LONDON: Donald Trump says so many strange and outrageous things that it is impossible to remember them all. But one Trumpian remark that has stuck with me is the US president’s repeated insistence that, after conquering Iraq, “we should have kept the oil”.
To the ears of the Washington establishment, this was yet another Trump gaffe. Even Dick Cheney, the former vice-president and most hawkish of hawks, had never portrayed Iraq as a war of conquest.
But Mr Trump’s deliberately provocative remark was an insight into both his philosophy and his appeal to voters.
AN APPEAL TO RUTHLESSNESS
When many Americans feel frightened that both US power and their own living standards are in decline, Mr Trump is making an appeal to American ruthlessness. The US president says to voters that the country cannot afford to be “politically correct” any more.
The way to Make America Great Again, in the words of his slogan, is to rediscover the ruthless instincts that made America great in the first place.
In a nod to past American ruthlessness, Mr Trump has hung the portrait of Andrew Jackson, US president from 1829 to 1837, on the wall of the Oval Office. Jackson was once seen as one of the great builders of the American nation and his statue stands in Lafayette Square, opposite the White House.
But a more recent generation of historians has accused Jackson of complicity in genocide for ordering the forced removal of Native Americans from their land — a policy that led to the “trail of tears” in which thousands died.
By honouring Jackson, whom he praised as a “very tough person”, Mr Trump is honouring the brutal policies that allowed the US to conquer the west.
A TOUGH GUY
The president’s approach signals to voters that he too is a tough guy. And it has the added political benefit of playing into America’s domestic culture wars.
By celebrating presidents like Jackson, and recently praising the Confederate commander and slave-owner, Robert E Lee, Mr Trump is telling rightwing Americans what they want to hear — that there is nothing to apologise for in American history.
This is not just a historical debate. It is also intensely political and contemporary. These Trumpian provocations are coming at a time when the left — particularly at universities — is taking a much more assertive stand on facing up to the ugly aspects of American history.
Buildings associated with supporters of slavery have been renamed at Yale and Georgetown; Amherst College has dropped Lord Jeffery Amherst as its mascot because the colonial-era commander was an advocate of genocide against Native Americans.
Mr Trump’s praise for Lee came amid continuing demands for the removal of the general’s statue from Charlottesville, the scene of violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators in 2017.
HAS THE US GONE SOFT?
Oddly, Mr Trump and the progressive left share some attitudes. They both believe that the American nation was founded on acts of ruthlessness and brutality.
The difference is that the left feels that America should makes amends for that history. Mr Trump and his followers argue that America should embrace its entire history — including the brutal bits — and return to the values of the past.
The Trumpian view is that the US has gone soft and risks ruin if it is too scrupulous when dealing with ruthless adversaries such as Islamic State — or, even, with Russia and China.
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THE BATTLE OF IDEAS
Mr Trump’s approach has a certain unsparing honesty about it. But there are also telling limitations to this honesty. In praising the likes of Lee and Jackson, Mr Trump hints at his attitudes to racial injustice — without ever fully spelling it out.
But those who want to embrace the viciousness of the past need to be asked just exactly how far they want to go back: Are they endorsing racial segregation; slavery; giving your enemies blankets covered in smallpox, as Amherst wanted to do in 1763? Presumably not.
The idea that returning to some of the most reactionary ideas will help make good on Mr Trump’s vague promises to the voters is also highly questionable.
On the contrary, it looks like a formula for domestic division and strife rather than “greatness” — which is one reason why Russian internet trolls often stoke America’s culture wars.
An America that turns its back on liberal values will also be weaker internationally. If the struggle with China is only about the relative power of the US and Chinese economies, America could well lose: China’s economy is already larger than that of the US in purchasing-power terms.
As for weaponry, Russia has a nuclear arsenal that is as formidable as that of the US; and China’s fleet is now larger than America’s.
But there is one area where China and Russia struggle to compete with the US — and that is the battle of ideas. Russia and China fear the attractiveness of the American model of personal and political freedom, human rights and the rule-of-law.
The US president was once routinely labelled “the leader of the free world”. But it is hard to apply that label to Mr Trump — a man who seems to envy dictators and to feel only contempt for liberal values.
That weakens America’s ability to attract allies and partners around the world. As the saying goes: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.