Content warning: graphic descriptions of violence
The presidency of the United States of America has more exclusive access to military force and more unilateral deployment power than ever before.
The United States of America is often spoken of as the ‘richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen.’ This power is generally attributed to the country’s economic influence and military might, and the political weight packaged along with them. To focus on one of the most visceral expressions of American power, let us consider the ‘exceptional’ U.S. military. Since World War II, the U.S. has conducted military interventions in at least twenty countries and engaged in covert CIA coups in several more, with dozens of deployments alongside. Further, the United States operates almost 800 military bases in upwards of 70 countries around the world. In contrast, Britain, France, and Russia have a combined total of 30 foreign bases – Britain and France of course being close allies of the U.S. and fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members. The U.S. is a founding and pivotal member of NATO, and bears the same status on the United Nations Security Council, where the country enjoys a permanent seat and veto powers.
The post-9/11 era has seen some novel developments in American war-making. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force resolution passed on September 18, 2001, enabled “necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the U.S.” However, some argue that on the wings of this open-ended resolution the U.S. has conducted military and covert operations in more countries than the resolution intended to allow – as many as 135 countries in 2015 alone. At very least, there are the seven countries in which Barack Obama conducted airstrikes and/or drone strikes during his time in office – in addition to the countries where U.S. troops are more permanently deployed. In 2015 the U.S. dropped 23,144 bombs on Muslim-majority countries, with the number increasing to 26,171 bombs in 2016. Despite this, global deaths from terrorism have increased since 2001.
There is also, of course, the ever-expanding unilateral global drone assassination program that the U.S. now employs. While the drone war began under George W. Bush, Barack Obama carried out 10 times as many drone strikes as his Republican predecessor. As was reported in The Intercept, “The White House and Pentagon boast that the targeted killing program is precise and that civilian deaths are minimal. However, documents detailing a special operations campaign in northeastern Afghanistan, Operation Haymaker, show that between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.”
The War on Terror, much like the War on Drugs, is perhaps rather aptly described by Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook’s August 1, 2016 comments regarding renewed U.S. bombing in Libya; it has “no end point at this particular moment in time.”
The militaristic expression of American power doesn’t only appear in foreign arenas. As a part of the War on Drugs, the 101st U.S. Congress enacted the National Defense Authorization Act, Section 1208 of which allowed the Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus Department of Defense equipment to federal and state law enforcement. In 1996, the U.S. Congress replaced Section 1208 with Section 1033, an expansion which allowed all law enforcement to procure such equipment, though preference was granted to anti-drug and counterterrorism requests. As reported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the 1033 Program has resulted in the transfer of $4.3 billion worth of military equipment to domestic law enforcement – a phenomenon they dubbed “war coming home” in a 2015 report detailing its impact on American citizens. There is a wretched irony in the War on Drugs, in that now there are more people arrested in the U.S. for drug possession (in fact, even for just marijuana possession alone) than for all violent crimes combined – one every 25 seconds.
While correlation is certainly not causation, one must mention the massive disparity between police violence in the U.S. and that of other industrialized democracies. In 2016, 1091 people were killed by police in the U.S. A 2012 shooting saw six Cleveland police officers kill two unarmed individuals in a hail of 137 bullets – 52 bullets more than the entire German police force had used in the year previous. Despite U.S. police’s apparent willingness to employ deadly force, the U.S. has a per capita intentional homicide rate five times that of Germany, according to the World Bank. The gap between police violence in the U.S. and that of other industrial democracies holds across the board. Alongside this aggressive, arguably oppressive policing is what is now called ‘mass incarceration’ – despite bearing just 5 per cent of the world’s population, the U.S. has roughly 25 per cent of its prisoners. In total, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, a statistic buoyed (though not entirely explained) by the for-profit prison industry and other economically invested interest groups, a fervent history of racial politics, the War on Drugs, and legacy legislation such as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
As well, the U.S. has created a ‘dragnet’ surveillance state collecting endless amounts of metadata from around the world. American state power has also employed extrajudicial detention in both foreign and domestic arenas, in so-called ‘black sites’ and places like Homan Square (a Chicago Police Department “off-the-books interrogation warehouse” where roughly 7000 people “disappeared”). What’s more, Barack Obama used the Espionage Act against journalists and whistleblowers more than all other previous presidencies. These whistleblowers include Chelsea Manning, the transgender U.S. Army private who was sentenced to 35 years without the possibility of parole for giving more than 700,000 classified documents and pieces of data to WikiLeaks – including the infamous July 12, 2007 Baghdad airstrike video depicting the killing of Reuters journalists and first responders (and children) by U.S. military personnel. Manning was repeatedly subjected to solitary confinement – despite calls from the UN and Amnesty International for the U.S. to cease its use – and attempted suicide multiple times. Shortly before leaving the Oval Office, Obama commuted Manning’s sentence.
As brother Dr. Cornel West said of President Obama in a 2014 interview, “he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.” That smile and rhetorical flair may have eased the vigilance of Americans while the ostensibly liberal Democratic president developed a national security and surveillance apparatus specific to the Oval Office that seems unlike anything ‘the world has ever seen.’
Consider the Joint Special Operations Command (J-Soc). Active since just 1980, J-Soc is the only unit of the U.S. military that reports directly and exclusively to the president. It was J-Soc which crossed the borders of Pakistani sovereignty to pursue and kill Osama Bin Laden. Horror stories from J-Soc operations include soldiers killing innocent civilians while purportedly pursuing targets on their ever-expanding kill list, and then digging the bullets out of the victims’ bodies with knives to cover up the crimes. J-Soc is currently collaborating with domestic U.S. intelligence agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA, as well as partner states like Britain, France, Iraq, and Jordan, to construct a permanent intelligence-sharing and security outpost at a secret location in the Middle East, in preparation for a “multi-generational, international fight against terrorists.” Again; terrorism has increased, demonstrably, since the onset of the War on Terror. A recent report published by Matthew Cole in The Intercept details how some members of Seal Team 6 descended into what he calls ‘criminal brutality;’ “Some of those photographs, especially those taken of casualties from 2005 through 2008, show deceased enemy combatants with their skulls split open by a rifle or pistol round at the upper forehead, exposing their brain matter. The foreign fighters who suffered these V-shaped wounds were either killed in battle and later shot at close range or finished off with a security round while dying. Among members of SEAL Team 6, this practice of desecrating enemy casualties was called ‘canoeing.'” Cole’s sources, multiple former Seal Team 6 members, say the practice became a ‘sport’ within the unit, and that pictures of its victims mounted over the years.
President Trump has said he wants to bring back torture, “even if it doesn’t work,” though he asserts that it does (it doesn’t). He has said his strategy to fight international terrorism would involve intentionally killing the innocent civilian family members of enemy combatants. As a candidate, he was openly endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan, and his election has emboldened white supremacists throughout the United States. He has said the Geneva Conventions are “the problem.” He has vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement. He has said he wants to “open up” libel laws in order to sue news outlets that cover him negatively. He has said he intends to deport as many as 3 million undocumented immigrants – the portion he believes have criminal records. And, of course, he lies without end.
To quote political theorist David Moscrop writing in Maclean’s, “The Oval Office’s newest tenant owns a politics marked by compulsive, blatant, and sustained lying aimed at generating a cult of personality, rallying his supporters, undermining his opponents, and putting the press on their back heels. On Saturday, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, stood in the White House briefing room and lied to the assembled media about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration…Since then, Trump has declared his inauguration a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” ordered the construction of a border wall with Mexico, advocated torture, silenced government agencies, launched an investigation into (non-existent) voter fraud, and doubled-down on his promise to ramp up deportations while also limiting entrance to the United States by refugees and Muslims. At the same time, his advisers have been disputing reality, with one, Kellyanne Conway, claiming the existence of ‘alternative facts.‘” He has also threatened to impose martial law on Chicago, purged the State Department, and called for weekly public reports on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Within a fortnight, the Trump administration has displayed inclinations to ignore the law (when the acting attorney general opposed him, he fired her). These inclinations have sparked opposition. However, there has been significant power gathered in the executive office of the U.S. government that exists essentially unchecked – safe from scrutiny and undaunted by outcries from the public, from Congress, or from NGOs or the international order. Trump has as much access to that power as Barack Obama did, as much as Hillary Clinton would have. Though, for all the danger Trump presents, the cabinet he’s gathered around him may be worse yet.
Composed countenance notwithstanding, Vice President Mike Pence – ‘a heartbeat away from the presidency,’ as they say – is a Christian fundamentalist and hopeful theocrat who has endorsed Trump’s support for increasing the number of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and advocated implementing stop-and-frisk policies nationwide, all while opposing congressional oversight of CIA interrogations. As was reported in The Intercept, “as governor of Indiana, Pence signed a law requiring fetal tissue from abortions to be buried or cremated, making his state one of the most medieval in its approach to reproductive rights.” Pence has said that he wants “to see Roe v. Wade [the 1973 Supreme Court of the United States decision legalizing abortion] consigned to the ash heap of history,” has stated that “global warming is a myth,” has opposed widening hate crime laws to include LGBTTQA* individuals, and has praised and holds many significant personal and financial ties to Blackwater-founder Erik Prince (Blackwater being the controversial private security firm contracted by the U.S. government during the Iraq War).
Despite his repeated rhetoric on the campaign trail against the corrupting influence of Wall St. banks and big money donors, Trump has sought to appoint several current and former members of Goldman Sachs to his cabinet. Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin, known in some circles as the ‘Foreclosure King,’ worked at Goldman for 17 years. Another bank Mnuchin later owned, OneWest, foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman over an outstanding debt of 27 cents. Goldman Sachs president Gary Cohn has been selected as Trump’s top economic advisor. Executive chairman of Breitbart News and self-proclaimed emissary of the ‘alt-right’ Stephen Bannon is Trump’s chief strategist, an appointment celebrated by white nationalists including former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke and chairman of the American Nazi Party Rocky Suhayda. Bannon, another former Goldman Sachs employee, also sits on Trump’s National Security Council. Overall, and despite positioning himself as a working class hero running against the liberal elites of Clintonworld, Trump’s cabinet (thus far) is said to boast a combined worth of more than $14 billion.
Jeff Sessions is Trump’s pick for attorney general, a man who has commented that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” and who wholly opposes legalization. In 1986, Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King Jr.) penned a long letter detailing why she believed Jeff Sessions was utterly unfit to be a federal judge, saying he’d “irreparably damage the work of my husband.” Trump chose Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, the very department Pruitt has longed worked against, sued, and criticized for advancing a “climate change agenda.” Betsy DeVos, an active and outspoken opponent of public education and fierce advocate for (specifically Christian) privatization, is Trump’s nominee to be the Secretary of Education. DeVos also happens to be the sister of Erik Prince. Andrew Puzder, fast food magnate and Trump’s pick for Labor Secretary, is critical of expanded overtime eligibility, minimum wage increases, and paid sick leave policies. Former Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson will lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) despite having no relevant experience, and after a spokesman for Carson himself said that appointing the doctor to the incoming cabinet could “cripple the presidency.” On the day of the inauguration, the new administration’s HUD reversed a 0.25 per cent cut to mortgage insurance premiums, effectively raising taxes on middle-class homebuyers. Trump has appointed former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, an office Perry famously could not remember the name of, despite wanting to eliminate, in a November 2011 Republican presidential primary debate. It was not until after Perry was appointed to lead the Department of Energy that he learned it was responsible for the country’s nuclear arsenal.
President Trump has selected Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, a Republican representative from Kansas and graduate of both West Point and Harvard Law School. In a December 9, 2014 statement released in response to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, Pompeo proclaimed “these men and women are not torturers, they are patriots,” and argued for the legality of the program. He has described Guantanamo Bay as “a goldmine of intelligence about radical Islamic terrorism.” Pompeo has also called for the execution of Edward Snowden. Critically, then-President Obama did not prosecute any of the CIA agents or Bush administration officials who had ordered or conducted torture, arguably leaving the door open. The President has tapped Lieutenant Governor Michael Flynn (ret.) to be his national security advisor, a man that has claimed “fear of Muslims is rational,” and called for increased aggression toward Iran. Flynn was also once the intelligence chief of J-Soc. Trump’s Secretary of Defense is retired General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, meaning there are more generals in his administration than any since World War II. Now-former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has been nominated for Secretary of State, with arch-neoconservative John Bolton as his number two. This combination is particularly concerning when you consider Trump’s stated desire to “take the oil” from Middle Eastern countries like Iraq by force, arguably committing to operate the U.S. as a sort of pirate-terrorist state.
In an interview with ABC’s David Muir, Trump neatly described all those who argue such actions would be egregious violations of international law; “Fools.” Trump also said that he only intends to discuss U.S. military operations after the fact. Muir told the president that it had caught his attention when Trump had said the U.S. may get “another chance” to take the oil from Iraq. The president responded, “Well, don’t let it get your attention too much, because we’ll see what happens. I mean, we’re going to see what happens. You know, I told you and I told everybody else that wants to talk, when it comes to the military, I don’t want to discuss things. I want to let – I want to let the action take place before the talk takes place.”
In the days leading up to the inauguration, reports circulated that Trump’s national security team was in unprecedented disorder, riddled with vacant positions and internal conflict. The New York Times reported that nobody in the outgoing Obama administration knew whether anybody in the incoming Trump administration had read any of the 275 briefing papers they’d developed for them, comprising almost 1000 pages of classified material. Despite this, the U.S. conducted two drone strikes in Yemen the day after Trump took office. The Pentagon released a statement saying that the first ground raid authorized by President Trump (and perhaps the first on-the-ground U.S. military operation in Yemen since the war broke out) left 14 al Qaeda militants dead, with a U.S. commando also dying in the attack. However, Reuters reported 30 deaths, including 10 women and children. NBC reported eyewitness statements which also dispute the government’s account. In a chilling display of continuity, one of the children killed was the eight-year-old U.S. citizen Nawar al-Awlaki, daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki and half-sister of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki – two U.S. citizens killed in (separate) drone strikes during the Obama administration. (Abdulrahman was 16 years old at the time of his death. When asked about the strike, then-White House Press Secretary and advisor to Obama’s reelection campaign Robert Gibbs said that Abdulrahman “should have [had] a more responsible father.”)
Jeremy Scahill has reported that Blackwater-turned-Academi-founder Erik Prince is advising Trump from a distance on both Department of Defense and State Department appointees. Speaking with Democracy Now! on the Prince and DeVos families, Scahill said, “These two families merged together like the monarchies of old Europe and emerged as the premier funders not only of the Republican Revolution of the ’90s and the radical religious right, but of groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, which are among the most militant anti-LGBTQ organizations in U.S. history. So, the connection between Erik Prince and Betsy DeVos within the context of the Trump administration is that Betsy wants to do for schools what Erik wants to do for the military and the CIA, which is to privatize them and deploy them in an effort to bring the, quote-unquote, “Kingdom of God” to the United States and, ultimately, to the world.” Scahill went on the describe the Trump administration as, “kind of a cabal of legitimized criminals, religious extremists, privatization advocates, radical privatization advocates, and then a smattering of truly despicable racists, bigots, white supremacists.”
The Grand Old Party, as the Republican Party is colloquially known, now controls the House of Representatives, the Senate, the White House, as well as 33 out of 50 governorships and 68 out of 99 state legislatures across the country. Noam Chomsky has argued that the modern GOP is the most dangerous organization in world history. Trump is set to make at least one, likely two, perhaps three or even four Supreme Court appointments, threatening voting and reproductive rights – among many others – for decades to come. Atop the many issues activists and progressive policymakers have taken up in America – systemic racism and gender bias, Native American rights violations, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, developing oligarchy, the entrenched power of the so-called ‘Deep State’ – the post-9/11 presidencies have set a new precedent that is, at very least, an unsettling one. Perpetual and expanding foreign military action without congressional approval or oversight. Drone strike assassinations without trial or due process – even on U.S. citizens – in countries where the U.S. has not declared war. Mass surveillance of U.S. and foreign citizens, including heads of allied foreign states. Dogged prosecution and incarceration of whistleblowers and journalists using a law intended for, literally, enemy spies. Now this precedent, and with it all the planet-spanning might of the American Empire, is in the hands of Donald “I have a very good brain” Trump, a man who refuses daily intelligence briefings because “I’m like, you know, a smart person,” and who has repeatedly stated in interviews he demands all information be condensed as much as possible, ideally to a single page. The threat that his presidency presents to the world appears jarringly grave, and it has already sent shocks through the international order. Within 10 days of Trump’s inauguration, it was reported that a Chinese military official published a commentary piece describing both the possibilities of “war within the president’s term,” and “war breaking out tonight,” as mere slogans no longer, but “the reality.”
He can be protested, opposed or counterbalanced internationally, or even actively contested on a national scale – but until he is defeated electorally, impeached or otherwise removed from office, or he serves the two-term limit as President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump is the Commander-in-Chief of the ‘most powerful nation the world has ever seen,’ and thus there is and must be nothing between him and launching a nuclear weapon.
The emperor has no clothes. But guess what? He’s still the emperor.
Chuka Ejeckam studies political science and philosophy at UBC.