Democratization Policy Council

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Inat Politics - Donald Trump's weaponization of spite

3 June 2017 — Kurt Bassuener

President Donald Trump’s confrontational, petulant behavior, displayed at meetings in Brussels and Sicily last week, conveyed his resentment toward European and other democratic allies for allegedly taking advantage of the United States in their defense spending and trade balances. Refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5, calling Germany “very bad” for its trade surplus with the US, and his refusal to re-commit the US to the Paris Climate Change Accord, solidified close American allies’ distrust. They had been hoping Trump would dispel the fears he had generated through his campaign rhetoric and erratic governance to date. As soon as Trump left, both Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the bonds within the EU – and particularly between their countries – urgently needed to be strengthened for security, defense of democratic values, and other mutual interests.

Trump’s most combative speech since his inaugural address, given in the Rose Garden on June 1, portrayed the US as having been sold out by the Obama administration and victimized by the rest of the world in the Paris Agreement, from which he announced American withdrawal. Like Howard Beale in “Network,” he’s “mad as hell, and wasn’t going to take it anymore.” His dark view of the rest of the world included special venom for European allies whom he said were “laughing at us” for American weakness, aiming to gain unfair advantage over US economic strengths. The optics and tones of the speech depicted him as a stalwart savior of America against a malevolent and condescending world. National Public Radio’s Mara Liasson called Trump’s decision the most consequential yet – “America’s Brexit.” In terms of generating public and political opprobrium among allies, it is hard to gainsay that assessment.

It has long since become clear that the justified paroxysms of rage from his opponents for his seemingly erratic, but in fact systematically consistent, reactionary policy nihilism is not incidental – it is indeed part of his appeal to his base. “F**k you” was an underlying sentiment – in common with Brexit – directed by the movement that coalesced around him at “Washington,” “elites,” “the establishment,” and the professional class. His victory was an upraised middle finger to all of them. Any protest emanating from them, however grounded, is automatically discounted on the basis that they make it. Hence the salience and durability of narratives that are demonstrably false. Ultimately, Trump has become a totem of identity for his supporters.

Trump surely finds it especially satisfying to stick it to the EU. The fact is that his most fervent and informed discussions with Europeans on matters of substance since being elected have concerned his own business dealings – windmills in Scotland, his difficulties opening other golf courses on the continent, etc. It is not difficult to imagine Trump thinking “it serves them right for getting in the way of my developments. They can shove their environmental regulations! Cry into your macchiatos, losers!”

That underlying emotion – inat – a Turkish word that I finally grasped an understanding of while living in Sarajevo, is usually translated as “spite.” But this doesn’t really do it justice. Despite being encapsulated in a single word, in English requires many more words to capture the essence: ‘this is going to hurt me, but it’s going to hurt you more – and I will delight in your suffering.’

While watching the 2015-2016 presidential election campaign with increasing disbelief and horror, I was struck by how familiar Trump’s messaging – and its growing popular resonance – felt, having lived in Bosnia for over a decade after marinating in Balkan politics since the mid-1990s. Trump has tapped a deep seam of resentment in a certain stream of American society which has long been brewing, and can continue to mine it for the foreseeable future. He could easily have adopted Slobodan Milošević’s “nobody should dare to beat you!” as a slogan, and the reverse is true – “Make Serbia great again!” could easily have been shouted from the podium at Gazimestan in 1989. Or – substituting Croatia, of course, by Franjo Tudjman on his diaspora fundraising tours. And it wasn’t just messaging. The standard Balkan political operating system, gaining social consent through mobilizing fear and patronage, definitely seem to be in play in Trump’s America. For what is his promise to save coal and manufacturing jobs from the alleged ravages of “globalism” (and real stress of technological change) but patronage – albeit without money yet changing hands?

Trump’s transactionalism is constantly on display: his crowing about the massive Saudi arms purchase, his demanding NATO allies pay what he mischaracterizes as debt to the US, his demands that corporations return jobs to America. In his Rose Garden speech, he even referred to a highly unlikely renegotiation of the Paris Agreement as a “transaction.” Long-term investment, stewardship of relationships, let alone the sense of common goods, are not his thing.

But it wasn’t until last week that it dawned on me that inat was Trump’s basic political frequency – and currency. For making “losers” like me – and tens of millions of others – convulse in cursing faux-Tourette’s episodes hourly with the latest humiliation he has wreaked upon America, the latest abuse of power, is its own reward. Though his ideologist Steve Bannon outlined his unique brand of national nihilism, Trump’s grievance, sense of entitlement, and deep-seated insecurity are all visceral and resonate deeply with a constituency that has stuck by him, and will be his – personally. They delight in the lamentations and protests of Trump’s opponents. He is giving them satisfaction now, though in the long-run they will ironically be the ones to suffer the most from his myopic policy.

While the tangled web of links to Russia show more threads every day, what is abundantly clear is that Russia is the prime beneficiary of Trump’s policies thus far. Putin has already met with the newest leader of the democratic world, French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron bluntly called out Russia for its meddling in the French elections - and France was appropriately attempting to rejuvenate Franco-German diplomatic efforts to get the Minsk agreement on Ukraine implemented. But Putin still had a one-on-one meeting with a promising Western leader. His intervention to save Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2015 was intended to deliver precisely this: a path out of the international isolation that he brought upon himself with the invasion of Crimea and ignition of war in eastern Ukraine. If Paris was worth a mass for Henry of Navarre, Versailles was worth a public dressing down for Putin. The optics were that Putin is a man with one can do transactional business, albeit with deep skepticism. That’s a win for him.

And this is the meta benefit for Russia from the Trump presidency, whatever Moscow’s role in facilitating its emergence. When compared to the abrasive, non-collegial, militantly ignorant, and utterly self-absorbed Trump, Putin’s interpersonal behavior seems reasonable and civilized – despite the voluminous evidence to the contrary. Trump has managed to change the subject and allowed Putin to get on with pursuing his own agenda without restraint, even tentatively re-entering direct diplomacy with the West.

If there is an inat irony to be drawn from the Balkan experience, the demagogue’s feeding – and harnessing – the rage of his constituency, to their detriment, always ends with betrayal and disappointment of that constituency, and often their outright abandonment. Donald Trump has unleashed demons he is unlikely to be able to completely control, even if he cares to. And we all are along for the ride.