For many media commentators, Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was a tale of white, blue-collar labourers scoring a victory against wealthy metropolitan elites. This farcical narrative, as with more recent tales of Trumpism as a multiracial alliance, has been shown to be a fiction on several occasions. The most important recent shift in US politics has been the move to the right in the Democratic establishment and among liberals more broadly.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, the liberal left took as its starting point opposition to US wars and to the military-industrial-intelligence complex that promoted and benefited from them. Barack Obama’s victories in 2008—first over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, then over Republican John McCain in the general election—was in part due to him being perceived as an opponent of the excesses of US militarism, most notably the torture camp in Guantánamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq.
But since then, liberal commentators have become less critical of the US war machine. They defended Obama’s refusal to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and his broken promise to close Guantánamo, blaming Republican Congressional obstruction for every betrayal and disappointment. When Trump attacked George W. Bush over the Iraq debacle and said he would stop the wars and bring US troops home, a slew of right-wing Republicans endorsed Clinton in 2016. This followed a period of growing convergence between the Democratic establishment and the Bush-era neoconservatives—the most ardent promoters of US military intervention and regime change around the world. Symptomatic of this change was a New York Times interview with neoconservative Robert Kagan in 2014, in which he rebranded himself as a “liberal interventionist” and explained his affinity with Clinton: “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy”, he said. “It’s something that might have been called neocon.”
Under Trump, this relationship between Democrats and neocons has blossomed, as his mishandling of the economic, health, climate and imperial crises has brought the two wings of the US establishment into an increasingly close embrace. Their opposition to Trump is based on the risk he has posed to US power and prestige in an increasingly tense world.
Maintaining this unholy alliance requires whitewashing the horrors of previous administrations. So the liberal media have been happy to forgive and forget Richard Nixon’s racist war on drugs in the early 1970s, Ronald Reagan’s assaults on working-class living standards in the 1980s and the cowboy imperialism of the Bush dynasty. (They never acknowledged the crimes of Democratic heroes Bill Clinton and Obama, so the whitewashing was of Republican administrations only.) Outlets such as MSNBC and the New York Times now regularly give platforms to murderous villains from the Republican right. For instance, Bill Kristol, a key right-wing intellectual during the Bush era and an advocate of the Iraq invasion, enjoys a regular slot on MSNBC, while fellow neocon and climate denier Bret Stephens won a permanent job with the Times.
One episode sums up the rapprochement. In May, conservative commentator David Frum was invited onto the liberal cable news channel MSNBC to discuss his latest book Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy. Keen to establish some common ground, the interviewers began by wistfully recalling a time when the hard-right Heritage Foundation, a think tank founded in 1973 by conservatives who believed that Nixon was too liberal, “focused on policy”. The interview reconstructed a mythical past when the US was governed by competent and decent men, the interviewers commiserating with Frum about how Trump has undermined America’s otherwise unimpeachable reputation. Yet there was no mention that Frum had been a senior adviser to the Bush administration—which came to office via a judicial coup in 2000—and was the author of the “axis of evil” speech that launched two decades of perpetual war.
Conservative opponents of Trump have also found themselves bizarrely popular in liberal circles. Right-wing filth such as Mitt Romney, John McCain and John Kasich have been recast as “responsible” or “moderate” Republicans. Colin Powell, George W. Bush’s secretary of state and the man responsible for the systematic torture of detainees in Iraq, was a headline speaker at the Democratic National Convention this year. Bush himself has become friends with liberal figures such as Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres. Writing for The Week, Damon Linker articulated the feelings of many of this cohort when he wrote:
“Whatever Bush’s flaws as a president—and there were many—he was nonetheless an effective head of state. Hearing familiar presidential cadences spoken by the voice of a man who once held the office cannot help but bring into sharp relief what we have lost—and what, in a time of national crisis, we sorely lack.”
Institutions such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, once despised by the broad left for their respective roles in US imperialism’s war against democracy abroad and against justice at home, have been reimagined as heroic patriots for their purported opposition to Trump. In January 2019, senior NBC journalist William Arkin resigned from the network, citing its uncritical support for “the custodians and the architects of perpetual warfare”. In a revealing interview with left-wing news site Democracy Now!, Arkin denounced the practice of liberal media outlets filling their programming with former generals and national security officials who criticise Trump from the right, leaving no room for activists or intellectuals with an anti-war perspective.
It is hard for those who did not live through it to understand, but the world’s left and popular forces hated Bush with an intensity that no US president had felt for many years, if ever. His inauguration was met with a mass demonstration and the tightest security ever seen at the event. And that was only the beginning. The Bush era would come to be defined by the clash between his administration’s criminal imperialism and an enormous global groundswell of humanity opposing war.
It took barely a week for the US establishment to turn the tragedy of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks into a pretext for war. By October, the US and its allies—including Australia—had begun what was to become a decades-long occupation of Afghanistan. Far from delivering the promised liberation from tyranny of the Afghan people, the US empowered corrupt local warlords, slaughtered untold thousands of innocents and entrenched the conditions that make Afghanistan one of the world’s poorest countries.
Annihilating just one impoverished nation was never going to satisfy the murderous cabal at the heart of the Bush administration. Rather, the invasion of Afghanistan was the first of a series of planned military interventions to entrench US hegemony in the Middle East for another century. No sooner had the Taliban disintegrated than Bush began to drum up support to invade Iraq. This time, the pretext was provided by intelligence agencies, which said that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was an imminent, mortal and urgent threat to the United States.
Even before the war began, most were not fooled by these monstrous lies. French political scientist Dominique Reynié estimated that 36 million people joined anti-war protests between January and April 2003. In many countries, there was majority opposition to the war before it even began—an unprecedented situation. But despite the best efforts of the anti-war movement, the war machine was unstoppable.
The neoconservatives were widely blamed for the wars and the devastation that followed. They had argued that US military intervention was a legitimate and important tool for spreading democracy. Their infinite arrogance was epitomised by a Republican strategist’s quip, reported in the New York Times: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. Bush’s 2002 state of the union speech typified this approach, identifying a number of countries as an “axis of evil” and inviting the world to join his crusade against them or risk finding ourselves in the crosshairs.
Many of these figures were connected to the fossil fuel industry and had both a financial and a political interest in controlling the global supply of oil (Iraq has the fifth-largest proven supply). For instance, Dick Cheney, Bush’s vice president, was chair and CEO of oil company Halliburton from 1995 to 2000 and continued to receive $1 million a year from the company well into his first term. Halliburton and its subsidiaries were given a number of lucrative contracts to support the US invasion, including the right to manage Iraqi oil fields.
This history needs to be revisited now because the Democratic establishment has brought the war criminals back into the fold. As investigative journalist Glen Greenwald last year warned, the normalisation of neocon voices, if unchallenged, threatens to instil in a generation of progressives “right-wing Cold Warrior values of jingoism, uber-patriotism [and] reverence for security state agencies and prosecutors”, values that “will endure far beyond Trump”.
The Biden administration comes to power at a difficult time for US imperialism. Despite investing trillions of dollars in endless war, and successfully ruining an entire region, its war on terror has been an abject failure in its own terms, leaving US imperialism weaker than at any point since at least World War Two. As well, the last four years of Trump’s erratic America First policies further undermined important relationships and alliances, especially in Europe and Asia.
So while the Democratic establishment rehabilitated the neocons, the neocons dutifully supported Biden against Trump. And the president-elect is filling his administration with militaristic hacks. For instance, Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, was a supporter of the Iraq invasion. Jake Sullivan has been appointed as a national security adviser after spending years on the board of right-wing think tank Alliance for Securing Democracy. Avril Haines has been tapped to be the head of national intelligence after overseeing Obama’s unprecedented expansion of illegal drone warfare. The New York Times puff piece on her selection describes her as a moderate, while liberal feminists are proud that a woman will finally oversee the indiscriminate surveillance and assassination of civilians across the world.
With his selection of recycled imperial drones, Biden is indicating that he hopes to undo the damage caused by the Trump administration and restore the US to its role as world cop. The relief felt by many on the left at Trump’s defeat is understandable, but there is now a new enemy. The alignment between the neocons and the liberal establishment is not merely about sanitising America’s brutal past, but about strengthening its imperial future. As preparations are made for another decade of war, we can expect the Democratic establishment to continue weaponising people’s fear of Trump to stifle left-wing criticisms. While organising against the far right will continue to be important, the left will need to do the harder work of building a movement against the policies of Biden and his imperial advisers.