By Mohammad Zahoor
On 20th January this year Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States. In the eyes of millions both internationally and at home in America the spectacle of such a man becoming head of state in the world’s most powerful country was nothing short of astonishing. There was widespread alarm at how this had come to pass and what on earth would the Trump presidency portend.
Seven months later, if the world did not know then, the international community is not much more cognisant of what kind of creature Trump is. While news commentators and think tank fellows can discuss the unorthodoxy of the Trump Presidency (the faults of its policies and his seemingly endless barrage of Tweets, ad nauseum) there are two themes that continuously take centre stage in the 24hour news-cycle:
- The ever-expanding Russia investigations which are now being undertaken by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and Special Council via the Justice Department.
- The President’s apologetic and appeasing outlook on US-Russian relations which irritates allies foreign and domestic.
Much has been written, discussed and speculated about both subjects, but surprisingly little time has been spent on the reason why. What is the logic of Trump’s trying to second-guess the positions of NATO, the American Intelligence Community, Congress and his own cabinet? Why squander so much political capital and alienate the majority of the American people over such a lost cause? Experts, pundits and the political opposition have been quick to suggest that Trump is a Manchurian candidate, paralysed by collusion and Kompromat. Looking at all the leaks so far, it is fair to assume that there is some truth to the current allegations, but it seems improbable that it will be enough for a Republican congress to actually take action against President Trump.
That being said, an argument can be made that there is a fundamental flaw in the Western coverage on all things Trump & Russia, namely the assumption that the inauguration ceremony would magically transform a highly combative businessman into a dignified politician. There were US commentators, such as Anne Applebaum, who articulated this, early in Trump’s election campaign. A year ago Applebaum wrote a New York Times piece which laid bare Trump’s resemblance and links to other murky and discredited strongmen. For instance she pointed out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign chair, had a record of involvement with Ferdinand Marcos, Victor Yanukovych and Jonas Savimbi. The old adage that one can know the quality of a man by the company he keeps has never been more pertinent.
In her article Applebaum went on to say that ‘By this, I don’t mean that Trump eats caviar and hangs out in Moscow, although, for all I know he’s done both these things. He is, rather, an oligarch in the Russian style – a rich man who aspires to combine business with politics and has an entirely cynical and instrumental attitude towards both.’
For all these reasons, it is worthwhile examining Trump more closely in the context of the Oligarch label, and think about what this means for America and the world. In the West, Anne Applebaum’s astute observations have not received the attention they deserve, but for people in the post-soviet, oligarch-controlled societies, the parallels are becoming more apparent every day.
Generally, people associate the term ‘oligarch’ as an acronym for a Russian billionaire that flaunts his wealth and his gaudy trappings, and cares little for the niceties that most people call manners. Eastern European oligarchs grew rich on the spoils of post- soviet chaos. They still strut the stage in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. These men are often the embodiment of the swaggering, boorish cliché. It is the enrichment through political favouritism and informal profit-sharing with politicians that really defines oligarchy in contrast to a ‘regular’ billionaire a distinctly Soviet concept.
Yet the great clanging truth is that Trump embodies all of the above traits. So much so that he seems to have walked straight out of central casting, long before he became president, he was to all intents and purposes an oligarch.
And what of Trump’s relationship with Russia’s leader? It is doubtful that president takes his cues from Putin. In any case, Putin is not trying to explicitly control the US. Instead he is attempting to drive a wedge between America and Europe. With Russian blessing, Trump, the self-vaunted great deal maker appears to have an eye on how he can make more money during and after his presidency. For this he is disrespecting America’s long established strategic alliances. In doing so Trump is weakening the US because of the favours he owes to the Russian state, which views America as paralysed and impotent.
Over the last 25 years the Trump organisation has sold properties to hundreds of CIS-citizens for billions of Dollars, a significant portion channelled out of murky channels. In 2015, Trump’s Taj Mahal paid a record fine of 10 million dollars as it had “willfully violated” anti-money-laundering-regulations for years. It was Soviet money that rescued Trump from his debt crisis in the Nineties when he owed 4 billion dollars to more than 70 banks. Now the Trump organisations are fully dependent on foreign money, as no major US Bank will any longer do any business with the Trump organisation. However, too few Americans focus on this fundamental conflict of interest: Trump must maintain good relations with Vladimir Putin at all costs. A thumbs down from Vladimir Puton will collapse a significant portion of Trump’s Houses of Cards, as Russia’s business elite will immediately shut down all activities with the business empire of the American President. This is something that the Donald will not allow to happen.
Instead of getting an unorthodox statesman, the US electoral college elected Americas first Oligarch-In-Chief who uses his position as leader of the free world to advance his own business interests. From the very beginning, it became obvious that this accidental president would not use historic precedent or tradition as a guideline: If it is probably legal, it is fair game. The fact that not even the Republican party leadership believed in his victory and therefore provided minimal support, emboldened President Trump to structure a system would allow him continue to control his business, sometimes via proxy.
It is mind-blowing that American president made it a point to keep his Executive Producer of ‘The Apprentice’, the show that brought him into every American household for more than ten years. Many more examples of Trump’s oligarchisation of the US presidency appear in the news from time to time:
News coverage of Trump weekends at Mar-a-Lago & Bedminster already feel like the highest-rated global infomercial (certainly warranting the 100% membership fee increase) and Trump International Hotel is beating business expectations by almost 200%.
Who should receive credit for this accomplishment? Many more examples could be listed, including the nepotism of First Daughter Ivanka or First Son-in-Law Kushner, but political observers familiar with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republic know these manoeuvres all to well: Trump is certainly serving the American people, he simply serves his family & friends a little better.
It deeply shocks and concerns internationally how easily Trump has adapted the style of Russian, or Ukrainian oligarchs and has even outgrown the system created by his Eastern European peers. To add to this already enormous concern, these pro-western CIS societies like Estonia, Latvia Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia are in complete disbelief how little resistance civil society is putting up, as the White House is dismantling a global network of diplomatic relations built over decades. There is also disbelief at how easily the Republicans collaborate with a President who has little regard for the party that helped him getting elected. The Republican party is supremely craven in this matter, having shown itself to be more than happy to sacrifice their own political principles for short term gain. It is worth remembering that when Steven Rockefeller, with his wealth and ambitions, attempted to run for high office in the 1960’s: the Republican party would not stand for it, as they believed that did not stand for Republican principles.
In the end, it might be much ado about nothing. So dysfunctional is the Trump presidency that it might not accomplish little that will be truly damaging in the grand scheme of things. However, two Republican presidents George W. Bush’s and Donald Trumps have significantly damaged the USA brand. Their short-sighted and sometimes erratic actions have traumatised the collective global psyche, and while many already perceive the Obama presidency with an air of nostalgia, in terms of foreign policy, Obama’s passiveness cannot be read as successful policy. And now the decorum of the office of President has been besmirched.
Trump has successfully played the system and has rewritten the presidential playbook, rejecting aspirational visions for barely legal tactics. A toxic precedent has been set – Future US President’s will find it significantly more difficult to claim the moral high ground in the international theatre and this will make some men in the Kremlin smile…ever so slightly.
By Mohammad Zahoor