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Iraq made Donald Trump inevitable

The populist backlash was a reaction to elite-driven failures in the Middle East.

By Sohrab Ahmari

In 1995 the political theorist Benjamin Barber predicted that the early 21st century would be defined by an epic struggle between capitalist globalism, what he called “McWorld”, and tribal or identitarian reaction, designated by the shorthand “Jihad” (though he didn’t just mean Islamist reaction). Subsequent events vindicated his book, Jihad vs, McWorld. A decade later, Western troops fighting jihadists in Iraq would grab Big Macs from a famous McDonald’s in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

What Barber couldn’t have foreseen was the scale of the backlash engendered by the Bush administration in the United States, in the heart of McWorld. The Iraqi misadventure, begun 20 years ago this week (19 March), kindled a domestic revolt among working- and middle-class Americans, people who were expected to find contentment in McWorld’s kaleidoscope of cheap consumer goods and digital conveniences – but who instead took notice of their dispossession.

In the two decades since the Iraq War a profound alienation has grown between the American public and their ruling class, between the people whose sons and daughters were dispatched to fight in Iraq and those who dispatched them. Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 was the most consequential expression of this rift. His backers bucked nearly all elements of national power to cast a ballot, in effect, against McWorld.

It’s easy to forget that the former reality TV star set himself in opposition not to “the left”, but the bipartisan neoliberal consensus. The uniparty of the Clintons and the Bushes had plunged the nation into costly, pointless conflicts abroad; at home they gutted the most important elements of the postwar economic consensus: strong private-economy unions and an industrial policy geared toward manufacturing and mass prosperity.

These policy choices were made in pursuit of a borderless world linked by capillary supply chains and presided over by a post-national hegemon, the United States. The neoliberals, assisted by their hawkish neoconservative adjuncts, set out to terraform the earth’s “uneven” political-economic geography, demolishing sources of resistance to McWorld. (Perhaps the most classical statement of this vision came in 2013, when in remarks to a group of Brazilian bankers that were later leaked, Hillary Clinton spoke of her dream: “a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders”.)

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[See also: What Trump’s indictment means for Ron DeSantis]

In the United States, that meant disempowering labour in a low-wage, service-oriented economy, brought about through a combination of offshored manufacturing, high immigration, financialisation, and straight-up anti-union warfare. In places like Iraq, it often meant the same thing. Soon after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority moved to enshrine identical arrangements in Iraq’s new legal regime, prompting the Economist to enthuse at the time that the new Iraq would be a “capitalist’s dream”. As scholars such as Wendy Brown remind us, the coalition also effectively destroyed Iraq’s millennia-old tradition of indigenous agriculture by addicting farmers to Monsanto products, the literal seed of McWorld.

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Trump railed against these developments. He shocked the right’s foreign-policy establishment – including me, then a leader writer for the Wall Street Journal’s hawkish comment pages in London – by forthrightly voicing a hitherto forbidden truth: that the post-9/11 wars had been a “big, fat mistake”, as he put it in a Republican primary debate in South Carolina. He also attacked free trade and vowed to protect entitlements, both in defiance of his party’s orthodoxy. He thumped the Republican establishment and clinched first his party’s nomination and then the presidency.

Did this Trumpian uprising amount to “Jihad”, as Barber defined it? The neoliberal uniparty certainly thought so. Rather than admit any failings on its own part, not least the disaster in Iraq, the establishment framed Trumpism and cognate populist movements across the Atlantic as expressions of pure atavism and bigotry, supposedly fomented by Vladimir Putin and his all-powerful spam bots. Elites then moved to treat these movements not as a form of democratic political contestation but as a law-enforcement problem, to be solved using the business end of the justice system. After the riot by Trump supporters at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 the political rebels got much the same treatment meted out to Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

In reality, Trumpism was a rational reaction to catastrophes hatched by the elite. The Iraq War especially demonstrated the misrule against which the Trumpians justifiably revolted. The “big, fat mistake” distracted Americans from growing inequality and the deterioration of the domestic core. The conduct of the war itself – fought on an austerity model – reflected this internal rot: only think of the scandal of wounded warriors struggling, and failing, to receive proper care at Bush administration-run veterans’ clinics.

But no, Trumpism wasn’t a “Jihad”. Going back to the Jeffersonian era, American populism has represented the third element of Barber’s analysis, the one that didn’t make it into his book’s seductive title: democracy. Specifically, economic democracy – the yearning to bring market forces and a market-serving state apparatus under broader popular control.

Barber insisted that McWorld and Jihad are both deplorable, because they are anti-democratic. McWorld’s central operation is depoliticisation. It puts fundamentally political issues into the supposedly apolitical hands of market elites, experts and judges. In this way, McWorld carries out class warfare, while rendering social class and conflict as such publicly illegible. Working people can’t contest the wage-depressing effects of open borders, for example, because the immigration issue implicates human rights and must be left to the courts.

But “Jihad” (again, not limited to Islamism) is no better. It, too, ultimately eschews politics, rightly understood, in favour of cultural resentment – race particularism, pinched forms of ethno-nationalism, and so on – and even escapism. Plus, it often serves as a boon to McWorld, Barber noted, which is happy to turn the assertion of identity and indigeneity into one more colourful commodity without fundamentally altering the balance of power between the asset-rich and asset-less or lopsided distributions of income. This is precisely the direction today’s right-populism is increasingly taking.

For now, it seems McWorld has crushed Trumpian democracy. After the ignominious end to the Afghan and Iraq conflicts with the US withdrawals in 2021, the uniparty is fully back in the saddle, this time gearing up for “democracy wars” against Russia and China. Trumpian populism has been routed, not least owing to Trump’s own erratic personality, and the aversion to use of government power and administration that is the Achilles heel of American populism.

One shudders to imagine what form opposition to McWorld will next take.

Read more:

The A-Z of the Iraq War

After Iraq: The great unravelling

The long shadow of the Iraq War