist rhetoric Trump embraces is the ideological heir to the American First Committee and John Birch Society. In many ways it would lead to a disengagement of the United States from the important challenges facing global geopolitics and society.

The America First Committee was never held accountable for stonewalling Roosevelt’s attempts to aid Britain (and after June 1941 the Soviet Union). They were never taken to task for tacitly embracing Nazism and Anti-semitism. Similarly today while Trump is ripped in the media, he’s portrayed more as a clueless buffoon than the dangerous demagogue he actually is. Trump might pursue conflicts both militarily and economically which don’t benefit America but a certain core isolationist and nativist rhetoric. We already see echoes of this in the discussions of a trade war with China, something that it is acknowledged by conservative and liberal economists, would devastate the American economy.

Given Trump’s penchant for attraction to strong men, fighting terrorism might not be his priority except rhetorically. His “Make America Great” theme might simply prove a defensive mechanism when confronted with the realities of office. It seems like the America Firsters, Trump has a disdain for the projection of American soft power and a soft spot for strongmen abroad. It’s almost certain that if Trump were a political figure in 1940, he would have opposed aiding Britain and found some sympathy for Nazi Germany. In today’s world if a similar challenge were to arise Trump would be ill-equipped to deal with it. That’s something even most Republican foreign policy hands agree with.

2 comments

  1. “they were never take to Task”

  2. “He is someone who has consistently put the interests of himself over the country.” I’m no Trump defender (by far); however, IMO, this should more properly be a criticism of capitalism itself. The goal of capitalism is the money chase. Increasing wealth for investors. Social policy, over the last 40 or so years has increasingly favored this form of capitalism over the working person (e.g., unions). This policy coincides with several American myths, such as self-reliance, the Western frontier, Manifest Destiny, rugged independence, etc.

    Trump prides himself on being a businessman, so how can we rightfully criticize him for his honesty? I think the better course here is pointing out to those voters who think that increasing the power of business in the US results in reduced power for the working person. People in society are increasingly interconnected, and the old ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ myth is no longer true. Our policies are going to favor certain behaviors by businesses and workers. We cannot pretend that ‘competition is everything’, because our taxes, regulations, and govt spending favor certain businesses over others.

    Rather, we need to increase cooperation and diversity. We are stronger when everyone pulls together.

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