31 July 2018

Trump’s Populism Is as Lethal as Liberalism

Atul Bhardwaj (atul.beret@gmail.com) is a former naval officer and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.

The recently concluded Helsinki summit between Russia and the United States on 16 July 2018 is reminiscent of the Cold War the in strategy of theUS to create a wedge between China and Russia. The great power politics unleashed by Donald Trump from European soil is also aimed at facilitating populism to replace liberalism as the dominant political ideology in Europe. The United States (US) is under a deluge of delusion. Some see Donald Trump riding a white stallion destroying Russian nukes and ushering in an era of peace and prosperity, while others see the Statue of Liberty genuflecting in front of “dictator” Vladimir Putin. Both are hallucinating because Trump is neither a peacenik, nor is he selling American interests. He is simply a grandmaster making his moves on the great power chessboard to reap domestic and international gains for the global populist movement and American capital.

Trump is a hard-nosed capitalist and is out there to save his tribe. He knows full well that to save the US he needs to save capitalism, and the New Deal or Keynesian interventions are no longer good enough to save it. Let us discard the delusion of an isolationist Trump rolling back the American dominance of the world. Much like his predecessors, Trump too desires the US to be the sole pole in the international order. As Inderjeet Parmar (2018) says, “The US is the biggest meddler in world history and remains so today under the Trump dispensation.”

Trump is not a liberal crusader interested in pushing the “American creed”—democracy and liberal values—into distant lands. He is disdainful of the liberal international order and sees the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations as unnecessary burdens on the American exchequer. But, let us not kid ourselves into believing that Trump’s “America First” is a magic mantra to expiate the US’s imperial karma. It only aims to recoup its financial strength so as to launch a more lethal hegemonic drive using artificial intelligence and social media.

Trump is as much a believer in “One World” as Wendell Lewis Willkie was. However, unlike in the past, Trump does not want to splurge American money to win the world. Trump’s approach is different, but his goals are similar to that of Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR): save and spread American capital.

Trump-ites are dismantling the liberal international order with the same zeal with which the progressives had worked to destroy colonialism in the 1930s. Colonialism tarnished the image of capitalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly, post-war liberalism and its post Cold War avatar, neo-liberalism, that involved saving the US through unbridled printing of dollars and waging futile wars made capitalism look obnoxious. The liberal elite are crying hoarse just as British nabobs had wailed on seeing their capitalist architecture dismantled.

Trump’s performance at the recently concluded Helsinki summit (16 July 2018) between Russia and the US has created a perception that the anti-globalist Trump is not a realist because he does not understand what constitutes national interest. The post-Helsinki fusillade against Trump is similar to the 1915 hounding of Lord Richard Burdon Haldane (1856–1928), Britain’s war minister during World War I, for declaring Germany to be his spiritual home. The Democrats have nearly charged their President of treason for having disregarded state intelligence institutions in order to appease Putin.

Trump’s policies may not fit into the liberal or classical realist frameworks, but they are certainly close to what offensive realists, like John Mearsheimer, propose with respect to balancing China by courting Russia. Just as the Sino–Soviet split was essential to the Soviet containment strategy, the Chinese containment demands a similar splintering of the Sino–Russian partnership. It is felt that American support to the European interventions in Georgia and Ukraine has pushed Russia closer to China. And, the “loss of Russia” has gained same salience among some sections of the US strategic community as the “loss of China” had in the 1950s. Mearsheimer believes that the US needs Russian support to manage its relations with China, its “peer competitor,” and, therefore, what Russia does in Ukraine and Georgia should not matter to the US because these are inconsequential areas in the great power equation.

The coming together of Russia and China to reconnect the Eurasian land mass is a major threat to the international maritime order commanded by the US. But, will Putin be satisfied with American non-interference in Ukraine? What more will Russia demand from the US to cut off China’s land connections with Europe? Can the US afford to help Russia grow economically as fast as China? Putin is not likely to emulate Nikita Khrushchev in closing his land borders with China and becoming dependent on the oceans controlled by Anglo–Americans. Moreover, the crumbling US Empire cannot dictate Russo–German relations. The Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal between Moscow and Berlin, and the US ire against it is symptomatic of things to come. Sooner or later, the US will have to reconcile to the fact that cold war strategies employed by a rich US may not be applicable in the post Cold War era where China is an economic and not an ideological peer competitor.

Exporting Populism

FDR exported the mixed economy model clothed as the “New Deal” to the world. Trump is ensuring that the US retains its prominent place in the 21st-century world order by exporting populist ideology worldwide that ensures the withering away of the state at breakneck speed. Trump’s presidency is attempting to achieve paradigm changes through brazen polarisation and use of social media.

The liberals and Democrats are being encouraged to raise the bogey of Russian interference in the US presidential elections of 2016 to highlight the vulnerabilities of democracy against cyberattacks. The question is, if Russia can penetrate American political networks and easily influence the American electorate, then imagine the state of other democracies in the world where Central Intelligence Agency tentacles run deep. Recall the American interference in India’s general elections of 1967, where both PL 480 funds and Peace Corps volunteers were used to buy political loyalties.

The Helsinki drama enacted from European soil was also aimed at giving a boost to the fledgling populist parties in the European Union. It signalled to the Europeans that there was peace beyond liberalism, and that populism has the potential to prevent nuclear war. By showing liberals as warmongers wedded to cold war dogmas and populists as paragons of peace and pragmatism, Trump-ites have successfully polarised not only the US, but also the global community. Trump ideologues have wonderfully hijacked the anti-war agenda of the European liberals with as much ease as their stealing on the concern for the working classes from the Fabians and progressives.

Trump decided to meet Putin in Helsinki on 16 July despite the allegation that Russian intelligence interfered in the American presidential elections of 2016. Trump and his supporters are least concerned about the impact of their actions on national unity. Today, the US stands split, as divided as it was during the Vietnam War, and that is exactly what the populist ideology desires. Undeterred by the criticism, Trump has invited Putin to the White House to split American society further in order to promote populist ideology.

It is reported that Steve Bannon, the prominent populist ideologue from the US, is setting up a non-governmental organisation in Europe, named The Movement, “which he hopes will lead a right-wing populist revolt across the continent starting with the European Parliament elections next spring” (Hines 2018). The right-wing populism that Bannon intends to bring to Europe is currently underway in India under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi. The hallmarks of populist ideology, as practised in India, are polarisation and privatisation that eventually result in weakening the people’s state. The capitalist state is being broken up to push in more capitalism, all in the name of fiscal prudence.

The American Empire has dug in its heels. It is endeavouring to reinvent itself with the help of populism and a new geopolitical drama. It is trying to win ideological allies across the world who are willing to spend their own money to fight for the US and for maintaining its hegemony. Unlike other ideologies, populism prefers to use camouflage. It first came dressed as colonialism, changed into liberalism in the 1930s and, after almost a century, it is now undressing to fit into populism’s attire. Populism’s criticism of liberalism and its love for nationalism should not be the only reasons for the people to vote for it. The world failed to expose the basic class character of the liberals and trusted their lies sugarcoated with love for humanity. The world cannot let itself be hoodwinked by another ideology from the capitalist West out to devour the earth for the benefit of a few oligarchs.

Trump and Bannon are waging an internal battle to win external wars. They represent an ideology that is even more sinister than liberalism. Unlike the Fabians, the Trump-ites do not see civil liberty movements as an antidote to class war. The populists intend to protect the super-rich by instigating a class conflict, in which the wrath of the poor is directed against the educated middle classes, the beneficiaries of globalisation and welfare economics. Armed with artificial intelligence, the American empire can penetrate not just societies and communities, but directly communicate with the individual sitting miles away from the metropole.

Trump met Putin ostensibly to reverse the dangerous nuclear race between the two countries. However, one is not sure if the offensive realists in Trump’s team subscribe to restraint in dealing with Russia and China. Many in the Trump administration subscribe to the “massive retaliation” school to achieve victory over China. They may not be as patient as their predecessors who played a more subtle game to win over the Soviet Union. It is for this reason that the geopolitical games indulged in by the Trump administration are fraught with immense danger to world peace.


Hines, Nico (2018): “Inside Bannon’s Plan to Hijack Europe for the Far-Right,” Daily Beast, 20 July, viewed on 17 July 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/inside-bannons-plan-to-hijack-europe-for-the-far-right.

Parmar, Inderjeet (2018): “Democratic McCarthyite Hysteria Demands —‘You’re Either with Trump or the FBI and CIA,’ ” American Herald Tribune, 18 July, https://ahtribune.com/us/helsinki-summit/2375-democratic-mccarthyite-hysteria.html.

Updated On : 27th Jul, 2018

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