Multiple surveys across the decades have shown that when Americans vote for Presidents, Senators and Congressmen, domestic issues tend to be far more of a priority than foreign policy. In fact, foreign policy issues tend to rank very low as a priority among American voters – a phenomenon which given how little detailed coverage domestic corporate American media gives to such issues, may be a good thing.
In one sense, the US is not unique as in most nations that aren’t experiencing a state of war, domestic issues tend to be of greater concern to the average citizen than foreign affairs. Yet while a voter concerned with foreign policy in Luxembourg, Iceland or San Marino could justify this position on the fact that these nations have little influence on geopolitics, when it comes to the United States, not only do Washington policy makers form their own foreign policy but this foreign policy ends up shaping much of the world.
And yet while Bill Clinton was impeached due to lying about his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, he was universally praised for an illegal war on Yugoslavia and damaging and unjustified bombing campaigns against Iraq. Barack Obama bombed even more nations that his predecessor George W. Bush but there was no significant anti-war movement during the Obama years. Ironically, Donald Trump was more heavily criticised by the US opposition when he shook Kim Jong-un’s hand in a spirit of peace than he was the year prior when he threatened to “destroy” Kim’s nation.
Thus, it becomes obvious that while most Americans care little about foreign policy, it is easier for most of them to get behind an act of aggression against a foreign nation than to support or even understand an act of rapprochement. It is within this context that one should view a new poster where Donald Trump has photo-shopped his image against a Game of Thrones style background with the words “Sanctions are coming” written in a dramatic font.
Many have correctly pointed out that it is in bad taste to glory in the implementation of sanctions which could severely harm the Iranian people, while it is equally true that the wider world including China, the European Union, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan and India stand opposed to sanctions on Iran. Yet this was never the point of Trump’s poster. Days before US midterms, Trump is simply presenting himself as a “though guy” and traditionally Americans respond positively to such individuals.
From Ronald Reagan’s declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” to George W. Bush’s infamous slogan “you are either with us or you are with the terrorists”, simplistic language and imagery surrounding warfare (whether military or economic) tends to sell. In elections seasons such a “sale” typically corresponds to an election victory.
Donald Trump is nothing if not a master of surprise, suspense and melodrama. By turning the typically bland (so far as most American voters are concerned) issue of sanctions into visual drama in the form of a meme, Trump is ironically getting Americans more interested in foreign policy than they normally would have been – albeit at a simplistic and vulgar level.
Given the influence of the Israel lobby on both American parties, it was likely that the US would have re-imposed sanctions on Iran even if Trump’s opponents occupied the White House. Even Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is widely believed to have expressed scepticism over the 2015 JCPOA which brought about a relaxation of some sanctions. It was his view that the measure was always designed to be temporary and that ultimately the US would re-impose sanctions after giving some Iranians a false sense of economic hope. Crucially, these thoughts were expressed long before Donald Trump declared his presidential candidacy.
This, Trump is merely trying to take advantage of a hostile act against a foreign nation for domestic political gain. His Game of Thrones style meme is simply a 21st century version of what most of his predecessors have done for over a century. While Trump’s meme is a novelty, in the context of American electioneering, it is not novel.