In November 2015, the Huffington Post asked Republican candidate hopeful Jeb Bush whether or not, given a time machine, he would kill an infant Adolf Hitler. While Jeb enthusiastically replied that he would, the question was intended as a serious moral conundrum. Would it be justified to murder a child in order to save those millions of lives Hitler would eventually take?
But the question is moot, because it based off the erroneous assumption that this dark period of human history occurred entirely due to the actions of one man. It removes all systemic context: principally, that both Hitler and Mussolini were heavily funded by corporate interests that were all too grateful to the brownshirts for intimidating their striking workers in the background of recession. So if there was no Hitler, big business would have likely just raised up another fascist to fulfil his role, and history would play out practically the same.
Laying enormous movements and global trends at the feet of a single person is, therefore, dangerously reductionist. This point of view, a 19th Century conception known as the ‘Great Man of History’, has wrongfully survived the test of time in the public consciousness, despite being lambasted in historical academia, because it is convenient to the status quo and those who most benefit from it. If one is not made to examine the flaws in our economic and state systems that gave rise to the horrors of global fascism, then there is no impetus to change anything.
I take this extreme example not for the sake of making yet another comparison of Trump to Hitler, but to combat this idea that is so widespread in liberal currents and so reinforced by mainstream media that everything wrong with the US today is a creation of Trump; and that if Trump is removed, then everything will go back to ‘normal’. Perhaps the most damaging assumption contained within this idea is that the ‘normal’ state of affairs for the United States is anything desirable, just or moral.
Trump has no sense of subtlety and a unique talent for exacerbating conflict with overblown gestures and loud policies. Evidently his predecessor Barack Obama never taught him how to deport more immigrants than any other president in US history, a full 2.7 million, while still painting oneself as a hero of diversity and progressive values. Trump’s bombing of Syria is rightly treated with the highest scrutiny from liberals – but where was this same scrutiny when the Obama administration dropped bombs on no fewer than seven countries including 26,171 in 2016 alone? Despite this dismal record, many liberals, barely in-jest, wish for Obama to be given an unconstitutional third term, seemingly just for being classy.
What this sentiment betrays is an acceptance of the society of the spectacle. So long as everything appears to be courteous, proper and “honourable”, the real human horrors of US governmental administration will be taken as just business as usual. It takes someone as boorish as Donald Trump to lift the veil of respectability from a centuries-long history of segregation and imperial aggression. Or at least, it should, were it not for The Great Man, conveniently absorbing all the blame from the system that created him.
But let us not solely point the finger at Obama. Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State overseeing the destabilisation of foreign governments (and their rising civilian death tolls) during this period, yet the liberal branch of feminism sees her as a role model to emulate. Simply due to his criticisms of Trump, liberals now feel bursts of affection for George Bush of all people, somehow forgetting his instigation of the ‘War on Terror’ and the ransacking of the Middle East that followed. Even Bernie Sanders, by far the most progressive presidential nominee the US has seen in decades, voted in favour of the invasion of Afghanistan and has expressed support for continuing intervention in Syria.
Nor let us allow our gaze to rest solely on the States. Trump’s blasé attitude to climate change has come sorely under fire, yet in Canada, liberal favourite Justin Trudeau has claimed the right to sell oil that will use up 30% of the world’s carbon budget decided at The Paris Agreement. Additionally, he is diverting state funds to an oil pipeline expansion project that, even if it doesn’t leak into the ocean, will certainly pollute the atmosphere. It will also be constructed through the land of indigenous peoples, despite strong protest at yet another violation of their land rights, their environment and their way of life. As for the politics of European first-world nations, their foreign policy records, which inevitably march along to the US’ war-drum, ought to speak for themselves.
These are just some recent examples. To go deeper, one can see the twisted irony in the outrage of liberals over supposed Russian electoral meddling when one sees the endless list of US involvement in conspiring regime change the world over.
Those who call themselves #TheResistance are quite keen to uphold all of America’s imperial qualities so long as Trump is not at the helm. This is most evident when it comes to Trump’s one actual achievement, the easing of tensions with North Korea, which has been met with by disgust from American liberals, some insisting that the US should be even tougher or that they should not negotiate at all. Such an attitude seems far more typical of the Empire than the Resistance, a level of domineering aggression which outstrips even Trump himself.
Even the ‘softer’ side of American politics is infused with this veritable bloodthirst which sometimes does not even need to disguise itself – though certainly it often does. The reason for the prominence of the Great Man in regards to Trump is undoubtedly a result of an Establishment media portrayal which seeks to oust Trump and get one of their own donors back in; but one which must present him as an alien perverter of the American system rather than a slightly erratic gear in the age-old US imperial machine.
None of this is to understate the far-right resurgency occurring under Trump or his especially regressive social policies. The point is that there is a reason Trump’s platform was popular, and it is because intolerance and oppression are baked into every level of US society and government, and have historically been carried out by the Trumps and the Reagans, the Obamas and the Kennedys alike.
Trump is the true face of neoliberalism when it has torn off its mask, and the Great Man narrative seeks to distance neoliberalism’s rosy image from its ugly reality. He is a symptom of a systemic disease, rooted in the brutal capitalist mechanisms driving America’s economy and society. Most commentators are stuck marvelling at the pockmarks, unable or unwilling to get to the heart of the disease beneath.