There is a Trump doctrine, and if he or Steve Bannon were to put a name to it, it would be called transactional nationalism.
Transactional nationalism better captures the meaning of “America First”. It is based on two premises. First: money spent on exporting the values of democracy is wasted. Put another way, transactional nationalism proposes: to each, his own. America should defend its borders, not fret about spreading “values” no one really believes in. Build that wall. Second: business transactions involving profit secure the peace better than everything else. Business between trading partners is the glue that holds the peace.
This is a simple explanation of the Trump doctrine, transactional nationalism. It explains why the Republican Party, at its national convention, drastically softened its position on Ukraine and Russia. It explains why Russia was silent when Trump, on his first overseas trip as president to Saudi Arabia, blasted Iran — Russia’s proxy in keeping Mideast tensions on high boil. Putin isn’t throwing Trump a life line; he is giving Trump a chance.
So it wasn’t dumb error or naivet when Jared Kushner, Trump’s powerful son-in-law, sought to open a back-channel, thinking he could bypass U.S. intelligence services, with Russia. Remember: even though the public does not have evidence of Trump indebtedness to Russian bankers / mobsters (because he won’t release his tax returns that would point in the direction of outstanding loans), there is plenty of evidence that Trump forged close relationships with Russian investors (in south Florida real estate). Moreover, as a result of lax U.S. reporting rules, it is a known fact made many Trump deeds were signed by obscure, concealed capital.
Crony capitalism shaped Trump’s world view. Better than anyone, he know the reason he survived near-financial death in the 1990’s. He was too big to fail, or, his bankers were too frightened for the loss of their own careers and income to let him fail. No rule of law kept Trump from bankruptcy, as would face any common mortgage holder who can’t keep up his payments. Crony capitalism saved Trump.
Trump and Putin come out as virtual twins in this aspect: both have been enriched by insider deal-making. (Putin towers over Trump in the net worth category.) It stands to reason — their reason — if they can make deals between the United States and Russia, and furthermore if those deals incorporate national sovereignty in internal matters while enriching their closest allies — peace will thrive.
Trump earned Putin’s trust by never questioning the origin of dark money — violence, coercion, murder — from Russia in his buildings around the world, starting with Sunny Isles in South Florida. Trump earned a chance to try out his doctrine on the big stage.
That’s what Jared Kushner wanted to discuss on secure lines with Moscow, using Russian telecom. What Trump proposes, based on Bannon’s thinking, is no less than the end of multilateralism that defined our connections to the free world since the end of the Second World War. It resembles, more, in its essential nature those agreements to partion at the end of the First World War. Multilateralism is the antithesis of transactional nationalism.
Trump proposes Putin should be allowed to reassemble a Soviet-like state, including territories he deems Russian; like Crimea. In return, Russia will take its hand off its constant, violent pot-stirring in the Middle East.
Of course, none of this horse-trading has been vetted by Congress much less the American people. Or has it?
Think, for a moment, about Blackwater: the massive private army sanctioned by U.S. military policy. Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater and a relation to Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos– a billionaire created by the Bush/Cheney obsession with privatization of essential federal government services — , met with Putin proxies in the Seychelles in 2016 on Trump’s behalf.
Transactional nationalism requires secret handshakes that already define the Republican Party. Blackwater is the result of secret handshakes. The American voter did not rise up in revolt. Far, far from it.
Kushner wanted a backchannel, because that is how deals are done. He believed there would be no consequence if Russia helped him create one.
This week, Trump may cancel the participation of the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement, signed by President Obama. The possible withdrawal of the world’s largest economy is a major point of contention between our allies, in NATO, and Trump. NATO leaders understand perfectly well that the immigration crisis in their homelands is being severely aggravated, now, by climate change. (How furious they must be with Trump for saying they should increase their focus on terrorism.)
For Trump, climate change is more than an inconvenient truth: solving climate change requires exactly the multilateral cooperation that transactional nationalism does not tolerate. Former President Obama told adoring crowds in Berlin last week, “We cannot hide behind walls”: that is especially true of climate change impacts.
The Russian economy, however, (not to mention the Saudis) entirely depends on fossil fuels. The fight against climate change is perceived by Putin as a direct threat to him, to his power, and to his version of crony capitalism. We are about to see who and what Trump values more, in pursuit of a doctrine: transactional nationalism.