Nil to Hill: Are Anti-Imperialists Right to Risk a Trump Presidency?
Caleb S. Rossiter*
There are certain, rare moments in the history of
American presidential elections when the paradigms of the traditional parties just
don’t adapt to a shift in public opinion on a key value fast enough. For example, in 1856 and 1968 the “lesser of
two evils” argument became unacceptable to a significant number of voters.
In 1856 many voters abandoned
the vaguely anti-slavery Whigs for the new, fiercely anti-slavery Republican
party, splitting the opposition to the pro-slavery Democrats. In 1968, anti-war activists decided to “Dump
the Hump” because Democrat Hubert Humphrey would not endorse withdrawal from
Viet Nam. The short-term result in both
cases was victory for the decidedly greater of two evils. The long-term result, though, was a new or
reformed party based on a principle that eventually brought progress to our
country, and even the world.
The election of 2016 appears
to be shaping up as such a moment for Americans who reject the neo-imperial
role we have played since taking on the mantle of the collapsing European powers
in the aftermath of World War II. That
is because more and more voters are seeing that what the Pentagon calls the
Long War -- America’s permanent war for control of the Muslim world -- has spiraled
out of control since it became the core of our foreign policy after the end of
the Cold War in 1991.
Under the first George
Bush and Bill Clinton the Long War led us to continue our Cold War program of backing
dozens of what Franklin Roosevelt once called “our bastards” -- nasty Middle
Eastern and North African regimes who cooperate with our expeditionary military
forces, spies, and businesses. Then,
when Al-Qaeda brought the war home to us on 9/11, the second George Bush invaded
and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fifteen years later, or three times the length of our victory in World
War II, Barack Obama is still bombing six countries, sometimes in a single day:
Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
Not only has the
permanent war devastated the people of the Middle East and North Africa, but it
has also damaged, rather than strengthened, our security and personal freedom
and that of our European allies. Until
we accept that we must stop enforcing our choice of regimes on other countries,
our daily fare will continue to be terrorism at home, flows of refugees, global
instability and slower economic growth abroad, and the waste of our tax dollars
and the lives and skills of our young adults on unwinnable military missions.
The only solution to
the permanent war is to renounce American exceptionalism and stop backing repressive
regimes from Bahrain to Uganda, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, in return for
their support for our military and covert operations and corporate interests. However, this policy of declaring victory and
bringing our troops and spies home and letting our businesses fend for
themselves on the world stage is one that Hillary Clinton, solidly fixed within
our imperial paradigm, cannot abide. As
a result, many anti-imperialists feel they must say “Nil to Hill,” even though
that risks putting Donald Trump in the White House.
1856 and 1968
The election of 1856
offers a dramatic example of a shift in opinion that overthrew an existing
major party. The refusal by Whig leaders
to reject slavery drove many in their party to leave in 1854 and form a new
party, the Republicans. The pro-slavery Democrats
won the presidency in 1856 because the old Whig vote was split between the American
Party, which ran former Whig president Millard Fillmore, and the Republicans,
who ran anti-slavery explorer John Fremont.
By 1860, though, the Republicans were able to vote in a liberator,
Abraham Lincoln. As a result, American
lurched in the needed direction of offering black Americans at least a chance
at achieving their human rights.
In 1968 anti-war
activists in the Democratic Party refused to support Vice President Hubert
Humphrey, because he endorsed President Lyndon Johnson’s policy of fighting on
in Viet Nam until the nationalists negotiated a settlement that would leave
part of the country under a Western-backed government. Johnson tried to sweeten the pot for Humphrey
by pausing the bombing of North Viet Nam, but that step was, of course, tied to
the failed policy of forcing the nationalists to negotiate something they could
not accept – a divided country.
activists outside the Democratic Party, such as the Mobilization Against the
War and the Students for a Democratic Society, had even more reason to “Dump
the Hump.” They opposed not just the
invasion and slaughter in Viet Nam, but also the neo-imperial role the United
States had played since President Truman made the fateful decision in 1945 --
perhaps one President Roosevelt might have opposed, had he lived -- to take up
the mantle of the epic crime of colonialism from the weakened Europeans. Truman sent the recently-freed French back to
re-enslave Indochina, the Dutch back to re-enslave Indonesia, and the British
back to re-enslave Burma and Malaya.
When these blatant bids
for re-colonization failed, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson funded throughout
Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America a neo-imperial network of
“friendly” dictators allied with the United States and helpful to its military
and commercial projects. They even
backed the last imperial power, Portugal, in its brutal war to retain its three
African colonies, in order to maintain access to Portugal’s NATO air
bases. The claimed reason for maintaining
the American network was to forestall advances by the Soviet Union, but when
that country dissolved in 1991, the network lived on, as it does today.
Attorney General Robert
Kennedy said when asked by a colleague about a crisis in the U.S.-backed South
Vietnamese Army in 1961: “Viet Nam? We’ve
got 20 Viet Nams a day to handle.” Anti-Humphrey protestors chanted “the whole
world’s watching” on live television during the Democratic convention in 1968
as Chicago’s police attacked them, and what many of them wanted the whole world
to see was that the problem was not just one of Bobby’s many wars, but the neo-imperialist
paradigm that required them. To them, to
recall a famous distinction from that era, Viet Nam was not the “mistake” that
Cold War liberals called it, but rather an unavoidable consequence of the
The logic of the anti-Humphrey
effort was obvious: no self-respecting anti-war movement can vote for the
warrior. It may well have led to Nixon’s
election -- although that result was less clear than in 1856, since the 1968 election
was complicated by segregationist Democrat and self-appointed spokesman for the
little man George Wallace, who won the Confederacy’s electoral votes and 12
percent of the popular vote, and harmed both major candidates in different ways
in different states.
The pay-off to “Dump
the Hump” came four years later, when the Democratic Party became an anti-war
party and nominated George McGovern.
While McGovern lost, his affirmation of the Viet Nam Syndrome created a
norm that helped constrain direct military intervention by Ford, Carter, and
Reagan. Hundreds of thousands of civilians
died in Zaire, Somalia, Angola, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Guatemala and a
dozen other U.S.-backed conflicts from 1975 to 1988, but the toll would have been
in the millions had our political calculus permitted the direct combat role we played
in Viet Nam.
There were hints of a
rejection of the imperial paradigm in 2000, when some progressive voters refused
to back Al Gore, despite agreeing that he was clearly the lesser of two evils. These voters objected to his foreign policy
record as a Democratic Leadership Council “Dixie” who had sabotaged efforts to
block the MX missile and end civil wars in Central America, and were part of
the six percent of voters who backed Green Party anti-interventionist Ralph
Nader, and may well have elected George W. Bush.
The left-leaning Nation magazine recognized
Nader’s foreign policy appeal, but asked its readers not to respond to it if
they lived in swing states. The Nation’s
advice was practical, since many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would still be
alive if it had been followed. Al Gore would
certainly have attacked Afghanistan but probably not prosecuted the illogical
war in Iraq.
Clinton, the Unacceptable Imperialist
Now in 2016 the
electorate faces a choice between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump. There are two credible minor party
candidates, the Libertarians’ Gary Johnson, a fiscally conservative and
socially liberal former Republican governor of New Mexico, and the Greens’ Jill
Stein, a retired doctor with an admirable record of fighting toxic emissions (and
a dubious one of hysteria over a non-toxic one, carbon dioxide).
Running mate William Weld, also a thoughtful former
Republican governor, will raise Johnson’s total vote. Stein’s running mate, Ajamu Baraka, is a lively
and trenchant critic of racial and class power , but he will probably reduce
her total vote with his bizarre conspiracy theories. No matter: neither minor party can win, or
even become power brokers for their policies, because they will not be able to
take electoral votes in any state and throw the election into the House of
By refusing to back
Clinton, anti-imperialists will be responsible for electing Trump. On foreign policy, there is probably little added
danger of doing so, even in the short term.
Trump is an unknown, an unguided missile with little understanding,
interest, or theme in international affairs.
Clinton, though, is a proven imperialist with a dangerous, LBJ-style
political bent for showing that her party can be as tough as Republicans. She is a guarantee that the Long War will
continue, leaving us trapped in a cycle of military support for repressive
regimes that makes us the target for the terrorism of their radical Islamist
opponents, leading to even more war and additional reaction from the Caliphate.
On a few important
domestic policies, such as judicial choices and affirmative action, the potential
domestic consequences of a Trump presidency to many Americans, particularly
poor people and people of color, horrify most anti-imperialists. That, though, may be the price of progress, as
it was in 1856 and 1968.
big issue requires temporary losses on the smaller ones, and the biggest issue
of all is not what America can do for its own people, but what it is doing to
people in other countries as the enforcer of a network of repression and war (Pace, JFK’s speechwriters). America’s major parties need to adjust at
some point to the reality that a sizeable share of the electorate simply won’t support
empire. 2016 may prove to be that time.
* Former congressional staffer Caleb S. Rossiter is
the director of the American Exceptionalism Media Project and the author of “The
Chimes of Freedom Flashing: A Personal History of the Viet Nam Anti-War
Movement and the 1960’s” (1996) and “The Turkey and the Eagle: The Struggle for
America’s Global Role” (2011).