Since his inauguration a fortnight ago, the new POTUS has been eager to demonstrate that his pronouncements on the campaign trail were more than mere trumpery. Three days after ascending to the White House, Barack Obama’s successor moved to revive and expand the global gag rule, which in its newest incarnation bars all international NGOs ‘that perform or promote abortions from receiving U.S. government funding’. Twenty-four hours later, he signed memoranda whose effect will be to jump-start construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. The day after that he issued an executive order calling for the immediate construction of a ‘physical wall’ along the Mexican border, emboldening to an even greater degree the racists and nativists who form the base of his support and entrenching them in their righteousness.
In between assaulting the reproductive rights of women in the Global South, tightening the noose around the heroic resistance of indigenous Americans at Standing Rock and continuing to flaunt a fathomless contempt for the threat of climate catastrophe, Trump has found time to authorise a raid by U.S. special forces in Yemen that killed, among others, 10 women and children; speak out in favour of torture (again); set in train a process of deregulation (included but not limited to the rollback of Dodd-Frank); and flash a wink at white nationalists by commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day without so much as the suggestion of a reference to the Shoah.
But among Trump’s actions since taking office it is Executive Order 13769 which has drawn the most horror. Signed on January 27 — ostensibly to ‘protect the nation from foreign terrorist entry into the United States’ — the order halted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries (though not the same seven bombed by Obama last year) and imposed a temporary freeze on refugees (except for those fleeing from Syria, who were barred from claiming asylum indefinitely). Needless to say, not a single act of terrorism has ever been committed on U.S. soil by nationals of the countries concerned, though all seven have been bombed, invaded, occupied, embargoed or covertly penetrated by the U.S. government in just the last twenty years. Trump’s executive action, which was ruled unlawful and unconstitutional and suspended by a federal judge on Friday, represents the latest shameful episode in the racist and self-perpetuating international war on Muslims.
All in all, then, a mere fortnight into their reign, Trump and his chief strategist Steve Bannon et al appear to have succeeded in dragging us all a little closer to Doomsday. It’s worth briefly analysing the responses of different groups to the evil they’ve done so far.
Firstly, there is the corporate media, which has been tearing into Trump and his political positions with a viciousness not seen in public life since its demonisation of such extremists as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Once upon a time, Mark Fishman made the observation — later reproduced by Herman and Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent — that ‘[n]ewsworkers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual’ and tend therefore to ‘recognize an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge’. This usually holds true, making for journalism that is utterly supine before power, but it seems that with Trump things are set to be different. From its savaging of White House press secretary Sean Spicer to its impassioned denunciations of Trump’s Islamophobia, the liberal media is at long last working serviceably — tenaciously, even — to hold a U.S. president to account.
What could possibly explain such atypical behaviour? Perhaps the press is seeking to atone for all the ways in which it enabled Trump’s ascension, or exacting revenge on the huckster-in-chief for his repeated attacks on reporters. More likely, though, it is motivated by the desire to engineer a return to the liberal-neoliberal centre-ground that helped to sprout it and the privileges it enjoys but which has now collapsed. At any rate, for all the bad faith and virtue-signalling conformism demonstrated by adherents of the Hirō Onoda School of Hackwork, should we not be prepared to applaud the press to the extent that it throws light upon and rails against the misdeeds of the new administration?
Secondly, there is the U.S. political class, a microcosm of which is currently scrutinising — or supposed to be scrutinising — the cabinet nominations of the 45th President. The ongoing confirmation hearings present all Senate Democrats and those Republicans who oppose Trump with an opportunity to censure him and obstruct his agenda by vetoing his appointments, who considered en bloc are richer, more corrupt, more hawkish and more dangerous than the picks of any other POTUS in living memory. Yet GOP senators who loftily denounced Trump in the autumn have now thrown themselves without compunction behind that agenda, while some of those who spoke out against his travel ban remained gutlessly silent during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation of its architect Jeff Sessions (the racist prospective Attorney General whom Bannon, no less, has described as ‘the clearinghouse for policy’).
Meanwhile, Democrat after Democrat has voted to approve a number of Trump’s most sinister nominees. It is very difficult indeed to pick out the dreariest instances of collaboration so far, but there are two or three that capture especially well the thoroughgoing rottenness of the Republicrat duopoly. On January 31, four Democratic members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee joined a Republican majority in confirming Rick Perry, Trump’s pick to head the Department of Energy. Perry is a climate change denialist with deep and lucrative ties to the fossil fuel industry and corporations specialising in the dumping of radioactive waste. His brief as Secretary of Energy will include responsibility for a nuclear arsenal that is currently undergoing the trillion-dollar overhaul set in motion by Obama (although it may redound to Perry’s credit that he’s ‘got no idea which end the bullet comes out of‘).
Eleven days earlier, the Senate had voted by a 98-1 margin to confirm the new Defense Secretary, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. A war criminal and unrepentant hawk who sat on the board of General Dynamics until last month, Mattis received the votes of every Senate Democrat bar one, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren included. His appointment furnishes further proof of the derangement of the U.S. ruling class, which now more than ever before seems to resemble Milo Minderbinder on angel dust. (Sanders also declined to vote against Trump’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security, another retired general who as recently as last year was in the employ of the homeland security contracting industry.)
Thirdly, there is the Tory government here in Britain. On January 27, Theresa May became the first foreign leader to scuttle to Washington following Trump’s inauguration. Having declared before her trip that she would ‘not be afraid to speak frankly’ to her host, May proceeded to congratulate Trump on his ‘great’ and ‘stunning’ election victory and praise him for ushering in a ‘new era of American renewal’, before formally inviting him on a state visit to the UK. Her echolalia (‘America can be stronger, greater, and more confident in the years ahead’) and renewed commitment to foreign intervention (‘when it is in our own interests’) drew no fewer than five standing ovations from assembled Republicans, and on getting back to Britain she was so slow to condemn Trump’s travel ban that she might as well not have bothered at all. Thus we can say that May — who is no naïf herself when it comes to xenophobic words and deeds — shrank from the chance to chide her opposite number for exploiting and propagating hatred and division and cravenly chose instead to go forth, hand in stubby-fingered hand, with the forces of fascistisation. (And there is, as the saying goes, no rest for the wicked: on January 28, our prime minister surfaced in Ankara to flog weapons systems to the Kurd-killing autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.)
Of course, the primary purpose of May’s trip to Washington was to lay the rhetorical groundwork for a bilateral trade deal ahead of Brexit. Her complaisance before Trump seems to bear out the prediction of Noam Chomsky, who noted before the EU referendum last summer that a vote to leave would ‘make [the UK] more vulnerable to being a satellite of the United States… [and] less independent in its actions’. It remains to be seen whether her government will submit to public pressure and revoke the invitation it extended to Trump to visit Britain at the taxpayer’s expense.
Fourthly, there are the millions of people across the world who have taken part in protests against the new administration. The Women’s March on Washington mobilised significantly more people than had turned up at the inauguration ceremony twenty-four hours earlier, and sister marches took place on every continent on the planet, including Antarctica. Since January 21, U.S. embassies worldwide have been assailed by protests, while hundreds of thousands of people gathered in airports and city centres everywhere to express their opposition to the now-suspended travel ban. In other words, the outcry against Trump has effloresced on a scale that could hardly have been foreseen just a few weeks ago.
Some on the Left have seen fit to deride the demonstrations on account of their lacking ‘clear demands’. But criticisms like this misunderstand the nature of mass protests. John Berger, who died last month, once wrote that ‘[t]he aims of a demonstration’, as against those of a riot or revolutionary uprising, ‘are symbolic: it demonstrates a force that is scarcely used’. Demonstrations ‘express political ambitions before the political means necessary to realise them have been created.’ They ‘predict the realisation of their own ambitions and thus may contribute to that realisation, but they cannot themselves achieve them.’ It seems unfair, then, and a little churlish to attack this particular form of anti-Trumpism per se.
Of course, the protests that have taken place so far should not be valourised in such a way as to render them completely unproblematic. If Berger was right to claim that mass demonstrations are ‘rehearsals of revolutionary awareness’ and that ‘any demonstration which lacks this element of rehearsal is better described as an officially encouraged public spectacle’, then what are the implications for our understanding of the Women’s March and so on? The silence of liberals as Obama liquidated innocent Muslims with drones and the prominence of Democratic Party grandees at protests during the inauguration weekend would suggest that those protests were to some extent mediated by the neoliberal establishment; the self-congratulatory mood of many protesters casts still more doubt on the status of the protests as ‘rehearsals’ in the Bergerian sense.
But on the whole it is surely better to take to the streets against Trump than not at all. Mass demonstrations allow us to express solidarity with victims in the most emphatic of ways; they make crystal-clear to the relevant authorities that their dictates will be opposed at every turn, and may even help to force the odd retreat; they must be seen as capable, at least theoretically, of mutating into direct action. No one really sees them as a substitute for such action, let alone as a panacea for social and economic injustice, but they do undoubtedly contain the raw material for resistance.
Finally, there are those leftists for whom it seems the failings of liberals are graver than the incitements and aggressions of Trump. It is true enough that the rise of Trump cannot be explained solely in terms of the ‘whitelash’ or by what Oliver Cromwell Cox described 70 years ago as ‘mere abstract depravity’ on the part of whites, that it is to a very considerable degree a tale of neoliberal capitalism and its discontents.
But is it any wonder that the Left is floundering about, utterly impotent, when the only response to Trumpism that many of its white and male members can muster consists in the issuance of embittered denunciations of identity politics? To those Pigasovs, skilled in the art of ‘petty and bilious observation’, I offer the following closing remarks, courtesy of Lenin’s Tomb:
Do you make radical politics more, or less attractive if you make it into a guilt function, a forbidding terrain where you will be passive-aggressively hectored and shamed and bullied for being inexperienced or getting it wrong or not having all the answers? Do you change people by starting with how fucked up, complicit and unclean they are? Or, by appealing to their desire to be a better version of themselves, to be part of something bigger than they are, to feel powerful for a change, to extend their sense of themselves as historical subjects, to descend on palaces of real privilege and turn them to rubble?