In a comment last weekend in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills, a well-known American historian, blamed “the wrong war in Iraq” for a deep distrust among ordinary Americans against their own government, all state institutions and the elites. According to Wills this distrust is at the basis of their support for Donald Trump. It seems to me that Wills has a remarkably short memory for a historian.
As a candidate for president, Donald Trump was so odd and unplaceable that American historians have searched their history to find some past exemplars of his behavior. They have tried out various American demagogues with or without weird hairdos but in the end they found no one who was really similar. Trump is unique.
Quite often in history, leaders are made by followers. “The real question should be,” according to Wills, “what do followers want that the leaders could supply? Demagogues can touch exposed nerves, but some perceived crisis has to expose the nerves in the first place. What is the crisis that created that parasite on the Republican Party called Trump? What do his followers want to be saved from, even by a not-very-palatable savior?”
Wills agrees with others that, for one, there is “the shock some whites felt at having a black man in the Oval Office treated as superior to them”. However, there were also black Americans voting for Trump. Wills: “A second crisis is the growing income inequality, letting whatever money that is still being made float inevitably up to those who are already rich. These anxieties do, undoubtedly, gnaw at Trump’s followers. But I think a deeper crisis underlies them both.”
This is, according to Wills, “the shuddering distrust of every kind of authority — a contempt for the whole political system, its establishment, the Congress, its institutions like the Central Bank, its mainstream media, the international arrangements it has made, not only the international trade deals but the treaty obligations under NATO and other defense agreements.”
What has caused this bitter disillusion with everything, is according to Wills not the fiscal crisis America is experiencing since the 1970’s, because it has made corporations and rich individuals pay less and less taxes. It is not the legal madness of the stock markets that again and again create bubbles and the crash that comes after each of these bubbles. It is not the fatal cancellation of laws put in place in the U.S. after the first big Depression of the 1930’s to protect the people and the economy against irresponsible bank managers.
It is not the transfer of millions of American jobs to Asia. It is not the way handicapped American war veterans, the sick, the old and the unemployed are treated by state institutions who tell them every day that they are too lazy to work and don’t deserve social benefits. It is not the fact that one in a hundred young men in the US is in prison because of ridiculous laws. It is not the fact that immigrants are used to push the wages American citizens dare to ask below the level of a living wage.
So, it is, to keep the story short, not the fact that American governments have not been able to solve or mitigate any major social problem, as the eminent journalist and political scientist E.J. Dionne argued in his study “Why Americans hate politics”, a book from 1991, 25 years ago. Dionne wrote that American politicians were busy with problems of the past (such as the legal right for women to have an abortion) and that they were ignoring the new problems. The 1980’s were the years that most Americans wouldn’t trust politicians “to buy a washing machine for them” – let alone trust them to wage wars or run a Central Bank.
That was distrust XXL. But no. No, no, no. According to Wills it is not all the wrong policies, scandals and disasters caused by American politicians to their own citizens. According to Wills “it is the burrowing and undermining infection of the Iraq war — the longest in our history, one that keeps upsetting order abroad and at home. The war’s many costs — not just in lives and money but in psychic and political damage — remain only half-visible in America.” Wills agrees with a British colleague who thinks that “the rise of Donald Trump is part of the revulsion across the Western world against elites and establishments that were so discredited by Iraq.”
What “Iraq” means in this phrase I can only guess. But Garry Wills gives a clue about what “Iraq” means here. “What should we think of the George W. Bush team that invented the war, sold it as a ‘cakewalk’, and hid the ugliness of it … the secret torture sites spread around the world? … To gauge our descent into distrust, we should measure it against the enthusiastic assent we gave to the Iraq war at its start. Congress voted for it, the press supported it, symbols celebrated it: the toppled Saddam statue, … the purple Iraqi fingers of free election. The current distrust grew out of a realization that all these things were phony. Why should we trust the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the press, the president, the experts, the elites? They were all in on the huge scam that was going to spread democracy through the Middle East, a scam that just ignited wilder fires of terrorism there and elsewhere.”
So, in the end, Garry Wills agrees with the views of Trump’s followers who feel cheated by “the elites”. Donald Trump always mentioned the war in Iraq as something Americans shouldn’t have gotten into in the first place. Why? Trump didn’t say. Wills doesn’t say neither. Perhaps because the lives of Iraqis are not worth dying for according to them. Or because Saddam was a joke. Or because it is impossible to help bring democracy to the Middle East.
In the end, as the French say: “the extremes shake hands”.
What the war in Iraq was about, is about, should be about, how it should end, how IS could and should be defeated, how all Iraqis could make compromises and live peacefully together again, Trump doesn’t say and Trump haters such as Garry Wills don’t say either. Trump said he will just “bomb the shit” out of enemies and that Iraqis should pay for American military help (for example by handing over their oil fields to the U.S., Trump suggested).
Wills would be happy, we must conclude, if a president would tell the American people exactly why it fights in Iraq. Isn’t that what is happening nowadays? Why are the Trump followers still unhappy then, if lies about the war in Iraq was the all-important issue? Perhaps because they have real problems at home, for decades already.