Skip to main content

The Fate of The Protective Father: The First Year of the Trump Regime

The question posed by the Vietnam War experience remains: how to navigate a world in which the US is no longer the pre-eminent power. Trump offers an unequivocal, aggressive, national chauvinist response.

Last January, before Trump’s inauguration, I wrote an article tracing some of the origins of the Trump movement to America’s incapacity to deal forthrightly with the meaning and legacies of the war in Vietnam. (See Why It Still Matters: The American War in Vietnam in the Age of Trump[1]  The experience of the last year offers an opportunity to examine how the themes represented in that piece have been elaborated along with the contradictions in Trumpism that have been exposed.   The question posed by the Vietnam War experience remains: how to navigate a world in which the US is no longer the pre-eminent power. Trump offers an unequivocal, aggressive, national chauvinist response.

Last year’s article explored how defeat in Vietnam exposed vulnerabilities in American culture that were exploited by multiple forces—especially, but not exclusively, by those on the right–to overcome the trauma of loss represented by that war. As I noted, Trump is prone to boast: “We don’t win anymore. As a country, we don’t win.”  “We don’t want to use our military, honestly. We don’t want to use our military. But we’re being scoffed at right now and we never fight to win.” “It will change. We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me.”[2]

Trump successfully portrayed himself as a strong father figure who would restore US’s winning ways and protect Americans from presumed threats posed by immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, feminists, environmentalists, intellectuals and scientists among others. He was to be America’s white, male warrior savior. For Vice-President Mike Pence, Trump “embodies American strength, and I know that he will provide that kind of broad-shouldered American strength on the global stage as well.” [3] (Should he be permitted to dine alone with Trump?[4])

America First

Trump’s terrifying inaugural address brought new attention to his “America First” rhetoric. This was the slogan of the pre-WWII Nazi-sympathizing America First Committee. He has repeatedly called America First the core of his overall policy, enunciated most recently in the December 18 release of his “national security strategy”.[5]   America First assumes that the US has been played for a patsy by the rest of the world; and the ‘globalist’ establishment (both Democratic and Republican) has been, if not the cause, an active enabler, of this con game which has victimized the American worker and diminished American sway around the world. Posing the US as the victim of globalization reprises the post-Vietnam war reframing of Americans as its primary victim. So Americans must not be deluded by PC notions of diversity but instead must call out the transgressors and take necessary measures against them. Trump was not an isolationist as some supposed, but rather an America First interventionist.

In late November, as if to highlight the connection of ‘First’ slogans to its questionable origins, Trump re-tweeted 3 videos from the fascist Britain First group, which earned him international (if little domestic) condemnation from even the likes of Conservative Theresa May.[6]

The January 21, 2017 Women’s March of millions around the world offered an immediate riposte to Trump’s ‘America First’ broad shoulders: “People of all backgrounds–women and men and gender nonconforming people, young and old, of diverse faiths, differently abled, immigrants and indigenous–came together, 5 million strong, on all seven continents of the world… answering a call to show up and be counted as those who believe in a world that is equitable, tolerant, just and safe for all, one in which the human rights and dignity of each person is protected and our planet is safe from destruction.”[7] The year ended with an ongoing “Me Too” movement, which deepened the critique of patriarchal power and revived memories of Trump’s misogynistic assaults. The Alabama senatorial race exposed the shallowness of patriarchal claims to protect women when Roy Moore was credibly accused of assault on women as young as 14. The patriarchal order, orchestrated by Steve Bannon with Trump’s crucial support, rallied in support of a sexual predator (who had been banned from a Gadsden, Alabama mall[8], not by the ‘fake news’ media, but by native Alabamans).

America First takes for granted who constitutes real Americans. For Trump, it excludes immigrants and people of color and presumes a submissive role for women. It scorns intellectuals and those with divergent political views. It idealizes what last year’s article referred to as “1950s, the Garden of Eden of American political sentimentality,” a period before all those ‘un-Americans’ made such a fuss about Jim Crow, war, and patriarchy.

To follow through on his campaign promises, Trump’s first act was the so-called Muslim ban[9]. The reaction was instantaneous and broad-based. Thousands flocked to airports all around the country in protest, an unprecedented act of citizens in support of non-citizens.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Trump’s unwillingness to forthrightly condemn the August 12 white nationalist torch-lit ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia reopened the conversation about what constitutes American-ness. Trump equivocated: “I think there is blame on both sides.” “But not all those people were Neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all those people were white supremacists. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue Robert E. Lee.” He also piled on with: “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. So this week it’s Robert E. Lee, I notice Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to wonder, where does it stop?”[10]   In September Alabama Senatorial candidate Roy Moore asserted: “I think it was great at the time when families were united. Even though we had slavery, they cared for one another. … Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”[11] Moore was recapitulating the thoughts of his theological ancestor, R. J. Rushdoony, a Christian Reconstructionist–an ultra-right Christian tendency.[12] Trump’s and Moore’s remarks were vilified by the national media and played a role in Moore’s subsequent defeat.

Trump’s Global Policy

If a lesson of the Vietnam War was the limits of military solutions to perceived political challenges, Trump has resolutely moved in the opposite direction. His dismantling of the State Department, defunding of the UN, and disparagement of diplomacy expose a purely military mindset. For him, the only true strength is the projection of violence; the rest is for the wimps, not the strong father protector. His gut militarism was exemplified in his April moves in Syria when the 59 cruise missiles were fired on the Shurayat air strip in Idlib province and Afghanistan in response to an alleged Sarin gas attack and then the dropping of the Mother Of All Bombs (non-nuclear MOAB) on Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan on presumed IS tunnels. Trump allowed that these decisions were left up to generals in the field. In June, the Pentagon announced an increase in ground troops for Afghanistan[13] and in December, during an unannounced visit to Afghanistan, Pence promised “to see this through.”[14]

Whether greater reliance on military means increases anyone’s felt security was further called into question by Trump’s nuclear saber rattling. Last year’s article noted Trump’s tweet of December 2016 that the US “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”[15] The confrontation with North Korea has heightened fears of Trump’s nuclear bravado.[16] What does he mean when he says that any threats from North Korea against the United States, “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen?” Does he grasp the enormity of nuclear war, the unlikelihood of preemptively destroying North Korea’s entire nuclear arsenal, the immediate danger to South Korea and Japan, not to mention the rest of the world? Trump has wondered why the US makes nuclear weapons if they are not intended to be used and has deplored the downward spiral in the nuclear arsenal, apparently triggering Secretary of State Tillerson’s calling him a ‘moron’.

There was a global response to Trump’s saber rattling as Medea Benjamin has pointed out:

On July 7, 122 of the world’s nations showed their rejection of nuclear weapons by adopting an historic Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. The treaty, opposed by all nine nuclear states, is now open for signatures and the ban will come into effect 90 days after being ratified by 50 states. The organization that promoted this ban is The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an alliance of 450 nongovernmental organizations in about 100 countries. It was thrilling to learn that ICAN was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The treaty and the Peace Prize are indications that despite the intransigence of the nuclear-armed states, the global community is determined to ban nuclear weapons.[17]

Trump has stated his admiration for Nixon’s “madman theory”[18] in which according to Nixon’s close adviser H.R. Haldeman meant that “Nixon wanted the North Vietnamese, with whom the United States was negotiating a peace agreement, to feel a sense of apprehension about what the president might do if pushed to the brink”; i.e. act so crazy that your opponents will give in to your demands out of fear of your irrationality. It’s worth noting that the strategy failed with Nixon’s Vietnamese opponents and projected an unstable image to rest of the world, as well as Americans. The line between posing as and being a madman can get dangerously blurry.

As reported by Nick Turse[19], Trump also escalated Obama’s already expansive use of unaccountable:

U.S. Special Operations forces, including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets, deployed to 149 countries around the world.  That’s about 75% of the nations on the planet and represents a jump from the 138 countries that saw such deployments in 2016 under the Obama administration… According to Micah Zenko, a national security expert and Whitehead Senior Fellow at the think tank Chatham House, those forces conducted five times as many lethal counterterrorism missions in such non-battlefield countries in the Trump administration’s first six months in office as they did during Obama’s final six months.

[General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) told Congress:] Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America — essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found.

In Africa, U.S. Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across the continent.  The kerfuffle over Trump’s condolence call to the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson who was killed in Niger not only exposed Trump’s typical insensitivity, but also provoked some public discussion of these largely unknown US involvements.[20] “While the retreat from large ‘boots on the ground’ wars like the Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq is welcome,” said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, “the proliferation of Special Operations forces is a dangerous alternative, given the prospects of getting the United States further embroiled in complex overseas conflicts.”

Last year’s article speculated that “in a power struggle it remains to be seen whether the long-standing national security state can bring him to heel or will be transformed into his personal fiefdom.” A third possibility was raised this December in a report from The Intercept[21]:

The Trump administration is weighing plans to create a global network of private spies who would report directly to the White House and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. According to the investigation, the proposal was developed by Erik Prince, founder of the now-defunct private mercenary firm Blackwater, and Oliver North, a Marine lieutenant colonel who oversaw the Reagan administration’s covert operation to divert money from secret arms sales to Iran to right-wing death squads in Nicaragua, a scheme now known as the Iran-Contra scandal…. Prince and North have pitched the private network of spies as a way for the White House to counter members of the intelligence community, or the so-called deep state, who Trump claims are subverting his presidency.

The White House is considering another proposal to create a new global kidnapping and rendition program. Prince may have foreshadowed his new proposal in a 2016 interview on former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s radio program, in which Prince proposed reviving a version of the CIA’s Vietnam War assassination scheme, known as the Phoenix Program.

Erik Prince: “Two: a Phoenix-like program. OK, remember the Phoenix Program was a root canal done to the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. It was a kill—”

Stephen Bannon: “You mean, this is the Phoenix Program—this is the Phoenix—hang on. This is the Phoenix Program in Vietnam.”

Erik Prince: “It was a vicious, but very effective, kill-capture program in Vietnam that destroyed the Viet Cong as a military force. That’s what needs to be done to the funders of Islamic terror, and that would even the wealthy radical Islamist billionaires funding it from the Middle East, and any of the other illicit activities therein.”

As a reminder, well over 20,000 Vietnamese civilians were assassinated in the CIA-sponsored Phoenix Program. Earlier in the year Trump had solicited advice from Prince for advice on fighting the Afghanistan at the behest of Stephen K. Bannon and Jared Kushner. He proposed relying on contractors instead of American troops.[22]

Whatever policy is ultimately chosen, the outcome will be an ever-widening US global intervention by secret operatives unleashed by an autocratic ruler. To what end? Last year’s article forecast: “but it is clear that something new is afoot in the world; alliances breaking down and shifting, the European Union dividing, strongmen in power –from Putin to Netanyahu to Erdogan (Turkey) to Duterte (Philippines) to Orban (Hungary) and whoever is next in France and possibly Germany—with the potential of a global authoritarian alliance.” Fortunately Le Pen (supported by Trump[23]) lost in France, but Trump has flirted with many of the others. The resulting ham-handed policy is not without contradictions. Trump’s burgeoning anti-Iran alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia—buttressed by the ‘bromance’ between Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman–has him up against Putin; the projected move of the US embassy to Jerusalem is not only opposed by Palestinians, but also Europeans, Saudis, Russians and Turks. US’s continual floundering in Syria has alienated Erdogan, as well as Putin.

Trump’s blundering has put the world on edge with the looming danger of expanding war, especially with North Korea or Iran. The relative weakness of antiwar activity and the absence of an effective antiwar movement inside the US shows that the right’s presumed lessons from the Vietnam War have more cachet than any lessons the left might have garnered. As I have advocated elsewhere, it is high time to create a new antiwar movement of national scope and international reach.[24]

Burns & Novick’s The Vietnam War

In September, PBS brought us Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War, their presumed antidote to the divisiveness of the Trump era:

The troubles that trouble us today–alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions; conflicts over ethnicity and class; lack of accountability in powerful institutions–so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War…if, with open minds and open hearts, we can consider this complex event from many perspectives and recognize more than one truth, perhaps we can stop fighting over how the war should be remembered and focus instead on what it can teach us about courage, patriotism, resilience, forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.[25]

Predictably their grandiose ambition for national reconciliation failed, but their documentary did help bring the war back into current consciousness. While effectively conveying the horrors of war, it ended up reinforcing a core Trumpian idea: that American military valor has been betrayed by Washington bureaucrats. While, importantly, Vietnamese voices are included, the emotional core of the documentary is the venality of the political establishment who heedlessly put American soldiers in danger; the military establishment whose ineffective strategy took them for granted; and the callous antiwar movement who disdained them as ‘baby killers’. The destruction of Vietnamese land and life becomes something of an afterthought. Even when Burns and Novick admit at one point that “after thirty years of war, much of Vietnam lay in ruins. Three million people were thought to have died, north and south,” the passive construction deflects responsibility from the Americans for the vast majority of the destruction.

Burns and Novick also sanitize American motives by initially claiming that the war “was begun in good faith by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and Cold War miscalculation.”  The Cold War framing is exculpatory of US motives, as Christian Appy has explained:

The historical framing of the subject as a Cold War struggle in which the United States, acting on behalf of the “Free World,” intervened in a civil war to contain the spread of communism.

While that lens helps us understand the official American justification for war, it does not adequately explain the war itself, the Vietnamese experience, or the reason for U.S. defeat (a word the film’s narration avoids, preferring “failure” or “tragedy” instead). In the eyes of the Vietnamese victors—as for hundreds of millions of people around the world who sought to free themselves from colonial domination in the aftermath of World War II—the United States was not defending freedom and self-determination in Southeast Asia, but was waging an imperialist war of counterrevolution. The communist-led forces in North and South Vietnam did not think they were engaging in a civil war, but in a war of national liberation to achieve reunification and independence.

The key symbolic map did not feature a red tide of communism spreading over Asia and Africa, but showed instead all the new nations recently liberated from colonial rule: India, Kenya, Senegal, Algeria, Ghana, and dozens of others. For them, the Americans were simply a new version of the old colonialists, or neocolonialists, who would seek to impose their authority by proxy.[26]

For Burns and Novick, the enemy remains nefarious and the Americans somehow retaining some innocence; the valiant soldier the enduring symbol of American idealism and pride.

In a world teeming with armed conflict, Burns and Novick’s valorization of the American warrior is too much in synch with the current sacralization of the US military. We have an executive branch teeming with military men, sports and culture permeated with military imagery, and a delimited political conversation where the White House press secretary blandly asserts “if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.’[27]   One of the deepest flaws of the documentary is how, rather than pushing back against this militaristic idolatry, B/N add their own spin to the adoration of the military.[28]

The Religious Right

Last year’s article paid too little attention to the role of the religious right in contributing to the rise of Trump, perhaps because Trump personally hardly fit the mold of a conservative Christian. As one Trump supporter put it to a friend, “God chooses strange vehicles.” Yet his choice of Mike Pence as running mate exposed Trump’s debt to the right wing evangelical movement. At one point, pro-choice and agnostic on gay rights—core tenets of the Christian Right along with Christian Zionism—and no regular churchgoer, Trump shamelessly pandered to a group which constituted a majority of Republican primary voters who came around to Trump in a Faustian bargain.

The ‘60s movements for social change had changed the social and cultural climate in ways threatening to right wing evangelicals. Since the late 1970s, leaders such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others abandoned the traditional fundamentalist disdain for the political realm. They opposed what they saw as the corruption of American culture by ‘secular humanists’, claiming that America represented the last great Christian hope for Western civilization. In the apocalyptic struggle, the fundamentalist evangelicals would not shy away from armed conflict in defense of their God-given values. Right-wing Christian Zionism and Islamaphobia also mesh with and reinforce Trump’s racist rhetoric. The sense that the “nation had been stolen from them”[29] eventually drove them into the arms of the Tea Party and then into Trump’s embrace.

Embracing Trump has revealed a dramatic shift in the professed beliefs of many conservative evangelicals.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of the shift in white-evangelical political ethics is the way in which white evangelicals have evaluated the personal character of public officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the election, PRRI [Public Religion Research Institute] asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. Back in 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand’s insistence on the importance of personal character, only 30% of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But this year, 72% of white evangelicals now say they believe a candidate can build a kind of moral wall between his private and public life. In a shocking reversal, white evangelicals have gone from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.

… The key to understanding this reversal is grasping the sense of crisis felt by white evangelical Protestants today. While white evangelicals have always been prone to apocalyptic thinking, their current concerns about the waning power of their cultural world is well-founded. As I {Robert P. Jones} document in my recent book, The End of White Christian America, this is the first presidential election in which white Christians find themselves clearly in the demographic minority: 43% today, down from 54% in 2008 and right at the tipping point in 2012. It’s also the first election in which white evangelicals find themselves in the clear minority on one of their signature issues: opposition to same-sex marriage. In 2008, only 40% of the country supported same-sex marriage, and the country had just crossed into clear majority support in 2012. Today same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states and roughly 6 in 10 Americans support it. The moral majority they are no longer.

Amid this identity crisis, fears about cultural change and nostalgia for a lost era — bound together with the ties of partisan identity — combined to overwhelm the once confident logic of moral values. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, an early and consistent critic of Trump, put it starkly. White evangelicals have, he argued, simply adopted “a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.”[30]

The influence of the Christian Right is especially evident in Trump’s double-barreled undermining of the federal judiciary both by attacking its legitimacy[31] and appointing[32] conservative Christian judges.

They believe they have a commander in chief that is effectively using the bully pulpit to advance a Judeo-Christian framework that has been minimized, scrutinized and ostracized for the last few decades,” said David Brody, who has enjoyed tremendous access to White House officials as a correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network. He says his viewers overwhelmingly support Trump and see him as unfairly under attack, a view shared by a dozen religious leaders interviewed for this story.” [33].

Devotion to Fox News seems to have replaced Sunday homilies. We shall see if the abandonment of the “values voter’ stance (prefigured in the Christian Rights support of Ronald Reagan a generation ago) proves costly, particularly in the support of young evangelicals.

What Still Matters Now

The veneration of the military is a hallmark of authoritarian and fascist regimes. Last year’s article highlighted America’s ongoing love affair with the military. We pointed out that while Trump has had his spats with McCain (“a loser”) and with a (Muslim) gold star family, he has filled his cabinet with military men. He revels in American military power despite its futility in Vietnam and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Does Trump macho bluster make Americans feel safer and prouder? There is a deep divide in the country, perhaps deeper than during the American war in Vietnam. His brutish version of white masculinity inspires ¼ to ⅓ of the country while how many are repelled? We concluded last year’s article with these challenges:

Our point has been that the roots of Trumpism lie in part in deep-seated feelings of resentment and victimization that will not easily be uprooted or challenged.  What is America’s proper place in the world?   How does one help a society and a culture cope with what feels like losing?  How do we combat the politics of ‘resentment’? What is a useful political response to people’s fears and feelings of vulnerability? … How can the US engage the world without seeking dominance? This speaks to many contradictions in the American experience, not just the war in Vietnam.

…. We have been indoctrinated to be a nation of exceptional ‘winners’; are we capable of posing an emotionally satisfying and humane alternative? We do not expect progress to come easily, but it needs to come.  There has been important work done in the last generation to come to terms with many of these questions. … We in the US face a unique challenge because of America’s outsize role in the world.  If we are controlled by our demons, then all of humanity will pay the price. The truth needs to make us free or at least wiser and more humble.[34]

We can find hope in the broad-based and ongoing resistance to Trump, but we must recognize that there are two trends in that resistance. One is led by the National Security state (what Trump and some leftists call the ‘deep state’) and the promoters of neoliberalism embodied in the Mueller investigation and in sectors of the Democratic Party. Their goal is to restore the old order. Alternatively there is the doggedness and creativity of the Movement for Black Lives, the humanity of the immigrant rights movement, the forward thinking of the environmental movement, and the powerful outburst of the ’Me Too!’ movement. These movements are potentially transformative and they necessitate a new order.   To isolate Trump and his movement, both trends matter, but if leadership is ceded to the National Security State and the neoliberals, the ultra-right will reconnoiter and return with a vengeance.   The lesson of the war in Vietnam is that it wasn’t a ‘mere’ mistake but a clear sign of the depth of the problems with the American trajectory. It will not do to exchange a boorish, unhinged father figure for a smoother, still violent, traditional leadership that will keep in place the imperial, white supremacist, patriarchal order. Defeating Trump must be one step in a larger, enduring, and transformative movement.

[1] Also available at…

[2] Ibid.

[3] See

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See…

[7] See

[8] See and .

[9] Trump signed an executive order on January 27, 2017, which included a 90-day travel ban for citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia or Yemen, as well as a 120-day suspension of the U.S. refugee program.  The move threw lives immediately into chaos, cancelling the travel plans of approved refugees and seeing those with valid U.S. visas turned away at transit stops or removed from planes. See

[10] See,, and

[11] See

[12] See Frances Fitzgerald, THE EVANGELICALS: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster), 340.

[13] See

[14] See

[15] See

[16] See

[17] See

[18] See


[20] See

[21] See

[22] See

[23] See

[24] See

[25] See


[27] See

[28] See

[29] See Frances Fitzgerald, THE EVANGELICALS: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster), 597.

[30] See

[31] See




Howard Machtinger was a representative of Students for Democratic Society (SDS) at the second session of the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Copenhagen in 1967, which included testimony (including from US soldiers) about the use of torture by American personnel in Viet Nam and the uses and dangers of Agent Orange. He helped organize an alternate ‘Viet Nam graduation’ at the University of Chicago in 1968. After the war,  he helped found the Viet Nam Support Committee in Seattle in the hope that Americans would not abandon postwar Viet Nam. He is a longtime antiwar and racial justice activist. He made the first of many visits to Viet Nam in 2002 and continues to help develop connections between Vietnamese and Americans.