Within 24 hours of former President Donald Trump’s arrest on 34 overhyped felony counts related to hush-money payments made to conceal an extramarital dalliance, his re-election campaign raised $4 million, and he widened his lead in the Republican primaries to almost 30 percentage points. Yet a CNN poll also found that 60 percent of Americans approve of the indictment. These numbers are probably less important than they might appear. The trial will likely mobilize the base in both parties and pull swing voters in both directions—for a net effect of zero.
Even so, the indictment does real harm to the American body politic. It has already set off another Trump-centric media feeding frenzy, at the expense of issues far more serious than the former executive’s half-remembered infidelities, and it creates a dangerous precedent, further politicizing the judiciary and inviting escalation. Above all, it is a reminder that Trump has been investigated, impeached, and indicted not because of the crimes of which he is accused, but because he has dared to oppose the imperial foreign policy favored by elites.
Fans of the indictment insist that no man is above the law, not every case creates a precedent, and other countries indict their leaders. For example, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was sentenced to jail, and France is still a democracy. But the Trump indictment is of a piece with other developments that should be cause for worry. Just to name one example, a few weeks before the former president’s arrest, Internal Revenue Service agents visited the home of journalist Matt Taibbi while he was testifying at a hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.
The IRS’s visit to the home of a prominent critic of the establishment on the same day he was testifying about government overreach is a highly unusual occurrence, and almost seems like the Biden administration flipping the bird to its critics. Outrageously, the mainstream and left media by and large have ignored the IRS bullying of Taibbi. Federal law enforcement has long been deployed in blatantly political ways against the activist left. Heterodox critics like Taibbi are now also targets, and there is ample evidence that it is also being wielded against the MAGA right.
The Trump arrest is an act of sheer desperation, based on a tortured legal theory that seeks to turn mislabeled payments into federal election meddling. It should force us to ask once again: Why do they hate Trump so much? Alvin Bragg’s prosecution is part and parcel of a multifront war waged against the former president by the entire US establishment and its institutions. While in the White House, Trump gave the ruling class massive tax cuts and sweeping deregulation, so what’s the beef? His foreign-policy heresies. To the frustration of those who benefit from it, Trump worked to unwind the American empire. Indeed, he has done more to restrain the US imperium than any politician in 75 years.
Within a few months of his arrival in the Oval Office, it became clear that Trump’s seemingly preposterous rhetoric about ending America’s “forever wars” wasn’t a joke. Yes, he ordered a few missile and drone strikes here and there, but unlike all of his recent predecessors, he didn’t start any new wars. Indeed, he wound down numerous small wars and negotiated a peace settlement in Afghanistan, even if the dirty work of the final withdrawal fell to President Biden.
By early summer 2017, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had become so worried that they held a meeting with Trump at the Pentagon at which they attempted to explain how America’s informal empire functions. Trump didn’t dig the presentation. Calling his generals “dopes and babies” and “losers,” he demanded to know why the United States wasn’t receiving free oil from the Middle East. “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off.… Where is the fucking oil?” After the meeting, Trump continued to take an executive-branch-sized hammer to the elaborate political, diplomatic, economic, and military architecture of US global hegemony.
Trump’s assault on the foreign-policy status quo is all the more remarkable for the near total lack of literature discussing it. Here is a very brief sketch of what he did: Trump ordered the withdrawal of one-third of all US military personnel from Germany, which is a central fulcrum for the entire American imperial project. The 40 German military installations housing US troops support American military operations in 104 countries and contain an estimated 150 nuclear weapons; among other projects, the military’s Africa Command is headquartered in Germany. Trump also ordered the Pentagon to explore withdrawing troops from South Korea, which plays a similar role to that of Germany as a central, high-tech node of US power projection throughout the entire East-Asian region.
Trump likewise drew down the US military role in Syria, even as the foreign-policy establishment urged him to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. He withdrew troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, refused to escalate in Libya, and withdrew almost all US special forces from Somalia. In the rest of Africa, he mused about closing all US embassies—important nodes of Central Intelligence Agency operations.
On the economic and diplomatic front, Trump pursued similar anti-imperial policies. He repeatedly talked about withdrawing from NATO entirely. He insulted European leaders to their faces while he became buddies with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He pulled the plug on the Trans Pacific Partnership, which was to have been the mother of all free-trade agreements and the centerpiece of the “pivot to Asia” sought by Barack Obama. He renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement after having first attempted to scrap the whole thing unilaterally.
At every turn, Trump’s foreign-policy staff sabotaged his efforts. On two occasions, a top economic adviser stole documents while they were awaiting a presidential signature; one would have destroyed a trade agreement with South Korea, the other would have simply killed NAFTA. When Trump ordered the withdrawal of troops from Germany and South Korea, his defense secretary, Mark Esper, worked diligently to redeploy many of these personnel within the same theater. Such internal opposition limited Trump’s moves and helped the press play down the importance of Trump’s anti-imperial foreign policy.
Trump isn’t an anti-imperialist in the left-wing sense. Rather, he is an instinctual America-First isolationist who seems to harbor genuine disdain for global elites and policy insiders. He has also, of course, insulted whole populations in the Global South. But regardless of his deeper motives, the result was that more than any recent president, he sought to dismantle America’s informal global empire.
Trump is also a deeply intuitive politician, and his anti-militarist policy moves played well with his base, the flyover country working- and middle-class people who feel that they and their regions bear the brunt of the taxes, military recruitment, and deindustrialization that serve to support the American empire.
As president, Trump stressed the tremendous costs of America’s overseas commitments. He seemed not to grasp how lavish public spending on the American imperium translates into considerable privatized gains for the American 1 percent. The nation’s richest citizens benefit from the informal empire not only thanks to lavish arms contracts, but also in the form of ready access to cheap labor and raw materials abroad. There are also the steady tribute payments in the form of foreign investment in America’s high-end real-estate markets, art scene, and financial sector. Servicing the Global South’s sovereign debt and managing vast deposits of often ill-gotten flight capital make for lucrative business.
This cavalier disregard for establishment interests is, at bottom, why the national-security class— as well as the political consultants, the media, and mainstream politicians—despise him. It is the real reason the Russiagate hoax had so much traction; that cartoonish fabrication was a way of telling the American public that Trump was bad for US foreign policy without also explaining the truth of what US foreign policy really looks like and who it really benefits.
Trump has remained outspoken in his disdain for “the National Security Industrial Complex,” as he has called it. In a little-remarked-upon Feb. 28 speech that the Trump campaign released as a video, the Republican frontrunner laid into the US foreign-policy establishment, denouncing it as “the America-last contingent” and promising to fire, en masse, “Washington’s generals, bureaucrats, and the so-called diplomats who only know how to get us into conflict but … don’t know how to get us out.”
Taking aim at the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s foreign policy and its key personnel, Trump went on:
For decades, we’ve had the very same people, such as Victoria Nuland and many others just like her, obsessed with pushing Ukraine toward NATO, not to mention the State Department support for uprisings in Ukraine. These people have been seeking confrontation for a long time, much like the case in Iraq and other parts of the world, and now we’re teetering on the brink of World War III. And a lot of people don’t see it, but I see it. And I’ve been right about a lot of things.
Sounding simultaneously tough and peace-loving, the ex-president called the Russian invasion of Ukraine “outrageous and horrible” but asserted that it “would have never happened if I was your president, not even a little chance.” How do we achieve peace? According to Trump, change starts at home: “Here in America, we need to get rid of the corrupt globalist establishment that has botched every major foreign-policy decision for decades.”
The mass media are always eager to make the public hate Trump but can’t tell you the real reason why, because doing so would require acknowledging the realities of the American empire and explaining its workings. Instead, just as we were fed one pseudo-scandal after another during the Trump presidency, now—as his poll numbers are on the rise—we get wall-to-wall coverage of the indictment, arrest, and related air travel. The current case against Trump might be flimsy and operate on a highly attenuated legal theory, but the rhetoric around the case is the familiar “will democracy survive?” variety of millenarian hyperbole.
In the short term, all of this is good for the reproduction of ruling-class power in America, because it helps to preserve the status quo. It sidelines discussion of the many real crises created by decades of cross-partisan establishment rule. Endless war and nuclear brinkmanship? Environmental degradation and fentanyl deaths? Growing inequality and macroeconomic instability? Discussion of all this is canceled: Until further notice, it’s Trump Derangement Syndrome all the time.
So certain are the centrist and liberal chattering classes in the prejudices against Trump that they can’t understand how the Trump arrest appears to people in countries that have been pushed around by the US imperium. Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, spoke for many across the Global South when he tweeted: “Think what you want about former President Trump and the reasons he’s being indicted. But just imagine if this happened in any other country, where a government arrested the main opposition candidate. The United States’ ability to use ‘democracy’ as foreign policy is gone.”
If the Trump arrest appears highly political, that’s because it is, and honest people will admit that. The arrest’s repercussions may also be highly political. A New York Times op-ed by former federal prosecutor Ankush Khordori put it well:
Mr. Bragg may have been the first local prosecutor to do it, but he will probably not be the last. Every local prosecutor in the country will now feel that he or she has free rein to criminally investigate and prosecute presidents after they leave office. Democrats currently cheering the charges against Mr. Trump may feel differently if—or when—a Democrat, perhaps even President Biden, ends up on the receiving end of a similar effort by any of the thousands of prosecutors elected to local office, eager to make a name for themselves by prosecuting a former president of the United States.
Take Biden’s son. The entire contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop are available. Are there no loose ends from his influence-peddling business dealings that trace back to red states where creative local prosecutors might find a way to get their name in the news?
For better or for worse, American presidents have been shielded from prosecution. The downside of this is that our leaders haven’t faced consequences for their crimes, despite having done far worse than Trump. But the upside is that political struggles are confined to the realm of politics and electioneering, and the justice system is protected from contamination by partisan vendettas. The American judiciary, for all its faults, is often the last protection people have against the overreach of permanent state bureaucracies and corporate power. With the Trump arrest, we have crossed a dangerous threshold.