Historians have long been divided between two schools. One holds that history is the chronicle of the deeds of outstanding individuals — kings, heroes, prophets, conquerors and other great men whose ambitions, goals and visions might range as far and wide as those of Alexander the Great who took his to the furthest corners of the globe. It therefore argues that the greatest conquests, inventions, philosophies and ideological movements are the fruit of individuals who rose above the norm in ways that enabled them to influence lands and peoples far beyond their environments.
The other school maintains that history is the product of large and complex processes — clashes between competing ideologies, rivalries between political elites, class conflicts, international tug-of-wars, etc.
Naturally there arose a third school that attempted to reconcile the two. In one of his letters, Friedrich Engels, a cofounder of Marxist philosophy which focuses on the dynamics of economic factors (ie the forces of production) and social factors (ie the class struggle), confessed that he and Marx had considerably overemphasised the role of these factors, but that was because these factors had previously been disregarded or undervalued.
In all events, even the most obdurate members of the second school acknowledge that individuals have certain roles to play in history and, indeed, that “coincidence” may have other roles to play.
While differing schools is common to all social sciences, the individual versus the process dichotomy is useful to bear in mind at certain historical junctures, such as the one the world is experiencing at present following the arrival of Covid-19 and the havoc it has wreaked everywhere.
Political scientists and historians have described the effects of this pandemic in many ways. They have said it turned the world upside-down and that the world will never be the same as it was before. Others have predicted that the virus has only just begun, or that it has receded only to pounce in greater force, or that its economic impacts have not fully been felt yet. When we take a closer look at the many writings, we see that developments in the US, in particular, pretty much dictate international developments because of the ways the state of the “sole superpower,” as it was called until recently, affects everything else.
The US, despite its size and international status, has been currently abridged to the person of its president, Donald Trump — the subject of numerous books that paint some lurid pictures of his administration. The most recent is The Room Where it Happened by Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who speaks of how Trump’s every action has been driven by his plans to get re-elected.
Not that such behaviour is new in US politics. Most US presidents have used foreign policy as a means to bolster their domestic standing and they often asked countries that are beneficiaries of US aid or loans to use them to help out some of their electoral donors. But it appears that Trump went about this in a cruder way. Also, there were times when his requests from US adversaries such as the president of North Korea for the president of China encroached on what US government institutions believed were sensitive national security areas.
At the same time, Bolton may not be the best person to turn to for testimony against the president in light of his own record of racism, fanaticism and eagerness to use military force against countries opposed to the US, and in view of the self-serving way he had refrained from testifying before Congress so that he could reserve his revelations for his memoirs and boost their sales.
We might add that Bolton was not a national security adviser in the manner of Henry Kissinger who was the architect of a philosophical framework for presenting foreign policy choices to heads of state from Richard Nixon to Gerald Ford.
Regardless of the books and memoirs on Trump and the high calibre accusations levelled against him, there is no denying that he has penned US history ever since he announced his intent to run for president in 2015, and his is a story unlike any that of his predecessors from George Washington to Barack Obama.
He came from outside the Republican Party establishment in which candidates build up records through various posts and elected positions. He was a real estate tycoon and outside of that business and some television work, he had no political experience and he had scant knowledge of the US political system and political culture in general.
He certainly founded a political school of his own. Its chief tenet is to capitalise on the resentments of the white American majority who felt harmed by globalisation or who were fed up with the east coast “establishment” and its Pacific counterpart on the western seaboard, in California and Silicon Valley. He is also a master in manipulating white American complexes towards religious and ethnic minorities and their pent up anger towards the US’s traditional allies, be they in Europe, the Middle East of East Asia, because they never “did anything for America” and received the benefits of US protection “without paying a cent in return”.
Many more details will go into the Donald Trump chapter in US history. On the whole, they will testify to the part a president played in undermining many facets of American power, from the US establishment to the universal principles it once championed.
No US institution, from Congress and the security agencies to the electoral process and the digital community has been spared his attacks and attempts to destroy their reputation. More dangerous yet is his strategy of instigating the sharpest ever polarisation in US history with the primary aim of mobilising his unswervingly loyal electoral base. George Bush Sr, the last president who served a single term, had never attempt to use such tactics in order to get a better stab at a second term. In all events, neither Bush Sr or Bush Jr were spared Trump’s sarcasm on numerous occasions.
The only remaining card that Trump held, in his hope to pen his name beneath the heading called “Making America great again”, was economic recovery. But even that had begun to slip from his grip by the end of last year and the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic finished it off. “The Real Economic Catastrophe Hasn’t Hit Yet. Just Wait For August,” predicts the headline of Tom Gara’s 10 June column on Buzzfeed. Gara continues: “The US economy right now is like a jumbo jet that’s in a steady glide after both its engines flamed out. In about six weeks, it will likely crash into the side of a mountain.”
At this stage in its existence, the history of the US will be closely linked with the history of a single individual: its president.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly