‘Nobody has any idea what is going on.’ That was a senior Homeland Security official discussing America’s new travel restrictions.
Trump backers claimed that, with his ban on refugees and travellers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, President Trump was merely implementing the policies he took to the election.
The trouble with that argument is that Trump’s pledges never really extended beyond incoherent thought bubbles. Yes, in 2015, he promised ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on’ but what did that actually mean?
Today’s executive order excluded citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (but not, notably, Saudi Arabia) for 90 days, a period, one presumes, judged sufficient for Trump to do his aforementioned ‘figuring out’.
Was that a Muslim ban? Not at all, said Trump to reporters after signing the directive. Shortly thereafter, Michael Flynn Jnr, the son of Trump’s National Security Adviser, tweeted the slogan ‘Making American Great Again’ – and included the hashtag #MuslimBan.
If anything, the unfolding chaos only exacerbated the trauma inflicted on thousands of innocent people, with heartbreaking stories circulating about immigrants arriving on American soil with their papers in hand, only to be peremptorily seized and thrown into detention.
But the same news articles also documented spontaneous acts of resistance, all across the country. Protesters gathered at airports in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC and other cities, while the New York Taxi Workers Alliance launched industrial action, refusing to pick up from JFK in solidarity with the demonstrations taking place inside.
Indeed, the intensity of the opposition – and the speed with which it took shape – explains the haste with which Trump’s been rolling out his half-baked plans. He is, by many measures, already one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history. Already, in the midst of what should be his political honeymoon, surveys show the majority of Americans disapprove of his conduct. The protests against his inauguration drew three million people, the biggest ever demonstration in American history. Anti-Trump rallies took place in more than 500 US locations, as well as cities all over the world. A small contingent even marched in Antarctica, with 30 people (and two penguins!) expressing their outrage at the administration.
Against that huge wave of hostility, Trump can rely only on a very small band of rusted-on supporters, deeply divided amongst themselves. During the election Trump offered very little in the way of a philosophical manifesto, instead making quite different promises to the various constituencies he addressed. As a result, he lacks any hard ideological kernel equivalent to the neocons who buttressed George W Bush’s administration.
Hence the need to crash through quickly. To disguise the regime’s obvious weakness, Trump’s relying on frenetic motion, like an inept dancer throwing some desperate jazz hands.
Trump’s attacks on refugees should also help dispel the ridiculous liberal obsession with Russia’s perceived influence on the election. The suggestion, pushed hard by senior Democrats, that the new President owed his position to Putin’s secret police – or, in the more lurid versions, was actually some kind of Manchurian candidate – rested almost entirely on unsourced speculation in various dodgy dossiers.
But apart from being untrue (or, at least, unverifiable, which in political terms amounts to the same) the allegations were also deeply disorienting, since they implied that Trumpism was an illegitimate foreign doctrine somehow foisted on Americans by the Kremlin.
Trump’s first hectic week should put that to bed. H Rap Brown once described violence as American as cherry pie. He might equally have added Islamophobia and nativism to the list. If the new administrations’ measures seem slightly crazed, they’re also immediately familiar to anyone who watches the blustery race-baiting talkshows on Fox and other networks, where the resident bobbleheads advocate Muslim bans and similar schemes almost every week. Yes, Trump’s an outlier in taking blowhards like Sean Hannity so seriously. But most contemporary politicians have drunk from the same well, even if not with the same slobbery gusto.
When it comes to deportations, for instance, Trump stands, you might say, on the shoulder of a giant. As ABC News’ Serena Marshall points out, not only did the Obama administration deport more people than any other president’s administration, it deported more ‘than the sum of all the presidents of the 20th century’. Even Trump’s wall isn’t entirely novel. The 2006 Secure Fence Act authorised the construction of 1100 kilometers of fencing along the border with Mexico – and one of its supporters included a certain Hillary Rodham Clinton.
One makes these comparisons not to diminish the specific cruelties the new administration seeks to enforce but to suggest that they reflect, and have been enabled by, a general policy drift within the United States and its key allies.
As outrage grew about Trump’s travel restrictions, Labor leader Bill Shorten tweeted out what was presumably intended as disapproval.
We don’t just tolerate diversity, we embrace it. We are the home of the fair go for all. All races, all faiths, all cultures.
— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) January 29, 2017
All well and good. But, of course, Shorten supports the bipartisan consensus on offshore mandatory detention, a policy that keeps innocent men, women and children detained indefinitely in tent cities so as to deter others from exercising their legal right to claim asylum. Indeed, if Turnbull refrained from commenting on the day’s news, it was probably because his government did not wish to jeopardise the deal by which President Trump would dispose of some of Australia’s refugees, a wheeze cooked up entirely so that the Prime Minister could boast how none of them had ever set foot in the country.
Surely it’s obvious that the climate in which Australian politicians judged such bastardry a vote winner also shaped Trump’s decision to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by immigrants.
Note, also, Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the new administration’s plans.
Is Trump America’s Netanyahu or is Netanyahu Israel’s Trump? In some ways, the answer doesn’t really matter. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – and the hour of enormous walls has well and truly arrived.
Identifying the extent to which Trump has seized on widely shared prejudices within the political class matters, not just for historical reasons, but in terms of building a campaign to stop him.
A perception of the new president as entirely anomalous can make the restoration of putative normalcy the default demand of protesters: Anyone but Trump, if you like. But the president’s views on immigration and Islam are widely shared by senior Republicans, so much so that, in the course of the campaign, some liberals suggested he be supported as a lesser evil than his rivals. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both raised their own plans for Giant Border Walls, while Cruz mocked Trump’s liberalism on health care when he evinced some hesitation about letting the sick die on the streets. The new vice president, Mike Pence, is also, on most issues, significantly to the Right of Trump.
It’s not merely that the president’s unpopularity provides an opportunity for various other monsters to rehabilitate themselves (with, for instance, America’s Torturer-in-Chief Dick Cheney now saying that Trump’s immigration policy ‘goes against everything we stand for and believe in’). It’s also that, as we saw during the election campaign that, if the opposition to the Right doesn’t present a serious alternative of its own, it will falter and crash.
These are polarising times. If the anti-Trump movement argues for a restoration of the status quo – if it settles for the Anyone But Trump slogan – it will suffer the same fate as the Clinton campaign. The struggle against deportations and Islamophobia will raise expectations for something better, for a real solution for those who have been in the firing line of American bigotry for decades. Donald Trump won the election by promising radical change when his opponent offered more of the same. To win this fight, the Left must start articulating a vision of its own.
Image: ‘America Is a Land of Immigrants’ / Geoff Livingston