Dr. Adam McConnel | ISTANBUL
[ The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.]
So, after nearly two months of Biden-Blinken foreign policy, are any differences yet apparent in Turkey’s region? Already, commentaries meant to extol Biden’s foreign policy choices as different from his two predecessors have begun to appear. But I mean divergences that could define the new administration as fundamentally distinct from the previous three administrations? President Joe Biden has launched one-off missile strikes against targets in Syria, as did his two predecessors; Biden’s missiles even hit Iranian targets, like some of Trump’s. Large amounts of tough-sounding rhetoric have been aimed at Russia, but no sign of anything other than yet more sanctions is on the horizon. Tit-for-tat verbal sparring between Washington and Tehran continues, including the occasional spate of violence.
The PKK/PYD/YPG’s car bombs, as has been the case for many years, kill, injure, and terrorize Syrians in northern Syria on a nearly daily basis, while the US Ankara Embassy, the State Department, and the Pentagon persist in releasing hypocritical and/or evasive statements about the situation, even when the PKK executed more than a dozen Turkish hostages. US aid to the same terrorist organization flows unabated.
The Biden administration openly identified Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) as culpable for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder — a patently obvious fact which no one needed the CIA to tell them — but, in what amounts to a gaffe, sanctions against MBS are not even envisioned at this point. Thus, US international prestige takes another upper cut to the chin.
Up to this point, the Biden-Blinken foreign policy era, certainly in regard to Turkey’s region, can be discussed in Shakespearean terms: much ado about nothing. Let’s put it this way: when Trump made Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon CEO, secretary of state, it was a shocking move that both violated long-standing political practice and confirmed what critics had claimed about US foreign policy for decades. But Biden made a former CIA employee the public face of his State Department. None of this is a surprise to those in Turkey’s region who have learned to take the transition from one US administration to another with a grain of salt.
Official Biden-Blinken foreign policy prescriptions
Secretary of State Antony Blinken provided the first detailed statement of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy guidelines last week. Much of the content mirrored statements from both Biden and his advisors over the past several years. But some of the content was refreshing, and embraced goals and ideals that have long been absent from US foreign policy.
Two glaring problems, however, immediately present themselves. First, these are only statements, words. Actions speak louder than words, and concrete actions are what the world awaits. Further wrist-slap sanctions on Putin’s low-level facilitators convince extremely few in the global community. Failure to enact serious sanctions, or something even more drastic, against MBS is nothing more than embarrassing face-palm material.
Second, many of Blinken’s stated priorities overtly contradict current US policy towards Turkey and its region. For example, Blinken states that a guiding principle will be to “revitalize our ties with our allies and partners.” Several days after Blinken’s speech, a letter from Blinken to the Afghan president was leaked; the letter suggested that the US would ask Turkey to host the inter-Afghan peace negotiations. Such a step certainly would be a welcome development, but far more must be done from the American side. After what Turkish society has been subjected to by US foreign policy over the past twenty years, only substantial policy changes that recognize Turkish as well as US interests will elicit more sympathetic reactions from Turkish society.
The Republican Party is Trump, Trump is the Republican Party
“In 1952 the ferocity of the Republican attack knew no limits. It went beyond the policies involved and the competence of leaders. It struck at the character and patriotism of those who devised and executed policies. It assaulted institutions of government… even government itself. … It is hardly too much to say that the whole conception of trust and confidence, including the confidence of the people in their own judgement, was brought into doubt. Officials and departments of government, the army, civil servants, a whole political party, the labor movement, teachers and institutions, churches, writers and artists, all were cast into the limbo of doubt. The house of government was gutted.”
— Dean Acheson, “A Democrat Looks at His Party,” pp. 65-66
On the domestic front, the Democrat Party’s optimistic legislative ambitions already look like a mirage as their slim Senate majority proved too fragile to get the fifteen-dollar minimum wage increase included in legislation; their COVID economic aid package passed on a strict party-line vote, without a single Republican breaking ranks. What does not look like a mirage is the Trump reality in US politics. The Democrat Party’s predictable failure to secure 67 votes for Trump’s Senate conviction meant that the Trump Era did not end. Indeed, it may mean that we have witnessed only Act One.
The impressive aspect of Acheson’s observations above, penned more than 65 years ago, is how closely they describe the attitudes — and socio-political results — of today’s Republican Party. The only major difference is that the Republicans held the Presidency and at least one chamber of Congress for the entire previous four years, while Acheson referred to the tail-end of a twenty-year period when the Republicans never won the Presidency.
Today’s Republican Party is the result of the tendencies that Acheson described – the culture wars, the dependence on charismatic figures and provocation, the demagoguery. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt, as destructive as it was, in the end was based on a real issue, no matter how much exaggerated. But McCarthy’s techniques have been distilled and repackaged many times since. The rise of modern media, including social media, have amplified these techniques to the point where large segments of the Republican Party now openly profess conspiracy theories that live only in the Internet. Those conspiracy theories can even get Republicans elected to Congress.
The point is that Trump, no matter how deranged his presidency’s four years seemed, is only the latest charismatic Republican leader/demagogue to fulfill the party’s needs. In the 1950s, Joseph McCarthy filled that role; in the 1960s, Arizona’s Barry Goldwater and, later, California’s Richard Nixon; the 1970s saw the rise of Ronald Reagan as the party began to lean ever more heavily on culture wars and supply-side economic theories for votes — Reagan’s figure has dominated the party since his two-term Presidency in the 1980s. Other figures such as Georgia Representative Newt Gingrich, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and the “Tea Party” movement are post-Reagan examples of the same tendencies. Both of the Bush Presidents openly encouraged these tendencies in order to shore up their electoral support.
Trump continues to set the Republican agenda
The context explained above should make clear why Trump did not simply disappear from the American political landscape after his defeat, and why his second impeachment, like the first, did not lead to a Senate conviction. Trump has tapped into political techniques and social trends fomented by the Republican Party in order to win elections for the past 70 years. US politics now hinges far more on identities than on issues (or morality), so as long as the Democrats did not have 67 Senators, Trump’s conviction was next to impossible.
Polls released as Trump’s second impeachment trial began indicated that only slightly more than 50% of Americans thought that Trump should be convicted. After Trump’s acquittal, polls found almost exactly the same numbers. In other words, opinions about the entire process were solidified long before the actual trial began, and the proceedings and evidence produced during the trial made little difference to the public’s perception. Such data should bring Democrats around to sobriety abruptly: this is the second time that they put Trump on trial, and they still had support from only about half of US society.
Trump’s continuing importance in US politics is illustrated by the flood of articles debating and fretting about how Trump’s hold over the Republican Party can be eroded or broken. The NYT even tried to convince everyone that droves were deserting the GOP because of Trump’s “coup d’état.” But the reality is that Trump’s supporters vote just as much for him or for their own worldview, as against the Democratic Party. Seventy-five million people voted for Trump last November, 11 million more than in 2016. That result shows that a solid socio-political foundation to Trump’s popularity exists, and its attention now turns to the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 Presidential Election.
The only possible approach to diminishing Trump on the national political stage is to ignore him. But ignoring Trump, especially in the short term, will be next to impossible, and that is the gargantuan size of the challenge that Trump now presents to American politics.
Anti-Trump Republican representatives and senators censured
The Trump issue’s depth is reflected in the uproar surrounding Wyoming Representative Republican Liz Cheney. Cheney is the daughter of the former US Vice President and Iraq invasion architect Dick Cheney, who also rose to national political prominence through the House of Representatives. Cheney was one of ten Republican House Members to vote for the latest articles of impeachment against Trump.
The furor surrounding those ten Republicans has been intense, with the Democratic Party (and its media allies) applauding energetically, while a minority of Republicans cautiously congratulated their sense of ethics. Most Republicans, however, reacted with anger. The Wyoming Republican Party moved to not only censure Cheney, but also call for her resignation despite her status as the third ranking Republican in the House and as the daughter of Wyoming’s most famous politician on the national stage. The Wyoming Republican Party’s central committee voted 66-8 in favor of censure. Seven Republican Senators subsequently voted to convict Trump, and they also faced immediate reaction from their party. For his part, Trump has begun to endorse Republican candidates running against the ten House Republicans that voted for impeachment. Trump has even developed an acronym, RINO (Republicans in Name Only), to derisively label the Congressional Republicans that voted for Trump’s impeachment or conviction.
Cheney has remained defiant, stating on national TV that, “We need to make sure that we as Republicans are the party of truth, and that we are being honest about what really did happen in 2020 so we actually have a chance to win in 2022 and win the White House back in 2024.” Notably, Cheney argues that Trump will not have a future leadership role in the Republican Party. But nothing that has happened since Trump’s acquittal that would indicate Cheney’s opinion has strong support amongst the Republican Party base.
Just the opposite – Trump is solidifying his support as the party turns its attention to the 2022 midterms. Trump is already planning a “super PAC” (political action committee) that will raise funds for Trump’s political activities and which will most likely provide funds to candidates that Trump endorses in 2022. The Republican Party’s annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), held ten days ago, turned into, according to the term used by one report, “Trump-chella.” Trump also used his CPAC speech to hint at a 2024 run. As long as he can win public office, and as long as his figure remains a focus of national politics, clearly Trump will remain a force, probably the dominant force, in the Republican Party.
Why? The reality is that Trump is, indeed, the Republican Party, and is the result of many successive political choices that the Republican Party has made since the Second World War. The Democratic Party and its media supporters have spent much time developing theories about how the Republican Party can be “normalized” by somehow getting rid of Trump and his wing of the party. But this entire situation is not the result of a single charismatic figure. Rather, Trump is exactly the direction that the Republican Party has been heading for decades. That is why Acheson’s 1955 diagnosis of the Republican Party still reads as if he wrote it yesterday. The attitudes remain the same, the results remain the same. Only the era, and the fact that these trends have now been working themselves out for 70 years, are different.
In other words, I am referring to an American socio-political current that is profound and that drives forward. The reasons for the current’s long-term successes are varied, and the ultimate results can be only guessed at, but the general trend is not positive. Other phenomena can be blamed for the Republican Party’s current condition – America’s disintegrating education system, rampant and widening inequality, falling life standards, worsening social problems such as poverty, homelessness, and drug use, among many others – but they simply exacerbate the trend, they do not cause it. The cause goes back a century, when the Republican Party, in the name of capital, abandoned focused thinking and hard work on America’s pressing socio-political problems, and turned to the easier options of charismatic personalities, demagoguery, and culture wars. The Teapot Dome scandal, Hoovervilles, and Joe McCarthy were simply the initial steps on the long road that has led, for now, to Donald J. Trump.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of AHSAM Worldview.