By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
Donald Trump feels he has to undo a great deal from the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, and he is in a hurry. Obamacare has been ordered out and a “Muslim Ban” is signed in. His deregulation orders are just what the corporate sector wants. All this to “Make America Great Again”!
Time is of no consequence in America these days. President Donald Trump awakens early and fires off a tweet. These are as important as the executive orders he has been signing with remarkable frequency. He is a man in a hurry. There is a great deal, he feels, to undo from the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is almost as if Trump does not believe that he will be long in the job. Changes must be made, and speed is of the essence. The midnight oil burns in the White House feverishly.
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The executive orders are hard to keep up with. Serious issues are deliberated in a few pages. Trump ordered federal agencies to set aside Obama’s health care initiative, which was one of the main social reforms passed in recent memory. Trump’s anger at what is known as Obamacare is part of the general corporate sensibility against regulations of any kind. Trump pushed for oil companies to be able to build their controversial pipelines and demanded that federal agencies must ease up on financial and environmental regulations. One order said that if the government introduces a new regulation, it must first abolish two others. This is sweet music to the corporate sector, which instinctively dislikes the fetters of government intervention. The Trump claim is that deregulation will spur business activity, produce growth and therefore deliver jobs to the “forgotten Americans” —Trump’s base.
The deregulation orders did not receive the kind of attention they deserve. These are dull compared with the more flashy orders, the ones that reflected Trump’s most dramatic campaign promises: build the wall against Mexico, ban Muslims, and fight “radical Islamic terrorism”. It was the flash of the orders on these issues that drew all the attention. No one expected Trump to actually enact these policies. It was felt by the encrusted establishment that Trump—like other politicians—would make grand social claims during the campaign but would then ignore these promises when the “realities” of governance settled in. But Trump and his team had no patience for such formulas. Trump and his advisers know full well that his base—the “forgotten Americans”—is hungry for action. They want their man to deliver something fast. Trump will not be able to take the American economy by the throat and make it cough out jobs. That is simply impossible. Far easier to tackle these social issues to prove his fidelity to his base.
When the orders came out, a frisson of delight went through Trump’s base. Early polls showed that the majority of Americans disapproved of Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, but 45 per cent of those asked said that they approved of it. That is about the same percentage of the electorate that voted for Trump. A seam of the Far Right —including the fascists—have long said that the decline in the fortunes of the white Americans came from the enfranchisement of blacks, Latinos, immigrants, gays, lesbians and Muslims. “Make America Great Again” is a line that Ronald Reagan used as his campaign slogan in 1980. During a speech in that campaign, Reagan said that his project was for a “national crusade to make America great again”. The word “crusade” with all its Christian implications is an old one for the American Right, but here it was linked to the suggestion that America—in 1980—had been lessened by the gains of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had been driven by secularism. These had to be put in their place. Reagan, and now Trump, would cleanse the country of its crud and reveal it for what it was always supposed to be: a white, Christian nation. It is fitting that the Trump administration will remove the white supremacist groups and the fascist groups from the terror listing; only “radical Islamic terrorists” will be on that list.
Orders can be delivered with ease, but implementation is another story. The “Muslim Ban”, for instance, created chaos between the Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security. Officials in these government agencies, as well as in the State Department, did not know how to act on the basis of the orders. A hundred thousand visas were cancelled in the chaos. One minute no one from the seven countries was allowed to board a flight to the U.S., and the next minute people were allowed on aircraft. It is this chaos that has come to define the Trump administration. Deliberative statements from above do not translate easily for the massive apparatus of the U.S. government.
These orders came from Trump’s pen with a great flourish of royalty. Trump did not deign to explain his decisions or make any argument. There is no time for that. His language is simple and direct. “We’re going to do great,” he says, “we’ll make America great.” Complexity is not necessary. There is no conversation here about how computers and other technology have made workers more productive, which has led to a great haemorrhaging of jobs. It is this, rather than foreign trade, that has truly cut deep into the heart of employment in factories and in fields. None of this is on the table. Trump is able to blame a long list of people who have gained socially for the ailments of those who have been defeated economically. Hate crimes against the long list of Trump’s enemies —Mexicans, Muslims and those who look like them —have risen. Hatred has taken on a mundane quality. “Muslim-free zones” is a sign that can be found in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where there are only a handful of Muslims in residence. In Little Falls, Minnesota, two white men came to the home of a Somali family and told them to move out or else they would burn down the home. The Roth Family Jewish Community Centre of Greater Orlando (Florida), which runs a preschool, received three bomb threats in two weeks. In San Francisco (California), a white man accosted an Asian woman and said to her: “I hate your fucking race. We’re in charge of this country now.”
Will removing Bannon help?
Hatred of Obama defined Trump’s political life over the past eight years. He was one of the first to stoke the rumour that Obama was not an American and that he was a Kenyan immigrant. The “Birther Movement” embraced Trump, who thumped on this theme right until he became a presidential candidate. The sewers of the American Far Right—the fascists and racists—welcomed the attention given them by Trump’s celebrity. Here was a rich real estate baron and television star who was giving credence to the worst kind of falsehoods. It was in this drain that Trump met Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon.
Bannon drifted from Wall Street into the propaganda world of the Far Right, where he made films and curated a website that produced what is now known as “alt-facts” (alternative facts or, in more common language, lies). Over the years, Bannon has made clear his great dislike of the gains made by minority communities and of H-1B visa technocrats who surrounded him in the world of finance and media. His hatred of them was clarified in a March 2016 radio show, when he said: “Engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia, and East Asia. They’ve come in here to take these jobs.” American students, he said bitterly, “can’t get into these graduate schools”. Twenty per cent of the U.S. population is made up of immigrants, Bannon noted. “Is that not the beating heart of the problem?” These technocrats not only surrounded him, but they made him feel uneasy. “These are not Jeffersonian democrats,” he complained. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming in here.” Resentment and revenge are the contours of Bannon’s viewpoint. It is fitting that he used the term DNA in his statement. Skin is the limit of ideas such as democracy. America made an error, Bannon suggests, in allowing darker skins to participate in its democratic experiment. Trump brought him in as his main adviser for his campaign. Bannon is now, it is said, one of the main intellectuals of the Trump presidency.
Is Bannon Trump’s brain? Bewilderment at the depth of the Trump presidency has led some to think that the removal of Bannon would somehow bring normalcy to Trump’s world. But this might be wishful thinking. Each of Trump’s Cabinet appointments and many of his political appointments into the agencies seem Bannonesque in their world view. They are behind the “Muslim Ban” and the “Mexican Wall”; they would like to undermine public education and eviscerate regulations; they would like to lift up “alt-facts” to the status of reality and send pesky reporters to prison. This is a world view shared across the administration, from Vice President Mike Pence to Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. Talking to people in the Trump administration is startling: they believe that they have been out of power and are now, finally, in charge, with little time to spare. Bannon is not their leader. What unites them is the feeling of resentment and revenge that he articulates and Trump embodies.
Trump’s ban on the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries was not going to be taken quietly. Organisations that work on civil liberties and refugee relief as well as Left groups and platforms such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy hastily mobilised people to flood the airports. From John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to San Francisco International Airport, the crowds chanted “Let Them In” and “Not My President”. It was a powerful demonstration, with bodies on the line to resist the Trump order and to make it clear that such actions would not go unchallenged on the streets.
Democratic Party politicians hastened to the airports to give their support to the protests. Senator Elizabeth Warren went to Boston airport and said: “We will make our voices heard all around the world. We will not turn away children, we will not turn away families, we will not turn away anyone because of their religion.” Senator Kamala Harris, the first Indian American Senator in U.S. history, was forthright in her criticism. “On Holocaust Memorial Day, President Trump enacted an executive order that will restrict refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Make no mistake—this is a Muslim ban. During the Holocaust, we failed to let refugees like Anne Frank into our country. We can’t let history repeat itself.”
Trump’s threat to deport undocumented migrants received a sharp rebuke from Democratic politicians. Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh said that any migrant who felt threatened could come to City Hall and take shelter. “If people want to live here,” he said, “they’ll live here. They can use my office. They can use any office in this building.” When a reporter asked him if this applied to “illegal immigrants”, Walsh was sharp with his rebuke saying that no one was illegal. Trump has threatened to withdraw federal money from cities and towns that do not enforce his anti-immigration agenda. “We will not be intimidated by a threat of federal funding,” said Walsh. “We will not retreat one inch.”
Popular resistance strengthened the spine of these leaders, many of whom come from political traditions not used to such forthright resistance. This is not the time for politeness, they suggest. Stiffer measures are needed.
Boycotts of businesses that operate alongside the Trump agenda have had an impact. During the airport protests, the New York Taxi Workers’ Union decided to go on strike at the airport. Seeing an opportunity, Uber suspended its surge fees and decided to break the strike. Thousands of people deleted their Uber app, sending a strong message to the company. Its CEO felt the pressure to resign from Trump’s business council. Department stores such as Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus have dropped the Ivanka Trump jewellery line. Amazon and Expedia took the Trump administration to court saying that the immigration orders would hurt their business.
When the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, refused to execute the “Muslim Ban”, Trump fired her. The view from the White House is that officials of the federal government must be loyal to Trump and not worry about the U.S. Constitution. Trump’s allies came in to defend his action, blaming the bureaucracy for their allegiance to liberal and secular values. “This is essentially the opposition in waiting,” said Trump’s friend Newt Gingrich. “He may have to clean out the Justice Department because there are so many left-wingers there. [The] State [Department] is even worse.” A chill has gone through the administration. Judge James Robarts, nominated to the federal courts by Trump’s fellow Republican George W. Bush, stayed the “Muslim Ban”. Trump called him a “so-called judge”, like the “so-called protesters”. These are not real people to Trump. They are to be swatted aside. Whether by an executive order or on Twitter.