The extreme centre, as author Tariq Ali dubbed mainstream neoliberal parties, is convinced that Donald Trump’s European tour confirmed he is unfit to be president. And it’s true that his performance has been characteristically erratic, and occasionally idiotic.
But focusing on the admittedly bizarre Trump day-to-day can easily lead to underestimating how dangerous he is. One of his favourite news programmes, the ultra-conservative Fox & Friends, called his trip to Europe the “world disruption tour” and that’s exactly what it was.
Trump had in his sights precisely the European extreme centre, and more particularly the centre right that currently dominates the European Union (EU).
Given this, it was natural for Trump to focus his fire on German chancellor Angela Merkel. She is the leading political figure in Europe.
His vanity was probably piqued by all the toadies who proclaimed her “the real leader of the free world” after he was elected president in November 2016.
But Germany is a target for strategic reasons as well. Trump thinks that the US has been systematically ripped off by its allies and trading partners for the past few decades.
China is a major offender here, hence the trade war Trump has launched.
But he said on Sunday, “I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade.”
Germany dominates the EU. Not only does it run a huge trade surplus with the US. It also spends only 1.2 percent of national income on defence, way below the target of 2 percent for members of the Nato military alliance.
Trump believes that the international institutions the US has built up—Nato and the World Trade Organisation, for example—have actually worked to America’s disadvantage.
So he’s trying to shake them up—for example by demanding that Nato member states raise their defence spending to 4 percent of national income. Even the US currently only spends 3.1 percent.
It’s here that Trump’s incoherence and vanity get in the way. He claimed that he’d got a deal to raise the target above 2 percent, only to have this denied by other Nato leaders.
The security expert Lawrence Freedman tweeted, “Trumpian diplomacy involves claiming great success with binding deals for which there is no actual record and which his interlocutors dispute.
“Interesting question is whether with deals existing only in his imagination he can be satisfied with imaginary implementation as well.”
But maybe Trump doesn’t care about the actual policy outcomes because he has other fish to fry.
His attacks on Merkel were semi-orchestrated with the far right governments that have taken office in Europe. They are Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Sebastian Kurz in collaboration with the Nazi Freedom Party in Austria and Matteo Salvini in Italy.
Similarly, Trump’s intervention in the Tory factional struggle over the terms of Brexit was intended to bolster Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers in rebellion against May.
As the Financial Times newspaper put it, “The US president is clearly intent on forming a new kind of transatlantic alliance with insurgent political forces.”
Luckily Johnson is probably too lazy and cowardly to take full advantage of Trump’s support.
But Orbán, Kurz, and Salvini are no clowns. They already have Merkel and other leaders of the European extreme centre such as Emmanuel Macron in a headlock.
So Trump is trying to subvert the political institutions of neoliberal capitalism on both sides of the Atlantic by promoting the forces of the far right. This is very dangerous.
In the first place, neither he nor his European allies have a real economic alternative to neoliberalism. Their most potent weapon is anti-migrant racism, and the extreme centre is adapting to their demands.
Secondly, Trump is giving confidence to genuinely fascist forces, as we’ve seen on British streets in recent weeks.
So it’s no surprise that his ex-adviser Steve Bannon has called for Nazi Tommy Robinson’s release. The demonstrations last weekend marked the beginning of a fightback, but we have a tough struggle ahead.