Imperialist Robert Kagan Disavows the Bureaucracy of Immense American Presidency He Championed

The chattering class is in love with this Robert Kagan op-ed warning of Donald Trump bringing fascism,

not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

I suppose I’m unsurprised that Beltway insiders are so gleeful that this Hillary-endorsing Neocon has turned on Republicans in such a fashion. Or, perhaps more importantly, that they’re so thrilled someone with such a soapbox has written a warning of impending fascism that so neatly disavows any responsibility — for Kagan himself, and by association, for other insiders.

But there are a couple of real problems with Kagan’s screed.

First, Kagan would like you to believe that Trump’s success has nothing to do with policy or ideology or the Republican party except insofar as the party “incubated” Trump.

But of course the entire Trump phenomenon has nothing to do with policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Republican Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular threat to our democracy. Trump has transcended the party that produced him.

Kagan gets Trump’s relationship with the Republican party exactly reversed. The party did not in any way incubate Trump. 80’s style greed and cable TV incubated Trump, if anything. What the Republican party has long incubated is racism. Trump just capitalized on that and pushed it just … a … bit … further than Republican dogwhistles traditionally go, in a year in which the GOP had lost a great deal of its credibility.

Which is why Kagan is also wrong in claiming that Trump isn’t about policy or ideology. I admit that Trump has always shown great deal of ideological flexibility, both before and during this run. But he has been consistent on two points: that racism, but also protectionism. There are a lot of reasons those two ideological keystones have appealed this year, but one has to do with the failures of globalization and the related American hegemonic project it assumes. That’s ideology and policy, both Trump’s, but also DC’s, including Kagan’s.

Kagan goes on to deal with these two issues.

We’re supposed to believe that Trump’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger. His public discourse consists of attacking or ridiculing a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as threats or as objects of derision. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with foreigners and people of nonwhite complexion. He will deport them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.

Note the assumption that Trump’s protectionism is not an economic remedy but some unstated alternative is? Note Kagan’s treatment of racism, an ideology, as fear divorced from that ideology of white American exceptionalism?

Fear!! Kagan wants to boil Trump’s popularity down to fear! A guy who has had a central role in ginning up serial American aggressive wars is offended that someone wields fear to achieve political power!!! And having done that, this warmonger says the ability to gin up fear is precisely what our Founders — the men who set up three competing branches of government, each jealously guarding its power — were concerned about.

Which brings me to the Kagan argument that most baffles me. After bewailing Republican politicians’ refusal to stand up to Trump’s demagoguery, Kagan then argues (though I’m not sure he even realizes he’s making this argument) that Article I and Article III (the latter of which goes entirely unmentioned in this op-ed) will be powerless to stop Trump and his “legions” once he becomes president.

What these people do not or will not see is that, once in power, Trump will owe them and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted only to him. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, less than 5 percent of eligible voters have voted for Trump. But if he wins the election, his legions will comprise a majority of the nation. Imagine the power he would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being the leader of a mass following, he would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose him then? Certainly not a Republican Party that laid down before him even when he was comparatively weak. And is a man like Trump, with infinitely greater power in his hands, likely to become more humble, more judicious, more generous, less vengeful than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does vast power un-corrupt?

Never mind that Kagan describes general election numbers that simply don’t exist in our democracy. What he’s really complaining about is that a President — one he happens to distrust and dislike — would have “the immense powers of the American presidency at his command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military.”  Of course, Kagan focuses not on the government as a whole, but on the Deep State and the Justice Department that has increasingly become an integral part of it.

The guy who, for years, championed the unfettered exercise of the Deep State in the hands of people like Dick Cheney is now troubled about what would happen if Donald Trump got the same powers Dick Cheney had. And for what it’s worth, while I don’t buy Michael Hayden’s claim the CIA would resist a President Trump’s order to torture (Hayden’s successors at NSA and CIA will likely do just what Hayden himself did, capitulate to unconstitutional demands), I also know that neither Trump nor anyone in his immediate orbit has the kind of bureaucratic mastery of the Deep State that Dick Cheney had.

One more really important point: the Deep State — those tools Kagan is horrified Trump might soon wield — got so powerful, creating the danger that a demagogue like Trump might tap into them fully formed, largely in the service of an imperial project significantly sold by Robert Kagan. Kagan has claimed to be selling “Democracy™” around the world, but all along that project has rotted our own democracy here at home.

Kagan (and his fellow imperialists) did that. Not Trump. Trump would just take advantage of the bureaucratic tools Kagan’s propaganda has served to justify.

I’m not denying Donald Trump is a huge threat to American democracy (though I happen to think Hillary’s foreign policy will come with great risks and costs as well). I’m saying that Robert Kagan is not the one to make this argument — at least not without a whole lot of soul searching and commitment to change the underlying empowerment of “the immense powers of the American presidency.”

But Kagan doesn’t want that. Rather, he just wants to hand those powers, still unchecked, to Hillary Clinton.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

13 replies
  1. martin says:

    quote”And for what it’s worth, while I don’t buy Michael Hayden’s claim the CIA would resist a President Trump’s order to torture (Hayden’s successors at NSA and CIA will likely do just what Hayden himself did, capitulate to unconstitutional demands), I also know that neither Trump nor anyone in his immediate orbit has the kind of bureaucratic mastery of the Deep State that Dick Cheney had.”quote

    Ha! It doesn’t matter. Bush hired that scum sucking Hayden BECAUSE he would do what ever Bush wanted. I mean, he gave Bush a Stellerwind blowjob. And even if Hayden et al refused to knuckle under to another scumbag like Trump, Trump would fire them and find someone else that WILL give him an unconstitutional blowjob. If anything, there’s an unlimited supply of dick sucking power wielding wannabe’s in WDC who would jump at the chance to “capitulate to unconstitutional demands”, as long as they got to be part of the inside circle of POTUS dick suckers.

    • Matt Ray says:

      Your twitter plugin in top right is throwing up an error message:
      It seems that widget parameters haven’t been configured properly. Please make sure that you are using a valid twitter username or query, and that you have inserted the correct authentication keys. Detailed instructions are written on the widget settings page.

  2. person1597 says:

    Kagen’s projections are all about… “not incidentally, save our political skins”. Own the adwords. Spamnate, rinse and repeat. Yeah, Clinton/Neuland, that’s the Unity ticket we’ve all been waiting for!!!

    • bevin says:

      Maybe Nuland as NS advisor morphing into Secretary of State when the first lat of Cabinet appointments- bought and paid for by the primary victories delivered in the South, Arizona, Massachusetts, Westchester County and Brooklyn. The VP slot is one the bookies should be offering odds on.

  3. Proud Trump Supporter says:

    Hard to see how Trump represents a threat to American democracy at this point. If anything, he’s reinvigorated it. He’s given tens of millions of Republicans a real choice by dispatching the establishment puppets. You can hate him and us, but this election has been far more open than any in recent history.

    Mr. Robert Kagan is also trying to protect Mrs. Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland, a.k.a. Mrs. Deep State Herself. No one in the Deep State wants to have to explain their involvement in the Ukraine, Syria, Libya, etc. Trump is the only serious candidate in recent memory that hasn’t been vetted by them

  4. bloopie2 says:

    Re your tweet “Really nice for the billionaires to toss <$1M back to DOD. Big of them. Yuge.” Are you saying that the NFL should not have done that? (Sorry, not on Twitter, can't respond that way.)

  5. GKJames says:

    Is Trump a threat to, or apotheosis of, democracy? To date, he’s been offering voters what they want to hear. The cash registers of the infotainment complex are bulging as a result. What Kagan doesn’t get is that it’s the views of guys like him — part of that well-heeled “Washington elite” — which all the more convince people that Trump’s the way to go, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why that’s so. But Kagan need not worry. Reports of the Trump/Kissing mutual fellatio fest suggest that the tune of empire won’t fade anytime soon.

    • martin says:

      quote”What Kagan doesn’t get is that it’s the views of guys like him — part of that well-heeled “Washington elite” — which all the more convince people that Trump’s the way to go, even if they can’t put their finger on exactly why that’s so.”unquote

      Indeed. Kagan is so far removed from the ghosts of Tom Joad that he couldn’t connect if a direct 2 gauge wire were soldered between him and them.

  6. CapnP says:

    The fascism fears are hilarious. A President Trump will either make compromise with the Deep State and do nothing more than nudge us slightly back towards the policies of the Eisenhower/Nixon administrations, or, less likely, veer so far away from the Deep State’s preferences that he will be consistently stonewalled and undermined. In order to pull off the authoritarian takeover, you have to actually have a cabal of advisors and deep institutional knowledge. Cheney kinda did it, Hillary could do it, Trump- not a chance.
    I’m not confident Trump will be a good or even ok president, but I’m QUITE sure that there’s little to be concerned about.

  7. Ian says:

    EMPTYWHEEL(Marcy) said:

    First, Kagan would like you to believe that Trump’s success has nothing to do with policy or ideology or the Republican party except insofar as the party “incubated” Trump.

    I SAY:
    Well, it is not just Marcy that says Mr Kagan “got it wrong”, but the prediction that an openly racist/xenophobic “senior political figure” would arise from the US Republican Party-historically since the 1890’s the “broad tent” of American politics that includes much of the USA’s “Business World” into its “instinctive voting base”— was actually predicted with great authority –and warned about—- in the spring of 2006.
    The clearest and the most perceptive warning came from the news columns and editorials of the London, England Financial newspaper the “FINANCIAL TIMES” with London, England being the adopted home of EDMUND BURKE (1729-1797) who explained for the first time, the benefits to “democracy” & the voting electorate of a formally organized political party.
    During Q1 2006 two( 2) London, England corporations one calling itself Dubai Ports plc,( aka DP Ports) the other calling itself the Ports & Ferries Division of the P&O(Peninsular & Orient Steamship Company Ltd/plc) tried to merge their operations in 42 countries. The companies’ Chief Operating Officer for many years was [native born US citizen] Ted Bilkey, an iconic figure in the USA’s maritime industries, it seems.
    While the [Republican] administration of the day had already approved the [legally a] takeover of the incumbent owner by the purchaser Dubai Ports once both Democratic Party politicians[with HRC, then Senator Clinton, very much to the fore,] & many Republican Party politicians had voiced considerable anguish that “Aaaaaaarabs” would be allowed to own [though NOT operate] a maritime container terminal upon American soil—the administration reversed itself and denied the formal approval for the two merged British companies to own any facilities in the USA.
    Only two[2] countries politicians noisily complained about the merger/purchase—members of the US Republican party facing the Nov 2006 elections with GW Bush at the White House—and members of the BJP [the Hindu fundamentalist party in India].Eventually DP Ports plc used a US citizen owned & controlled vehicle[a ownership trust] to gain access to the 5 US ports facilities with the USCG continuing to control “Port Security” and US citizens continue to manage all the companies facilities in this country. Eventually DP Ports did an “IPO” on the London Stock Exchange with about 40% of its shareholding included in the “free float” that any US citizen can purchase.
    EXTRACT from the Opinion : “Racism is behind DP World port furore” ……………reads thus:
    “ The causes of the furore are actually quite simple, and ugly. “Port “management” sounds like something important, especially in the post-September 11 world, and many think it cannot be left to “wogs” – a reaction that has been encouraged by shameless politicians quick to recognise a chance for cheap demagoguery. The irony here is that in many respects the Bush administration is reaping what it sowed, having previously played politics with homeland security and the war on terrorism, having blurred distinctions in the Muslim world by conflating the unrelated struggles against al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and having squandered its credibility and authority by its incompetent handling of the Iraq occupation and Hurricane Katrina”……………….
    After the Nov 2006 House of Representative elections results, the USA’s Business World felt it had no access to “the nations pro-Business party, to a “ pro-Main St” party as everyone in the US House, at least, seemed to be either a member of the “Greater Israel Settler Movement” faction or a “pro-National Security State” individual. The old “Libertarian” faction became a fraction of what it once was.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Fear has been exploited by politicians and bureaucrats since Thermopylae. The twentieth century was dominated by it, as we are today. Fear, like addictive drugs, loses its potency and one has to replace another. Racism has been more persistent than almost nay other. Anticommunism, for example, overran its course, except in the most randian, neoliberal circles. Terrorism replaced it. It will soon be replaced by something else. Mr. Trump is an exceptional predator and opportunist. Whatever he campaigns on will only incidentally relate to how he would govern. He fits right in with the behavior of today’s dominant political parties.

  9. Evangelista says:


    Trump’s verbal assaults against Muslims and Mexicans is ‘anger-direction’ and ‘scapegoating’ (where it includes the innocent). It is not “Racism”. The parties referenced could be any definable group appearing to be attacking or assaulting (aggressing against) the group the remarks are directed to. Truckers, for example, or Republicans, or NeoCons, or Democrats, or Intellectuals, or Morons, or etc., even dogs loose in parks. Those of the group the remarks are directed to recognize the difference (some are Mexican or Muslim or whatever) and react with contempt to the belling-cries of what they perceive exaggerators, panicking hysterics etc. and reject them (even if they are less than high-school educated, as George Washington and Andrew Jackson both were).

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