By Rafia Zakaria
July 5th, 2017
AMERICA’S first birthday under the administration of President Donald Trump was forecast to be a soggy one. The prediction largely matched the mood of the country, beset with problems and lacking any idea on how to solve them.
Over the long Fourth of July weekend (Americans like to attach weekends to nearly all holidays), the president did what he does each time he is bored; he tweeted a video, this time attacking CNN. In response, CNN, for which the president’s taunting tweets are a staple, dissected it and discussed its crude dimensions in detail and at length.
It is a dismal spectacle, one that — as in the movie Groundhog Day where the protagonist wakes up sentenced to living the same day everyday — imprisons an entire country. Half of America remains aghast at what is happening; the other silently (or very loudly) takes pleasure in the fact that the misery that hung over them now engulfs everyone all across the United States.
Gloating over the misfortunes of others is not the same as being happy, and it is happiness that now eludes America. One hundred and fifty days into his presidency, Donald Trump may have made his opponents miserable but he has also failed to make his own supporters happy.
The reason is simple: Trump supporters, while momentarily whetted by their leader’s visible Islamophobia, racism and woman-hating statements, literally expect changes in their lives; they expect factories to open, coal mines restarted, imports banned, all to deliver the elusive easy life that they feel they deserve. It has not yet arrived.
In one illustrative example, Carrier, the air conditioner manufacturer whose decision to shut down a plant in the American Midwest Trump had criticised from his campaign podium, announced last week that it would be moving to Mexico after all. With it would go the hundreds of jobs that Trump had promised would stay in the United States.
What Carrier has done, others have as well. None of the large manufacturers that have recently closed shop in this or that rural town in America are changing their minds, reopening their factories and delivering the better life that Trump promised.
The reason is simple. While it may have been politically popular to blame migrants and bad trade policies for declines and closures, the reality is that many factory jobs have been lost not to other people but to machines. You can ban and deport foreigners, assault and intimidate racial and religious minorities, but you cannot get rid of machines. Whatever the low-skilled but overfed rural American can do on the assembly line, a robot can do better.
The answer to this should worry the world. Rural America that has lost the battle against machines needs some place to put low-skilled but highly entitled people, and it is going to put them to war. A glib Trump administration knows it cannot deliver on the lovely-life-for-everyone promise with which it wheedled voters who want to keep their SUVs, want the jobs to come to them (instead, and unlike, the rest of the world, which goes to the jobs) and imagines Trump as a grandmaster magician who can deliver all.
To cover up the fact that the factories will never come back, the workers will be sent to war. Soon after he took office, and ever since, President Trump announced a massive increase in military spending, just the sort of expenditure that delights the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Next he installed known neoconservatives, champions of all the imperial adventurism of the Bush years, in crucial positions in the defence department and the national security administration. Busy tweeting himself, he gave them licence for the conduct of wars abroad.
The results are visible, if not as widely discussed, as Trump’s Twitter feed. Fresh troops have been committed for Afghanistan, where the war was supposed to have been long over and where troops were supposed to have been withdrawing. One can add to this the only piece of ‘good’ news in American newspapers that the Syrian city of Tabqa had been retaken from the militant Islamic State group by an alliance of Kurdish militias and by American airstrikes. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius declared that ‘hope’ could now be seen in people’s faces and that a new era (yes, yet another one) looked imminent.
The post-ISIS plan is to use local ground forces but with the assistance of American artillery, American special forces and American advisers. The days of American intervention were never quite over and they will stay for the near future.
The Trump administration’s plan for jobs is simple: for those low-skilled Americans living in communities wracked by joblessness and opiate addictions and general despair, a job is available in the US military. All through rural America, the song is being sung by guidance counsellors in high schools and recruiters in strip malls; the military wants you and the military will pay you. It may be too late for the middle aged and the laid off, but for the young who are not addicted to drugs, who want to get out, who can risk losing a limb or a life, the American war machine is the best bet in the war against machines.
The sadness of America, the hopelessness of America, will in this way spread its wings and tentacles. The wars may not be the wars of alliance, fought arm in arm with European allies, or even the nation-building kind, but they will be wars nevertheless. A sad America, its military ranks filled with the hopeless and hapless, will be crueller, more brutal and even more aggressive, the despair and desolation of its fighters fitted into bombs and bullets, fired and flung at other lands.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.