Categories
Art Articles Featured

Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

Categories
Articles China Featured

Conservatives Are Comparing Racial Justice Protestors to Maoists

In their effort to transform their discomfort with the current #BlackLivesMatter protests into a superficially sophisticated critique, right-wing “intellectuals” in the United States and Europe have latched onto a dubious historical analogy.

When former congressman Newt Gingrich, the National Review’s David Harsanyi, Breitbart’s Joel Pollak, and other right-wingers look at the protests against police violence, they see the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, turned China upside down. Initially instigated by Mao Zedong to outflank his more liberal opponents, the Cultural Revolution drew millions of young people into a bewildering assortment of Red Guard factions that purged “reactionary” elements from institutions, destroyed irreplaceable historical treasures, and even fought pitched battles against each other. As Mao quickly lost control over the movement, the Red Guards threw China into such chaos that even the country’s nuclear weapons complex was at risk.

The Cultural Revolution lasted a decade, resulted in at least a million deaths, and led to the destruction, in Beijing alone, of nearly 5,000 of the city’s 6,800 officially designated sites of historical interest.

Keep that in mind as you read what Joel Pollak, an editor-at-large at Breitbart, has to say:

Black Lives Matter” has become America’s version of China’s Cultural Revolution — a radical, youth-led purge of the vestiges of traditional culture and authority within a one-party state.

In this case, the one-party system is the “blue archipelago” of Democrat-run cities, most of which have not had Republican leaders for decades, and likely never will again.

But whereas China’s radicals helped Mao consolidate power, Black Lives Matter may destabilize the entire country.

The most striking similarity between the two movements is the ritual humiliation of individuals seen to represent “the system.” Mobs of demonstrators have marched up to police and demanded that they kneel with them, or to them. Some officers, in a bid to defuse tensions, have obliged.

What a fascinating set of comparisons.

Only a white conservative born in South Africa would equate the traditional culture of ancient temples with statues of white racists. The United States is a one-party state, oops, can’t say that, since the Republicans control the executive and the Senate, so Pollak immediately pivots to something very different, a “blue archipelago” of cities, even though #BlackLivesMatter protests took place in plenty of “red archipelago” towns and cities as well: Wilmington (North Carolina), Odessa (Texas), Grand Island (Nebraska), and dozens of other places that voted for Trump and have sent Republicans to Congress.

The Red Guards didn’t help Mao consolidate power because they in fact destabilized the entire country. But Pollak has to make out that the current U.S. protestors are worse, so the former helped a dictator while the latter “may destabilize the entire country.” But wait, isn’t the United States already destabilized by a pandemic and an economic collapse?

And now for the only concrete comparison, which revolves around ritual humiliation. The Red Guards put dunce caps on their professors and leading cultural figures and forced them to engage in self-criticism sessions. It was quite easy to do that, since the Red Guards had larger numbers and sometimes weapons as well and their opponents were unarmed. Today’s protestors, meanwhile, are the unarmed ones, and they face the armed representatives of the state, who don’t have to defer to the protestors if they don’t want to.

No one has placed dunce caps on their heads. When they kneel, they do so out of actual solidarity, which probably troubles Pollak a good deal more than the imaginary humiliation, or else in a cynical play for the cameras.

Statues and Op-Eds

If it were just one crazy Breitbart writer, it would be easy to dismiss the violence that Pollak has committed against the art of analogy. But various conservatives, libertarians, and even a “libertarian Marxist” have seized on the Cultural Revolution analogy — probably because they believe that any associations with China are by definition bad and no one really understands references to Jacobins and the French Revolution any more.

The Cultural Revolution comparisons usually fall into two categories. In the first, the analogists want to demonstrate that the current protestors aspire to expunge the past. In the second, they want to prove that the protestors aim to prohibit free speech.

In the bizarre UK magazine Spiked!, the editor and former Trotskyist Brendan O’Neill lays out the first kind of comparison:

Britain is in the throes of a Cultural Revolution. Statues are being tumbled, past art erased, people cancelled. Wide-eyed Woke Guards, heirs to Maoist-style intolerance, are compiling lists of monuments to target and individuals to humiliate. They are remorseless. Nothing old that runs counter to their newthink can be tolerated. Tear it all down.

Sounds pretty scary. What’s actually happened is that protestors have dumped one statue — of slave trader Edward Colston — into the drink and spray-painted “racist” on a statue of Winston Churchill. The UK is now having a discussion about history and how to commemorate it. That’s not exactly Cultural Revolution-style anarchy. Rather, it’s a rather commonplace occurrence.

Even the statue-toppling is more common than O’Neill suggests. It’s not like Stalin statues still look down on people throughout Eastern Europe. Statues of ruthless colonial oppressors were pulled down throughout Africa as part of the independence process. Oh, and what about Ozymandias, the once powerful King of Kings that the poet Shelley discovered as just a pair of legs in the sand?

In the second category, the analogists are particularly exercised by The New York Times backtracking on a Tom Cotton op-ed it published on June 3. In “Send in the Troops,” Senator Cotton (R-AR) urged the use of the U.S. military to quell the unrest surrounding the #BlackLivesMatter protests.

“What you are seeing is Maoism, people who are supposed to be in public confess that they’ve been guilty, people who have to toe whatever the party line is,” opined Newt Gingrich on Fox News. “When we see an institution as famous and as powerful as The New York Times collapse totally in front of the mob, it tells you what’s going on in terms of American elites.”

The mob? The New York Times made its decision to retract Cotton’s op-ed because, first, it contained factual inaccuracies and language unbefitting The Gray Lady’s editorial page. Second, it received pushback from its own staff.

The editors concluded, “the editing process was rushed and flawed, and senior editors were not sufficiently involved. While Senator Cotton and his staff cooperated fully in our editing process, the Op-Ed should have been subject to further substantial revisions — as is frequently the case with such essays — or rejected.”

And unlike Maoist China, the Times published several pieces — by Brett Stephens and Ross Douthat — that supported the publication of Cotton’s op-ed.

None of that has stopped the National Review’s David Harsanyi from concluding during the Cotton affair that “we’re in the dawn of a high-tech, bloodless Cultural Revolution; one that relies on intimidation, public shaming, and economic ruin to dictate what words and ideas are permissible in the public square.”

Now, if Harsanyi were talking about the impact of the Koch brothers on public debate in the United States — trying to intimidate and publicly shame money in politics journalist Jane Mayer in an attempt to stop her investigations, spending millions of dollars to dictate acceptable discourse — then maybe he’d be on to something.

Which leads us to a much more apt Cultural Revolution analogy.

Trump Plays Mao

A powerful leader appeals to a group of crazy, gun-toting followers to go after his political opponents. He pits the anarchy of the mob against the level-headed policies of experts and sensible politicians.

Definitely Mao.

But also Donald Trump.

When militia members showed up outside state capitols and the houses of governors to protest stay-at-home measures, the solidly Republican head of the National Association of Manufacturers called them “IDIOTS.” In a video call, Jay Timmons continued, “These people are standing so close together without any protection — with children, for God’s sakes. And they have no concern, and it’s all about them, and it’s all about what they want.”

Donald Trump, on the other hand, was enthusiastic about the protests. He called on his followers to “liberate” Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota. For Virginians, he had an extra message: “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The Second Amendment pertains to the right to keep and bear arms.

When the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death overwhelmed the anti-quarantine actions, Trump displayed the other side of Mao by threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. military to suppress the demonstrations. Tom Cotton’s vocal support for the action notwithstanding, Trump got serious pushback from former generals and active duty military. Thanks to Pentagon chief Mark Esper refusal to support Trump’s move, America was saved from a Tiananmen Square scenario.

Rebuffed, Trump has retreated to his previous position of backing America’s version of the Red Guard. Marjorie Taylor Greene is running for Congress in Georgia on the Republican Party ticket. If she wins — and she has a very good chance — she’ll be the first member of Congress to believe in the QAnon conspiracy (think: “deep state” times crazy). In June, she posted a video of herself wielding a semi-automatic and a message for “Antifa terrorists to stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” Trump endorsed her and then congratulated her for winning the recent primary.

After The Washington Post recently published an unflattering profile of her, Greene tweeted, “The Chinese propagandists at the Washington Post are attacking me the same way they attack Donald Trump, and other conservatives.”

I always knew that the 2020 elections were going to feature some back and forth about China. But I never could have imagined Donald Trump as Mao teaming up with Republican wackos in the garb of the Red Guards to fight the reformers who are trying to save the country from a lacerating Cultural Revolution.

And conservative pundits have the gall to twist the very same analogy into a pretzel to throw against their enemies?

Only in Trump’s through-the-looking-glass America.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 17, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy US Foreign Policy

The Descent of America

Complaints about American decline have been commonplace since at least the Vietnam War era.

In the late 1980s, declinism experienced an upsurge with the publication of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, which warned of the dangers of imperial overstretch. Even America’s putative victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War represented only a minor lull in the chatter about the erosion of U.S. status relative to other countries, particularly a rising China.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the grumbling over America’s crumbling usually spikes around the release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial infrastructure report card.

In 2017, the ASCE awarded America a D+ for the state of its roads, bridges, schools, parks, and public transportation. The grade was no surprise to many Americans. “This is an advanced economy?” people ask themselves as they wait for a broken-down bus, hit a pothole on the highway, turn away from the undrinkable water coming out of their taps, or drop their child at a school that’s just a few steps away from being condemned.

In U.S. schools, D is unsatisfactory but still officially passing. In terms of infrastructure, the United States teeters perilously on the edge of failure.

In the last few months, however, America has gone over the edge. The country has quickly, recklessly, impulsively entered the failure zone.

First, there’s the failure of leadership. The country has been ruled for the last three years by a corrupt, incompetent, would-be dictator who, when faced with a spate of crises, has proven spectacularly unfit for the job.

Second, there’s the failure to protect American lives. More than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a level of death generally seen only in wartime.

Third, there’s the failure of the American dream. The economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate has surged to nearly 20 percent.

Finally, there’s the chronic failure of American racism. In the last week, people have taken to the streets to protest the death of yet another African American at the hands of the police. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis handcuffed George Floyd on suspicion of forgery, pinned him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, and killed him. Floyd was one of over 7,500 people killed by the police since 2013.

Protestors are fed up with police profiling, targeting, and killing. But they are also outraged at the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic collapse on people of color. The anger is entirely understandable. “I can’t breathe” applies to victims of police violence and the coronavirus both.

The protests themselves are a sign of hope, notwithstanding the over 60,000 National Guard that have poured onto the streets in 24 states.

Also hopeful are the expressions of solidarity during these protests. Cops in a number of cities have gotten down on one knee with protestors. Several mayors, like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken truth to the power of the president. Here in Washington, the owner of a restaurant burned by looters said, “Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor. We have been through three months of being closed; we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”

And yet, if you add up the economic, political, social, and medical deficits, it’s hard to imagine calling America an advanced industrialized nation at the moment. It is extraordinary to see such a rapid loss of status in real time, as opposed to a time-lapse animation of the rise and fall of some ancient civilization. “I’ve seen this kind of violence,” a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia told The Washington Post. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse.”

The middle and upper classes may well be caught by surprise. But the current protests are a potent reminder that for a sizable portion of the American population, the country has never been advanced because they live in what Michael Harrington, nearly 60 years ago, called “the other America.”

Trump’s Racist Response

Donald Trump has always positioned himself as a law-and-order politician, even as his words and actions create disorder and violate laws.

He never possessed much if any empathy for victims of police violence. In response to George Floyd’s death, after a cursory expression of condolence, Trump quickly pivoted to deriding protesters, Democratic governors, “THUGS,” and the like. He promised that anyone who breached the White House fence would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He announced that he would declare the antifa movement a terrorist organization. He sounded like a minor-league dictator with his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Later, on a call with governors, he suggested that “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He added, “You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Despite Trump’s calls for law and order, the far right is actually cheering on the occasional violence of the protests because it feeds into their attempts to push the country into a race riot. Militia members, white extremists, and “boogaloo bois” want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “accelerate” the demise of liberal, multicultural America. They’ve even showed up at the protests against police violence and promoted their own violent actions online.

Militant disruptions of otherwise peaceful demonstrations ultimately advance this far-right agenda. Such violence also advances Trump’s agenda.

Following his own version of accelerationism, the president has done everything within his power to destroy the country from within, using hateful language, implementing polarizing policies, and seeming to revel in the chaos that his administration has fostered. Declaring some version of martial law to contain the chaos he has helped to create — but in reality to promote more chaos and himself as the only person to address it — may be the only hope he has at this point of gaining a second term in office.

As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times, “Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway.” Ultimately, though, it’s Trump himself who wants uncontested sway, and he thinks he can crowd-surf the unrest toward that goal.

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

There’s always been an element of racism to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

From day one, for instance, Trump favored predominantly white countries in his immigration policy, instituting a Muslim travel ban and denigrating “shithole countries” when “we should have more people from places like Norway.” He told four U.S. congresswomen — three of them born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He relishes blaming the coronavirus outbreak on “the Chinese,” knowing full well that his conspiracy theories feed into anti-Asian sentiment.

Of course, either money or nuclear weapons can turn a “shithole” country into a friend, with Trump cozying up to Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. That’s always been Trump’s modus operandi: he is truly race-blind when it comes to the powerful.

Donald Trump didn’t suddenly introduce racism into U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote back in January 2018, “Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like ‘shitholes’ even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.” Racism is reflected in U.S. budget priorities, in the minuscule size of foreign aid programs, in the pattern of U.S. interventions, in the racial composition of the U.S. Army’s “essential workers” (otherwise known as grunts), and even in the Pentagon’s militarization of domestic policing. Trump certainly didn’t create any of these dynamics, though he has often aggravated them.

Still, the current president’s elevation of racism is not simply rhetorical. There is method to his mania.

Trump is using racism as a tool to destroy whatever lingering commitment the United States has to liberal internationalism. The latter philosophy inspired Americans to help create the United Nations, launch the Peace Corps, administer foreign aid programs, and collaborate with other countries to fight global warming. This liberal internationalism has always had its defects, from paternalism to naivete. But it’s a damn sight better than the illiberal nationalism that Trump offers as an alternative.

Trump’s deployment of racism at home and abroad cuts the legs out from under liberal internationalism. No other country can take America’s human rights rhetoric seriously. No other country can accept America’s claim to impartiality as a broker of peace deals, climate deals, any deals. First put your own house in order, they will say.

Putting our own house in order has long been the motivation of U.S. social movements. Think of the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. They have also inspired human rights movements devoted to home improvement in countries around the world. Even today, the U.S. protests against police violence have inspired nearly 15,000 people to demonstrate in Paris, 10,000 demonstrators in Amsterdam, tens of thousands in Auckland, thousands in London and Berlin and throughout Australia.

U.S. support of human rights abroad can and should be an extension of these social movements. That’s something that Trump’s racism at home and attacks on liberal internationalism abroad threaten as well.

“Let’s hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers — from China, Russia, and even from Europe,” observes Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”

Unfortunately, Trump has his own ideas of how to put the American house in order up to and including burning the house down. The antidote to Trump’s racist nationalism is not less internationalism but more: rejoining the international bodies that Trump pulled out of, reentering the accords that Trump unsigned, patiently rebuilding U.S. engagement in the world on an equal basis.

Such a re-engagement has to go hand in hand with a difficult reckoning with America’s own racism, for the inequality perpetuated domestically mirrors the inequality maintained on a global scale.

Only in this way can America stop its descent and climb back into the community of nations.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

America’s Coronavirus: Containing the Outbreak of Trumpism

The epicenter of China’s coronavirus outbreak is widely thought to be a wet market in Wuhan. At such markets, seafood, chicken, and other conventional foodstuffs are on sale alongside live animals. You can buy more than just dogs and cats there. Local epicures also shop for more exotic fare like foxes, badgers, civets, and snakes.

The coronavirus is a pathogen that jumps from animals to humans. The wet market is the perfect environment for the disease to incubate, mutate, and eventually infect the unwary.

Think of Washington, D.C. as America’s political wet market.

Washington is a place where ordinary politics takes place. But sometimes exotic species are introduced into the nation’s capital. And that’s when a new disease can incubate and mutate and spread throughout the system.

Donald Trump is Patient Zero for America’s “king’s disease,” which is the metonymic translation of coronavirus. His delusions of grandeur were always dangerously infectious, but they only became lethal when he took up residence in the White House.

As Trump came into contact with the ordinary Republican members of Congress, the disease leaped into the American body politic. Virtually the entire Republican Party began to treat the president not as the head of state or the head of the party but as a king — and thus above politics and not subject to the same congressional constraints as previous presidents.

Political scientists are frankly incapable of explaining the current impeachment saga in Washington. It takes an epidemiologist to figure out how a set of politicians, with a wide range of intellectual capabilities from grandmaster to moron, can all deny over and over again the clear evidence in front of their eyes that the president committed impeachable offenses.

Sure, they are marching in lockstep with the party leadership. But it really seems as if they’re suffering from a more serious infection when so many of them have refused to accept the admission of more evidence even as they insist that the existing evidence is insufficient.

Trumpism is not, of course, restricted to the political wet market of Washington, D.C. Plenty of Americans scattered across the country are willing to kneel down before the putative king.

It’s unclear how to address this larger outbreak or even if it’s possible. After all, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, two-thirds of Trump supporters back in 2016 still believed Obama to be a Muslim. They’ve since added more Trump-inspired conspiracy theories to the list, such as Ukraine’s supposed involvement in hacking the 2016 presidential election. As with mad cow disease, there simply might not be a cure for this political dementia.

But the continuing outbreak of Trumpism goes beyond the headlines about Republican derangement syndrome in Washington or the fever dreams of the president’s so-called base. An equally concerning problem is how Trumpism has infected the entire American system. This is where the political coronavirus actually threatens lives.

Indeed, this systemic infection has put American democracy on life support.

But This Is Evil

Omar Ameen risked his life to bring his family to America. He didn’t have a choice.

Born in Iraq, Ameen worried that he and his whole family would be killed by someone taking revenge for the crimes of his cousin, who belonged to al-Qaeda. He left for Turkey in 2012 and, after an exhaustive set of interviews with U.S. screeners, made it into the United States in 2014.

For four years, as Ben Taub relates in a fascinating story in The New Yorker, Ameen worked hard in America to provide for his family. In July 2018, however, U.S. authorities arrested him on the grounds that he had acted on behalf of the Islamic State by killing a police officer in Iraq. The Trump administration had determined that Ameen was a terrorist, one of those bad skittles that Donald Trump Jr. once tweeted about. A network of federal agencies worked overtime to compile an airtight case against Ameen.

The only problem was: Ameen was not in Iraq when the guard was killed. And he could prove it.

This proof, however, didn’t seem to matter. The government pursued its case against Ameen regardless, arguing that any evidence gathered after Ameen’s arrest was only admissible in an Iraqi court, which meant that Ameen would have to be deported. In Iraq, meanwhile, a fair trial is unlikely. Suspected terrorists are routinely tortured into making confessions and then either executed or detained indefinitely.

It’s bad enough when Donald Trump lies about, for instance, the big terrorist threat coming from refugees when, in fact, there are virtually no refugee terrorists (aside from several anti-Castro Cubans who arrived before 1980).

It’s even worse when the entire federal government is restructured around this lie, when the federal agencies perpetuate this lie on a daily basis, and when innocent people like Omar Ameen get caught up in the web of these lies.

Ameen’s lawyer, Ben Galloway has been losing sleep over the case.

It’s not the stress of going into the hearing — it’s the trauma of coming out of it, the trauma of realizing what they’re doing. It’s unconscionable. Seeing the level of infection, this willingness to go along, it makes me realize that we are not safe… I hope we can recover from it. I hope we can regain institutional integrity in some of these agencies. None of them is perfect — they all have problematic histories — but this is evil.

Mark those words: “level of infection.” As I said, it takes an epidemiologist to understand the impact of Trumpism on American institutions.

At the Border

It used to be difficult but not impossible to seek asylum at the border. Now, thanks to the Trump administration, it’s simply impossible.

If the desperate manage to get an interview, which itself is a major challenge, they meet with asylum officers. The Trump administration, arguing that people from south of the border in particular are lying about their cases, has tightened the eligibility requirements by adopting what it calls the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP).

Tightened the eligibility requirements — that’s actually a euphemism. The Trump administration has violated international law by refusing asylum to those who face a risk of harm if they’re sent back to the country they left. Some asylum officers, according to This American Life, protested the new rules. They didn’t get anywhere.

As reporter Molly O’Toole explains:

So the standard today is upside down from what it used to be under credible fear. Instead of, let’s err on the side of letting people in because we don’t want anyone to be tortured or die, under MPP the standard is almost impossibly high, so almost nobody gets in. 

In numerical terms, it works out to about one in a thousand (11 out of 10,000, according to Syracuse University). In human terms, it means that every day, U.S. asylum officers are sending people directly into harm’s way. The use of the phrase “concentration camp” to describe detention facilities begins to sound grimly appropriate.

Trump’s Willing Executioners

Such is the banality of evil. The problem lies not just in the upper echelons of the Trump administration setting the rules. It’s everyone down the chain of command who is executing those policies.

True, some people are quitting. Others are blowing the whistle, as we’ve seen in the cases of the courageous few who testified in the House impeachment hearings. But they are the exceptions. The system continues to function.

It’s not just ICE or Homeland Security. A cadre of federal employees at the Department of the Interior is currently opening up public lands to drilling. The Pentagon is expediting millions of dollars of weapons sales to one of the most despicable regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Officials at USAID are enforcing the global gag rule by cutting off funding to organizations that provide access to reproductive health and family planning.

All across the country, tens of thousands of people are implementing the Trump administration’s egregious policies. Of course, not everyone working for the federal government is involved in such crimes. Thousands and thousands of civil servants are maintaining programs that the Trump administration has yet to alter or close down that offer essential services or direct critical resources to individuals and communities in need.

But in a post-Trump future, whenever that day comes, how will we deal with the myriad “willing executioners” — to quote Daniel Goldhagen’s book on the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust? The contagion spreads far beyond Trump, his cabinet, the Republicans on the Hill, and a few familiar faces in the media.

Compromised Immune System

Trumpism is an acute outbreak of a chronic disease. America’s body politic has been seriously compromised for years.

In Democracy in Chains, Nancy McLean chronicles the efforts by economist James M. Buchanan, the Koch brothers, and a raft of conservative foundations to systematically reduce the influence of the majority of citizens in politics. They have done so through a variety of mechanisms: privatizing federal programs that hitherto had majority support, challenging the power of unions, empowering states at the expense of the federal center.

She asks:

Is what we are dealing with merely a social movement of the right whose radical ideas must eventually face public scrutiny and rise or fall on their merits? Or is this the story of something quite different, something never before seen in American history? Could it be — and I use these words quite hesitantly and carefully — a fifth-column assault on American democratic governance?

The forces that have engineered this hostile take-over of Washington, D.C. never imagined that Donald Trump would lead their movement. Neither did conservative evangelicals or the NRA. They all expected someone more sober-minded, more calculating, more consistently ideological. Still, a useful idiot is a useful idiot.

Trumpism is what happens when a compromised immune system meets an unusual pathogen. America might be lucky enough to remove the proximate cause of infection through a victory at the polls. The top tier of Trump appointees can then be removed from office.

Unless we address the underlying susceptibility of the body politic to diseases of this nature, however, such outbreaks will continue flaring up for years to come. America faces a political pandemic unlike any in the last 200-plus years. To eradicate this “king’s disease” the last time around, didn’t we have to fight a revolution?

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 29, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Islamophobia

The Real Shadow Policy of the Trump Administration Is Racist Extremism

The Democrats are pursuing two charges in their impeachment of Donald Trump: First, that the president tried to enlist Ukraine’s help for his own political gain. And second, that he’s continued to obstruct Congress in its investigation into this abuse of power.

Trump’s transformation of the Oval Office into both a branch of his business empire and the dirty tricks division of his re-election campaign is certainly disturbing. But the narrowness of these charges should not obscure the broader pattern of Trump’s crimes. From the point of view of basic morality and international law, Trump has committed far more consequential crimes and misdemeanors.

In his construction of an alternate foreign policy that makes an end-run around the State Department’s seasoned diplomats, Trump’s attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, has thrown the president together with corrupt Ukrainian officials and oligarchs. But behind the scenes in the Trump administration, an even more sinister shadow foreign policy informs the administration’s approach to immigration and security issues.

This one puts the president in bed with even more unsavory characters: racist extremists, neo-Nazis and mass shooters. Indeed, the recent leak of Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s emails provides only the latest example of the Trump administration teaming up with white nationalists from around the world.

As a right-wing college activist and later as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller consistently supported the most restrictive immigration policies. Elevated to the Trump administration, Miller has influenced the president on such policies as the Muslim travel ban and family separation at the Mexico border.

Thanks to Miller, the administration has forcibly sent thousands of desperate asylum seekers back into harm’s way. It separated nearly 70,000 children from their families and held them in detention, more than any other country. These are policies have done far greater harm than Trump’s ham-fisted pressure policy on Ukraine. They fly in the face of basic decency and violate international laws on the status of refugees.

Moreover, the leaked emails reveal that Miller’s rationale for such policies is not just conventionally conservative. It is connected to a global conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement.”

I recently interviewed more than 80 experts and activists from around the world on the rise of the far right. Again and again, they pointed to this theory as the glue that holds the globe’s most noxious right-wing movements together with mainstream conservatives.

According to this far-fetched theory — first promulgated in the racist 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, which Miller enthusiastically recommended to Breitbart writers — non-white people are determined to replace whites and undermine their civilization.

Believers of this conspiracy theory include far-right parties in Europe and neo-Nazi organizations around the world. Mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, have also referenced the “great replacement” in their statements. Because of Miller and his ilk, the White House is now a part of this odious network.

Of course, it’s not just Miller. The president himself has clearly embraced the same philosophy, with his slanders of Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” and prospective African and Haitian immigrants as coming from “shithole” countries.

The administration has appointed people associated with far-right, anti-immigration organizations, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), to top positions. Until recently, the former executive director of FAIR, Julie Kirchner, was an immigration services ombudsman in the Department of Homeland Security.

The “great replacement” ideology also has an anti-Muslim slant. Believers of this fictional narrative say that non-white immigrants want to replace the U.S. and European legal systems with Sharia law. The Trump administration has drawn heavily from the work of the famously Islamophobic Center for Security Policy (CSP) and appointed such figures as former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman, who served on the CSP board for nearly a decade.

This anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fanaticism has taken over much of the Republican Party and permeates right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.

White nationalists are not content to seal off borders to people of color. They also want to kick out longstanding immigrant communities. This concept of “remigration” is an integral part of the European far right’s agenda and has attracted certain elements of the “alt-right” in the United States as well.

“Remigration” hasn’t yet turned up in a Trump speech or as a Republican Party talking point. But the president has been sending up trial balloons.

Consider his tirade that the quartet of critical congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — should “go back” to the countries they came from. The administration has also attempted to expel hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti who have Temporary Protected Status.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, such actions and rhetoric have no doubt resulted in immediate harm to millions. But they threaten even more insidious shifts in the future. In the 1920s, far-right figures like Father Charles Coughlin as well as mainstream conservatives like Calvin Coolidge pushed immigration policies and theories of eugenics that would directly influence Hitler in Germany. As part of a growing, global far-right network today, it’s important not to cast the true danger of this administration in the comparatively narrow terms of an impeachment inquiry alone.

While Trump’s shadowy conduct toward Ukraine is without a doubt illegal, this shadow policy of white nationalism is even worse. It’s not just a crime — it’s a crime against humanity.

Truthout, December 18, 2019

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights

Inside the Battle for Another World

A succession of social upheavals over the last decade has radically realigned political power throughout the world.

As a result of these tectonic shifts, what had once been on the furthest fringes of the right has now moved toward the center while the left has been pushed to the margins. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” poet William Yeats wrote at a time of similar political churn in 1919. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Today, 100 years after the publication of Yeats’s poem, those who are full of passionate intensity now rule over considerably more than half the world’s population. Many of these leaders — Donald Trump (United States), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Narendra Modi (India), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) — have come to power democratically but are determined to undermine democratic institutions.

Their political rise has often been supported by more conventional conservative parties. They have aligned themselves on an ad hoc basis with other authoritarian leaders who owe their positions to military coups, one-party deliberations, or dynastic succession. Further to their right, a set of avowedly racist organizations and networks provide ideas, messaging, and sometimes muscle for these leaders of the new right.

This is not a normal oscillation in electoral power. The new right has set about reordering the political landscape. Mainstream parties have lost credibility. Politics have become even more polarized. Not just liberalism but democracy itself is under attack.

Nor will the guardrails of democratic governance necessarily contain the ambitions of these new right-wing leaders. They have challenged constitutional, legislative, and judicial restraints. They have attacked the cornerstones of civil society, including the press and other watchdog institutions. They aspire to become leaders for life (like Vladimir Putin, in charge since 1999) or to establish parties that govern with little opposition for decades on end (like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, in power almost continuously since 1955).

Rhetorically, the new right is focused on securing borders, protecting sovereignty, and challenging global elites. These leaders use the language of nationalism and particularism. They speak in the name of imagined majorities that are racially or religiously homogeneous.

Despite this obsession with strengthening the nation-state, this new right has increasingly been active across borders. States and parties have created alliances, with transnational activists like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon aspiring to build a kind of Nationalist International. Extremist civil society organizations have promoted a climate of intolerance that nurtures the political ambitions of right-wing populist leaders. White nationalists in particular have created alternative digital platforms to spread their messages and recruit new members across the globe.

Progressives have organized locally and nationally to respond to the new right. But ironically, given their historic internationalism, progressives have been slow to work across borders — in a sustained, coordinated manner — in response to the new transnational assault on democracy. This dilute internationalism coincides with both the new right’s attacks on global institutions and an intensification of various global threats such as climate change, pandemics, widening economic inequality, and weapons proliferation.

“Internationalism is now a problem for the left,” observes Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University, “and a reality for the right.”

In a new report, The Battle for Another World, I synthesize my conversations with more than 80 activists, analysts, and academics around the world. The report analyzes the rise of the new right, its connections to other far-right actors, and its new global aspirations. It surveys the current state of transnational progressive organizing. It outlines the challenges to that organizing and identify both lessons learned and best practices. And it concludes with a discussion of what’s missing from a robust, multi-issue, progressive transnationalism and how to fill those gaps.

Key conclusions from this report include:

  • An international reaction to economic globalization has been key to the right’s success. Unlike the internationalist left, the new right has been more effective at channeling discontent into political success at a national level.
  • Key to the new right’s success has been a story that can be applied effectively across borders: the “great replacement.” The argument that minorities, with help from “globalists,” will usurp the privileges of the dominant group has proven appealing to both an extremist fringe and more mainstream conservatives.
  • The new right has achieved political success with its attacks on globalization in a way the left failed to do. But the new right has a key failing: It has nothing to say about an ever-worsening climate crisis.
  • The 80 international experts overwhelmingly identified the school climate strikes as the present moment’s most promising international action and the Green New Deal as a framework that could defeat the right’s global narrative.
  • A Global Green New Deal wouldn’t just address the environmental crisis. By creating enormous numbers of well-paying jobs, it would also speak to those left behind by economic globalization. Such a narrative would undermine the new right’s anti-globalist appeals while offering up a positive vision to rally around within and across borders.

As the twenty-first century began, progressives famously proclaimed that “another world is possible.” They imagined a world beyond rote democracy and the rapacious market.

With the longstanding liberal-conservative status quo now crumbling, the new right has not only taken up this call, it is putting it into practice. This construction of “another world” — an intolerant, anti-democratic, unsustainable world — can be stopped before it is too late. But it requires that the best of us regain the conviction that Yeats described — not just to counter the new right, but to save the planet from ruin.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 4, 2019

Categories
Articles Europe Featured Islamophobia

The Far Right’s War on Culture

The far right is on a roll. Just a few years ago, liberals and conservatives would have considered its recent political victories a nightmare scenario. Right-wing extremists have won elections in the United States, Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland. They pushed through the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In the most recent European Parliament elections, far-right parties captured the most votes in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Hungary.

Sure, Trump is being impeached, Brexit is a mess, and the far right in Austria and Italy have suffered recent setbacks. Still, looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to conclude that such extremists have acquired the sort of mainstream legitimacy across the planet that they haven’t enjoyed in nearly a century.

What’s worse, those electoral victories obscure an even deeper, potentially far more influential success — in the world of storytelling. The radical right has developed a global narrative that, by uniting virulent racists and commonplace conservatives, mass shooters and populist politicians, is already injecting fringe ideas into mainstream culture.

Admittedly, it’s not a story that has either universal appeal or will win any literary awards. Still, by telling it over and over again in different languages to a growing number of listeners, the far right is having a profound impact on global culture. In many places, it may already be winning the crucial battle for hearts and minds.

The radical right’s story is rooted in the most basic plot of all: us versus them. Its main nemesis is determined, so the tale goes, to storm the battlements of the “civilized world” and, in what’s called a “great replacement,” oust its innocent inhabitants. Since this isn’t the Middle Ages, the evil adversary isn’t deploying siege engines or an army of pillagers. Its tactics are more insidious: taking over institutions from the inside, infiltrating culture, and worst of all birthing lots of babies.

But who exactly are the pronouns in this story? The idea of “the great replacement” is based on the fantasy that “they” (especially migrants and Muslims) are intent on replacing “us” (whites, Christians). Some versions of the narrative have an anti-Semitic slant as well, with Jews lurking in the shadows of this fiendish plot. For racists, the Others, of course, have darker complexions. For Islamophobes, the outsiders practice the wrong religion.

If you’re not a member of the far right, if you don’t subscribe to its YouTube channels or follow its burgeoning Twitter accounts, you might have only scant acquaintance with this story. But once you start looking for it, the great replacement turns out to be omnipresent.

Between 2012 and 2019, for instance, 1.5 million tweets in English, French, and German referenced it. You could hear an echo of the phrase at the Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, when neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other demonstrators chanted, “You will not replace us!” But the phrase really broke into the headlines in March 2019 when a mass shooter who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people, titled the online manifesto he prepared for the occasion, “The Great Replacement.”

By now, it’s become alarmingly clear that an increasing number of people are taking this bizarre, historically deficient, and thoroughly warped story to heart.

Once Upon a Time

At first glance, the man who came up with the idea of the “great replacement” might not seem like your usual suspect. Renaud Camus was a radical student demonstrator in Paris in 1968 and in 1981 voted for socialist Francois Mitterrand for president of France. A noted poet and novelist, he published books on his gay identity that attracted accolades from the likes of intellectual Roland Barthes and poet Allen Ginsberg. By the early 2000s, however, Camus had begun to outline a new philosophy that distinguished between “faux” or false French (immigrants or their children) and real French (those who had lived in the country for many generations). In 2010, he published a book entitled Le Grand Remplacement bemoaning the prospects of a France and a Europe transformed by immigration.

Camus’s work became the foundational text for a growing movement called Generation Identity, a modernized version of white nationalism that has influenced the alt-right in the United States, gained momentum on the Internet, and become a global phenomenon. The “identitarians” embraced Renaud Camus and spread his ideas in a virtual echo chamber all their own. “The playing field is not level,” points out Julia Ebner of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The far right now has a striking “advantage in terms of algorithms of social media favorable for spreading conspiracy theories and potentially harmful and inciting content.”

And keep in mind that it’s not just explicit racists and Islamophobes who are pushing this meme. A softer version, embraced by mainstream conservatives, transposes the racial anxiety at the heart of the Great Replacement into a cultural key. “Our civilization,” it claims, is now at risk. French culture must be preserved. European civilization is being undermined. The American way of life is endangered. “Africa wants to kick down our door and Brussels is not defending us,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in 2018. “Europe is under invasion already and they are watching with their hands in the air.”

This isn’t a new story. It was so prevalent in the 1920s that F. Scott Fitzgerald lampooned the idea in his famed novel The Great Gatsby when he put such arguments in the mouth of one of his characters. “If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged,” Tom Buchanan says over dinner in the first chapter. “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

Buchanan was then echoing arguments in well-known books like The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920). Such arguments would take firm root in Europe as well. Adolf Hitler, for instance, called Grant’s book “my bible.” The Nazis, of course, didn’t just impose immigration controls to ensure the supremacy of the white race. They took Gatsby, Grant, and Stoddard to their logical, genocidal conclusion.

In the wake of the defeat of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese racism in World War II, a global consensus emerged, shared by capitalists and communists alike, that the extreme version of the replacement story had been consigned to the trash bin of history. In the West, the political center would eventually sign on to some variant of multiculturalism in which immigration became an integral part of civilization, not antithetical to it.

The end of the Cold War, however, brought an end to this consensus. Communism was effectively over and union membership declining. Liberal parties attracted to the Third Way politics of President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were abandoning their working-class base. In the industrialized world, economic globalization was creating greater insecurity among the middle class and the working poor. In this context, multiculturalism and immigrants became easy targets for a rising white nationalism. In the 1990s, the growing popularity of previously fringe politicians like Jörg Haider in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia paved the way for future parties and movements that would far more vigorously break the anti-fascist taboos of the past.

In the 1920s, the far right had found an effective way to attract adherents by blaming all the ills of the nation on “degenerate races.” This story of racial eugenics united both conservatives like President Calvin Coolidge and conspiracy theorists like Grant and Stoddard. “The demographic replacement is a similar master frame that can unite both clear extremists and conservatives who might be worried about demographic change,” warns Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. “Once you add those two together you have potential majorities in many countries. They’ve found a winning formula. There’s nothing that I’ve seen that comes remotely close to countering that formula.”

Same Old Story

When war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was the first time that bloodletting on that scale had taken place in Europe since the end of World War II. The subsequent fragmentation of the country would also prove a giant step backward for the project of European integration. Here was a multicultural state, the first in line among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe for membership in the European Community (later, the European Union or EU), that a set of Balkan politicians would tear apart thanks to political expediency, nationalist ideology, and economic arrogance.

At the time, the widespread ethnic cleansing that took place during the Yugoslav wars was generally seen as either a throwback to an earlier era of genocide (ancient hatreds) or a final bout of violence accompanying the end of the Cold War (temporary antagonisms). It was, in either of these scenarios, entirely backward looking.

By now, the Yugoslav successor states have indeed put those wars behind them, with Slovenia and Croatia even joining the EU. But the desire for ethnic purity has not disappeared, not in the Balkans or in Europe as a whole. Only recently, for instance, new walls have appeared in the Balkans — between North Macedonia and Greece, Slovenia and Croatia, Hungary and Serbia — this time to maintain greater homogeneity by keeping out migrants and refugees from the Greater Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile, the EU is paying Turkey billions of dollars to stop more desperate Syrian refugees from heading for Europe, while investing resources in Libya aimed at preventing migrants and refugees from making their way across the Mediterranean. Fleeing war and poverty, those migrants and refugees have only grown in number as European sentiment against them has reached new heights.

The European far right has risen in the slipstream of such xenophobia. Buoyed by its electoral success, the far right now wants to take a further giant step that might indeed return Europe to the days of ethnic cleansing — not just keeping out immigrants but expelling ones already there. This policy of “remigration” is the active corollary of the great replacement.

For decades, the European right rejected multiculturalism, insisting on the full assimilation of all immigrants. Now, it has given up on assimilation entirely. The platform of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, reads: “Germany and Europe must put in place remigration programs on the largest possible scale.” Already the biggest opposition party in the German Bundestag, or parliament, the AfD similarly increased its representation in the European Parliament in 2019 and also surged dramatically in the states of the former East Germany in recent local elections. The AfD’s position on immigrants is particularly disturbing given that the Nazis, before they embarked on the Final Solution, promoted their own version of remigration by proposing to send Jews en masse to Madagascar.

Ideas like the great replacement and remigration, having percolated in the identitarian movement for close to two decades, have now circulated back to the states of the former Yugoslavia. The far right has found fertile ground in Serbia and in the Serbian regions of Bosnia. And mass murderers like Anders Breivik in Norway and the Christchurch shooter in New Zealand have drawn a straight line between their brutal acts and the ethnic cleansing supported by war criminals like Serbian politician Radovan Karadzic during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In this way, the proponents of the great replacement are keeping alive the spirit of the worst war Europe has experienced on its soil since World War II.

Tell Me Something Else

The obvious response to the far right’s great-replacement story, here and in Europe, is to promote more humane immigration and refugee policies and a more inclusive vision of society. But that story — along with celebrations of multiculturalism, nods to the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”), and the endless repetition of the EU’s official motto of “unity in diversity” — has not proven sufficiently compelling to those around the world anxious about their own slipping status in society.

A better story is needed: a story that somehow captures the same “us” versus “them” dynamic.

How about this: believe it or not, the great replacement is indeed actually happening, just not the way the far right imagines. We are about to be replaced by a desperate set of adversaries. This foe is crafty and able to get through nearly all our careful democratic defenses.

The difference with the far right’s narrative boils down to pronouns. The “us” in the counter-story I imagine is not a marginalized group of people. The us is all of us on a fast-heating planet.

As for the “them,” it’s tempting to follow the example of that other Camus — Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus — when he equated fascists with rats in his novel The Plague. The far right and its mainstream collaborators, along with the energy extraction industry, the finance sector, and corrupt oligarchs, are certainly a form of pestilence, a “them” that needs to be countered. Since 1965, just 20 of the major fossil-fuel companies have produced a third of the greenhouse gas emissions sent into the atmosphere. And now they’re aided by Donald Trump and his top environmental and energy officials, intent as they are on heating the planet to the boiling point for their own profits, as well as similar figures around the world.

But here’s the thing, we don’t have to work hard to dehumanize the adversaries they’re letting loose on all of us because they aren’t human at all.

The list of “them” would, for instance, begin with a buzzing mosquito. After all, as a result of rising global temperatures, disease-bearing mosquitos are now spreading far beyond their normal range. That would include the mosquitos responsible for transmitting the Zika, dengue, and chikungunya viruses. Dengue fever, present in only 10 countries in the 1970s, can now be found in 120 of them. And there is no question that, as the planet heats, malaria-bearing mosquitos will return to the United States after having been eradicated nearly 70 years ago. Climate change may also produce new types of mosquitos that could be even more effective in transmitting disease.

Lest you think that the mosquito is hardly worth losing sleep over unless it’s buzzing around your tent at night, remember that this tiny creature may well be the deadliest adversary humankind has ever faced. In his new book The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator, Timothy Winegard argues that, as a result of the illnesses they’ve transmitted, mosquitos have killed 52 billion people, about half of everyone who has ever lived on the planet. This tiny creature, in other words, has proven a truly genocidal force.

It’s not just mosquitos, of course. The “them” that we’re going to find ourselves up against will include disease-bearing ticks, rats, and a range of crop-devouring insects. Such creatures are all, in essence, standing on the sidelines and cheering climate change on. Their gain, our loss: it’s no more complicated than that.

We don’t need an evil space invader to unite the planet in a common fight. The adversary is just above our heads and right beneath our feet. In combatting a pestilence that affects everyone, we can tell an inclusive story that can appeal even to former supporters of Donald Trump, Hungarian ruler Viktor Orbán, and others. The far right is all about drawing borders and excluding “undesirables.” They will always win at that game.

It’s time to flip the script. We are indeed in the fight of our lives. When it comes to the climate crisis, a great replacement does loom on the horizon. Humans and the civilization that goes with us may, it turns out, be all too replaceable. It’s time for everyone — and I mean everyone — to pull together, forget our superficial differences, and win this epic battle of us versus them.

TomDispatch, October 20, 2019

Categories
Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

The GOP’s Sinister New Nationalism

The worst thing you could be in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s was a “rootless cosmopolitan.” The epithet sometimes came with a death sentence.

The Soviet Communist Party, under the strong guiding hand of Joseph Stalin, had long turned its back on the internationalism of its founders and their commitment to world revolution. In its place, Stalin vowed to “build socialism in one country.” And that ultimately required a new kind of nationalism.

“Rootless cosmopolitan” was not just a term for run-of-the-mill internationalists. It had a very specific meaning. Stalin was targeting Jews.

Ironically, most of the Jews who’d been so influential in the creation of Soviet Communism — Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek — had already been purged or exiled. That didn’t stop Stalin from searching for other hidden enemies, such as a group of Jewish poets, or an imaginary cabal of Jewish doctors determined to assassinate the dictator. The anti-Semitic purges that Stalin began in the Soviet Union spread throughout Eastern Europe as well, as the Communist parties there took a hard turn toward nationalism.

History repeats, Marx once said, first as tragedy and then as comedy.

In mid-July, a group of putative conservative intellectuals gathered in Washington to confirm a new, nationalist direction for their movement. The conference featured the likes of John Bolton and Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and Julius Krein. According to its mini-manifesto,

The conference on “National Conservatism” will bring together public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

On the face of it, this ideological transformation mirrors Donald Trump’s assault on “globalists” and pledge to Make America Great Again. Lurking behind this fixation on the nation, as with Stalin’s earlier campaign, is the GOP’s own purge of cosmopolitanism, including the rootless variety.

In this comic reworking of the earlier Soviet tragedy, a key target is not Trotskyism but its distant cousin, neo-conservatism. Many of the neo-conservatives who proved so influential in the 2000s were Jewish — Bill KristolElliott AbramsDavid Frum. Some, like Bill Kristol’s father Irving, were once even Trotskyists, which helps to explain their peculiar transmutation of world revolution into global democracy promotion.

Mind you, most Soviet and East European Communists were not Jewish, and neither are most neo-cons. And the inspiration for this particular conference was Israeli author Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. But it’s hard not see a similar anti-Semitic trope in operation behind the attacks on cosmopolitanism at the conference.

Trump didn’t attend the meeting, and the conference speakers avoided mention of his name. But his upending of the policy status quo has made this nationalist turn possible. Even before he stepped out of the closet to proclaim himself an unabashed nationalist in October 2018, Trump pushed back against the neocon obsession with democracy promotion abroad (indeed, the president doesn’t promote democracy at home either).

Instead, like Stalin, Trump is focusing his revolution in one country. The U.S. president is obsessed with securing the borders and cracking down on “rootless” immigrants. He has repeatedly trafficked in racist rhetoric of the “white makes right” variety. He has heaped scorn on cosmopolitan cities like Baltimore. He is not against Jews per se — witness his strong embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel more generally — but only a particular kind of Jew, whose allegiance to Israel or the United States might be called into question because of liberal cosmopolitanism. He particularly bristles at Jews who accuse him (or he thinks have accused him) of anti-Semitism.

This new turn toward nationalism among American conservatives is troubling for reasons other than its implicit indictment of rootless cosmopolitanism. Right now Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and the undocumented are certainly more vulnerable to Trump’s attacks than American Jews. Trump is telling prominent people of color in Congress — not prominent Jewish politicians — to “go home.” The intended audiences for these messages can interpret the rhetoric according to their favorite intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia.

But the assault on globalists, on the elite, on financiers like George Soros all push in the same direction: against the internationalism that is in such short supply when it is needed the most.

Against the Globalists

It’s hard these days to find anyone in the United States in a position of political power who will put in a good word for internationalism.

The candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have largely avoided foreign policy (though both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have issued good statements). And when the candidates do venture into matters beyond these borders, it’s usually to bash China (as several did during the first televised debate) or Russia or Trump’s policy on North Korea.

Then there’s the new Quincy Institute, which unites George Soros and Charles Koch in an effort to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the world. That’s all for the good, of course. But given the Koch funding and its transpartisan agenda, this new initiative is unlikely to embrace strong internationalist institutions and programs except on a strictly ad hoc basis (like support for the Iran nuclear deal).

But while the liberals are busy staying silent about internationalism, the right wing is conducting an all-out frontal assault. Gone are the days of overt enthusiasm for economic globalization or beefed-up security alliances like NATO and, frankly, good riddance. But Trump’s version of America First is spreading through conservative circles like some intellectual version of kudzu. The new fifth column in this nationalist assault are the liberal internationalists, the globalists, the cosmopolitans.

At the National Conservatism conference, for instance, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) led the charge against this new enemy, arguing that an elite of the left and right had sold out the “American middle” to global interests. “Today’s leadership elite is a ‘cosmopolitan’ elite in the way defined by Prof Martha Nussbaum: ‘the cosmopolitan [is] the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world,’ not to a ‘specifically American identity,’” Hawley wrote in a follow-up tweet. “And the cosmopolitan agenda of hyper-globalization & disrespect for the American middle has been bad for workers, bad for families, bad for America.”

Hawley’s jeremiad against cosmopolitans drew charges of anti-Semitism from various organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Hawley refused to back down, saying that the “liberal language police have lost their minds.” He then cited his support for Israel and his opposition to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement as proof of his philo-Semitism. Similarly, in 2017, when Trump advisor Stephen Miller accused a reporter of having a “cosmopolitan bias,” charges of anti-Semitic dog-whistling didn’t stick because of the obvious fact that Miller is the one who’s Jewish and the reporter, Jim Acosta, is not.

But again, the anti-Semitism in question is not directed at all Jews, just as Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign exempted Lazar Kaganovich, the only Jewish member of the Politburo in the 1940s. Kaganovich escaped censure because his loyalty, as an uber-Stalinist, was never in question. The charge of cosmopolitanism today is also about loyalty — to America, to Trump’s brand of nationalism, to Netanyahu’s right-wing version of Israel. If American Jews subscribe to that agenda, they can tell themselves that they, too, are exempted from the ugly name-calling.

This campaign against cosmopolitanism is strengthened by repetition across borders: throughout Europe, in Russia, and even in India. Vladimir Putin has his own brand of illiberal nationalism shot through with Orthodox Christianity. The leaders of Hungary and Poland are similarly ill-disposed towards any minorities that might dilute the presumed homogeneity of their countries. More explicitly fascist echoes can be heard in the far-right parties in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. In India, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is challenging the secular, multiethnic, and cosmopolitan democracy enshrined in the constitution.

But here’s the difference with the Soviet Union of the early 1950s. Jewish poets didn’t conspire against Stalin; there was no such Doctor’s Plot. Those were paranoid delusions.

With Hawley and his fellow nationalists, however, some truth lurks in their accusations. A political elite of the left and right did partner with Wall Street and transnational corporations to promote policies that widened economic inequality within the United States and around the world. Neocons did push for military interventions that were wrongheaded and tragic.

But none of this had to do with cosmopolitanism. The perpetrators of these policies were just as vocally patriotic as their current detractors. They believed in American exceptionalism. They’d reject the notion that they’re world citizens first before American citizens. In fact, the people who pushed through the policies that Hawley now excoriates looked a lot like Hawley himself, a WASPish lawyer who graduated from Stanford and Yale and taught in London.

Against the Cities

The ultimate strategy behind this “anti-cosmopolitanism” is not just to pit a disloyal elite against the common American. It’s also to drive a further wedge between those who live in the cities and those who live elsewhere. Cities, after all, are the home base of cosmopolitans.

Case in point: Trump’s latest tweets demonizing Baltimore and its elected representative Elijah Cummings. The president has described the city as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” I’ve been living in Baltimore for the past year and it’s a wonderful place, full of museums and quirky festivals and vibrant neighborhoods. Yes, it has a high murder rate, many abandoned storefronts, and endemic poverty. But welcome to the modern American city, starved of federal funds and abandoned by the wealthy.

Baltimore shouldn’t take it personally. Trump has also gone after Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson. It’s no accident that Trump singles out cities with large African-American populations for criticism. He knows that he can’t pick up any votes in these places. But he can win points with suburban and rural Americans who have traditionally been suspicious of what takes places in cosmopolitan places: “un-American” activities like race-mixing, gender-bending, and religion-avoiding.

Trump is engaged in political triage. He doesn’t bother campaigning in areas of the country where he’s disliked by the majority. He directs federal funding as much as possible to areas dominated by his supporters. He insults his blue state opponents with electoral impunity. It’s sobering to learn that, according to an analysis in the Cook Political Report, Trump could lose by five million votes — nearly twice the margin of the popular vote in 2016 — and still win the presidency via the Electoral College. Now that is a disgusting mess.

Reorganization of the Right

Not all conservatives have fully embraced this nationalist turn.

Take Bret Stephens, for instance, the New York Times columnist. He’s reluctant to give up on his bedrock commitment to free markets. He tries to stick up for immigration as an important American principle. But even in his explicit rejection of these national conservatives, he can’t resist a few potshots at globalists:

Nationalism offers protection to “somewhere people” against the political and moral preferences of “anywhere people.” And transnational bodies like the European Union have largely failed the test of democratic representation and accountability.

The once-grand coalition of conservatives that created the Reagan revolution — laissez-faire enthusiasts like Milton Friedman, America Firsters like Pat Buchanan, Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, neoconservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick — no longer exists. The parochialists are displacing the globalists, and cosmopolitans are replacing communists as the enemy of choice. Even the mild dissenters within the conservative coalition, like Stephens, feel the need to give nationalism its due.

The Democrats are doing their best to sound the same themes. Elizabeth Warren’s domestic program, after all, is called “economic patriotism.” That’s fine for winning elections. But without a new internationalism, progressives will end up with the tired old foreign policy of the Blob — or worse.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 31, 2019

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s Send-Them-Back Doctrine

During the height of Stalin’s purges, the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase near the door of his apartment.

The Black Marias, the vehicle of choice for the secret police, would traditionally arrive in the middle of the night to ferry “undesirables” to interrogation cells. Shostakovich wanted to be ready at any moment for possible exile to Siberia. He was a much-celebrated figure in the Soviet Union, but Stalin had taken a dislike to his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. The Soviet dictator was like that: unpredictable.

The Soviets executed more than a half a million people in 1937-1938, while about 18 million peoplewere imprisoned in the gulags from 1929 to 1953. Shostakovich had good reason to be fearful. In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a significant portion of the population lived in fear of arrest, then execution or internal exile.

Today, in the United States, a vast population of the undocumented live in constant fear of arrest and exile, not to some far-flung area of the United States but back to their countries of birth.

Some of them, like Shostakovich, have packed their bags in advance. In East Tennessee, Alberto Librado’s 11-year-old daughter has two suitcases always ready so that she can accompany her father back to Mexico, even though she, born in the United States, could legally stay behind. The Librados and so many other families await the Black Marias of ICE.

In contrast to those who feared Stalin’s wrath, the undocumented won’t be interrogated and forced to sign incriminating confessions. Nor will they be executed. But many left their countries because of a well-justified fear of persecution or harm. Their deportation may indeed be a death sentence.

The overwhelming majority of those who died during Stalin’s reign served the Communist state faithfully. Likewise, the overwhelming majority of the undocumented have labored hard here in the United States, usually at jobs that the native-born simply don’t want — in the sweltering fields of Florida or the frigid slaughterhouses of the South and Midwest. At a time of low unemployment, their labor is needed more than ever. The state’s push to deport them seems irrational and self-defeating, just like the Soviet Communist Party’s decision to persecute its own loyal members.

The deportations that Trump has threatened did not begin with him. The Clinton administration deported more than 12 million people, the George W. Bush administration more than 10 million, and the Obama administration more than 5 million. But there was a difference. “During Obama, the overwhelming majority of enforcement actions targeted criminal aliens,” John Cohen, former acting under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, told The New York Times. Trump’s “operation apparently specifically targets families who for the most part present no risk.”

Moreover, the Trump administration has demonized the undocumented like never before. “They aren’t people,” Trump has said, “they are animals.” The administration has revived the practice of workplace raids. It has tried to roll back protection for the “dreamers,” young people who came to America as minors. It has removed “temporary protective status” for over 300,000 people from six countries.

And this week the administration announced that it will end most asylum-seeking at the border by blocking anyone who has passed through a third country — mostly Mexico — to the U.S. border. That means a big cold shoulder to anyone fleeing violence and persecution from Central America.

The latest round of ICE raids was supposed to begin this weekend but they were scaled back because targeted communities had advanced notice thanks to media reports. But Trump will be keeping this issue in the news until Election Day 2020. The immigration issue is a sure-fire method of firing up his base.

It also fits into his larger framing of the issue, which is a profound and malignant redefinition of “we the people.”

Forget about Minorities

Before the last G-20 meeting last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an interview to the Financial Times. His description of liberalism as “obsolete” received a lot of media coverage. But it was his itemization of liberalism’s defects that deserves greater attention.

For Putin, liberalism’s greatest failing is its emphasis on minority protections, which conflict with “the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population.” Those minority protections include LGBT rights, which Putin sees in conflict with “the culture, traditions, and traditional family values of millions of people making up the core population.”

Right-wing populists, because they so often represent minority constituencies like the rich or the outwardly racist, have to reconceive the “people” in order to demonstrate that they reflect the majority. Populists speak on behalf of this imagined majority when they suppress the rights of minorities, as Putin as done. They also do their best to dismantle the democratic institutions of the state that protect the interests of minorities, going after one group after another in a game of divide and rule.

The most disturbing example of this marshalling of an imagined majority against a beleaguered minority is the attack on migrants and refugees. Putin zeroes in on liberalism’s approach to non-citizens, particularly Germany’s embrace of a million desperate souls from the wars convulsing the Middle East.

“This liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done,” Putin argues. “That migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”

That’s of course absurd. Migrants, like everyone else, are subject to the rule of law in Germany or the United States. It’s the height of hypocrisy for Putin to make this assertion, given that he kills and plunders with impunity. But that’s what distinguishes liberalism from the Russian president’s self-proclaimed illiberalism, which puts himself above the law.

Here the symmetry between Putin and Trump becomes all too clear. Trump is not Putin’s spy. He is Putin’s student. Together they attribute all social evils to the outsider — so as to preserve an illusion that the “core population” (including, of course, themselves) is blameless.

Trump has gone even further than Putin in his understanding of who constitutes a migrant. The president’s recent tweets that certain progressive Democrats — obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — should “go back” to the “places from which they came” are an extraordinary elevation of street insult to state-sanctioned racism. All four politicians are American citizens, and three of them were born in this country.

And the response from Trump’s Republican supporters? “They are American citizens,” Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said. “They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country. Mr. President, you’re right about their policies. You’re right about where they will take the country. Just aim higher.”

And how does Graham characterize their policies? “We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists,” Graham said. “They hate Israel, they hate our own country.”

Graham, a fervent supporter of gun rights, knows all about “aiming higher.” He’s not talking about elevating the discourse. He’s talking about shooting to kill (politically) by using some tried-and-true bullets (anti-Communism, anti-Semitism).

All of which is to say that the Republican Party has various ways of demonizing minorities and distinguishing them from a red-blooded American majority. Putin is right: liberalism has become obsolete, at least for much of the ruling elite in the United States.

They’re Real People

One reason that Trump and the Republican right have gotten away with their anti-immigrant sentiment is that “average Americans” don’t have much contact with the undocumented. Direct contact, that is. So much of the conveniences of modern life depend on the labor provided by the undocumented: tomatoes, chicken wings, manicured lawns, clean office spaces.

What separates the documented and the undocumented is a wall of language, of economic stratification, of cultural segregation. This is the real wall that Trump is reinforcing every day.

But sometimes that wall is breached.

Consider the following story from a recent This American Life episode, about an ICE raid on a slaughterhouse in Bean Station, Tennessee — where Alberto Librado worked before he was detained — and the reaction of Trump supporter Krista Etter.

Etter had to go to a local vigil for the parents that ICE rounded up in order to take pictures of it for the local paper. And she started to listen to the children talking at the microphone.

There was a young man. He was a teenager, 14, 15 years old, that said, he just wanted his mom to come home. He didn’t have anybody else. He just wanted his mom to come home. It just really, just shook my soul. It was — it was almost overwhelming, because there were so many children speaking. And — and, I actually kind of had to get out of there. Because I was like, it’s getting hot. And I have health issues. And I was like, I need to — I have to remove myself, you know, walk out to my car, get a breath.

You can almost hear how this new information begins to transform Etter’s thinking:

Because when I heard crack down on illegal immigration, I interpreted it as a crackdown on illegal immigrants that were criminals. If there was a drug situation, you know, violent criminals, pedophile, any kind of situation of that nature. That’s what I expected.

And I really believe I’m not the only one who did that. I don’t think anybody ever really stopped to think that they were going to go after the family man working at the meatpacking plant. That’s not what I had in mind.

I’m still a President Trump supporter. I guess, I have to hold out hope that maybe he didn’t understand he was going after the guy in the meatpacking plant. I mean, I guess he probably does.

It wasn’t just Etter whose mind was changing. The mayor of Morristown, where many of the Bean Station workers lived, calls himself a “lifelong Republican of the Reagan variety.” Gary Chesney is not the kind of mayor interested in setting up a sanctuary city. “We’ve been following the rules and guidelines here,” he told The New Yorker. “But the innocent victims were the kids whose parents were picked up. I was also proud that our locals took care of the innocent folks.”

The mayor’s thinking is still evolving — note his distinction between the “innocent” children and the presumably “guilty” parents who have been working so hard at the nearby slaughterhouse. Still, the mayor admits: “We all get a little bit smarter as the issue gets more personal.”

The issue has never gotten personal for Trump, even though he has employed plenty of undocumented folks at his enterprises going all the way back to the start of his career. Undocumented Polish workers who built Trump Tower later sued Trump. They reported “nightmare memories of backbreaking 12-hour shifts and of being cheated with 200 other undocumented Polish immigrants out of meager wages and fringe benefits.”

The issue has never gotten personal for Trump, even though his wife’s parents obtained American citizenship by using the same method of “chain migration” that the president has declared “must end now.”

The issue has never gotten person for Trump because he has not gotten even “a little bit smarter” about immigration. He used the undocumented to build his buildings, to construct his brand, to win the White House. It was despicable then on a local level, and it’s despicable now at a global level.

He will stop only when enough Krista Etters see through the canard.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 17, 2019

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights

Trump’s Only Electoral Strategy Was Racism

In the week before the mid-term elections, Donald Trump returned to his bread-and-butter issue: immigration.

He knows that the only thing that will turn out his base, and possibly swing some independents over to his side, is fear. Economic indicators are in reasonably good shape (for now). Hillary Clinton is nowhere near power (for now). He can’t use the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons because he’s already told Americans after the Singapore summit that they can sleep soundly (for now).

Ah, but a caravan of poor migrants, many of them women and children, fleeing violence and poverty — now that’s a threat.

It’s such a threat, in fact, that Trump announced that he will send as many as 15,000 U.S. troops to the border beginning this week. That’s about the same number of U.S. soldiers currently in Afghanistan. And the new deployment doesn’t count the border patrol and ICE personnel already positioned across from Mexico. The estimated cost of Trump’s plan is $200-$300 million, on top of the nearly $200 million in costs for dispatching the National Guard in May.

The caravan poses such a threat that Trump initially told the military that it should fire at anyone who throws a rock. “Consider it a rifle,” the president said. “When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military police, consider it a rifle.” Now, that might be how things are done in Israel, where the military has killed a number of people at the border with Gaza (with or without stones). But the U.S. military has responded that it operates according to the principle of proportional response. Rocks don’t equal bullets.

The caravan is such a threat that Trump’s political team put together a campaign ad that spuriously linked the murderer of a cop to the migrants fleeing violence. It ended with the message “Stop the caravan. Vote Republican.” The ad was so offensive that even Fox News refused to run it. NBC initially aired the ad, then had a change of heart and said it wouldn’t do so again. Trump personally pushed for this ad over the objections of aides who thought that a more upbeat message about the economy would be a better note on which to end the mid-term election campaign.

The caravan is such a threat that Trump made up ever more extravagant lies about it. At one point, he asserted that it contained mysterious Middle Easterners (it doesn’t). He claimed that Salvadoran gang members were part of the group (they aren’t). He accused the Democrats of wanting the caravan (they don’t). Then he said that the Democrats were inviting caravan after caravan to the United States (they aren’t).

Trump’s deliberate fabrications obscured the sad reality of the caravan. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic:

In reality, the caravan was thousands of miles and weeks away from the U.S. border, shrinking in size, and unlikely to reach the U.S. before the election. If the migrants reach the U.S., they have the right under U.S. law to apply for asylum at a port of entry. If their claims are not accepted, they will be turned away. There is no national emergency; there is no ominous threat. There is only a group of desperate people looking for a better life, who have a right to request asylum in the United States and have no right to stay if their claims are rejected.

Trump’s attacks on the caravan are part of a larger effort to use immigration as the defining issue of his presidency. It’s his version of the Communist threat, which was not just about Soviet nukes but also the presumed infiltration of American society.

Immigrants serve that same dual purpose of mobilizing Americans against alleged threats both inside and outside America’s borders. In Trump’s distorted worldview, immigrants are not just massing on the other side of the Rio Grande but they’re already on the inside killing innocent civilians, taking jobs away from American workers, and creating dangerous gangs to destroy the fabric of society. For a president fixated on portraying politics in apocalyptic terms, the immigration issue is the perfect weapon.

So, for instance, the immigration issue produced the most provocative image of the 2016 campaign: the Wall. It generated the most incendiary issue of the first months of Trump’s presidency: the travel ban. The second year of his presidency was marked by the controversy over the separation of families at the border. And Trump has once again returned to the topic by attacking the caravan and broaching the possibility of ending birthright citizenship.

It is a deliberately polarizing strategy — to unify Trump’s base against the rest of the country.

According to Gallup polling in October, immigration ranked as the second most important issue for Republicans, just a hair behind the economy, and second highest for all eligible voters. It’s a strategy deliberately crafted to drive a wedge right into the immigrant community itself — with some older immigrants standing with the president against undocumented workers and some Asian Americans siding with the Republican Party on its anti-affirmative-action stance.

On the eve of the elections, it didn’t appear to be a winning strategy. According to pollsters Peter Enns and Jonathon Schuldt, Trump’s attacks on the caravans had no statistical impact on voting preferences by the end of October. Nor did it seem to motivate his Republican base to turn out. It didn’t even seem to make likely voters more anti-immigrant. Democrats, at least in House races, were having more luck persuading voters with their emphasis on health care.

But even if immigration didn’t prove effective nationwide as an electoral strategy, it does seem to have impact on a local level. In Arizona, for instance, immigration is a top issue. If Republican Martha McSally preserves her narrow lead over Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the Arizona Senate race, the Republican’s hardline immigration position may have been the deciding factor. On the other hand, Republican David Brat used immigration as a key issue to win an upset victory four years ago against House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In yesterday’s election, he lost a nail biter to Democrat Abigail Spanberger. In the Virginia suburbs at least, health care proved to be more of a motivating issue than immigration.

But Trump isn’t thinking just about the mid-term elections. He wants to create an atmosphere of chaos and panic that allows him to act more forcefully (sending troops), speak more rashly (terrorists are coming!), and present himself as the country’s savior (apres moi, le deluge). He’s a grandstanding nationalist who has finally found his calling: to preserve white dominance in the United States and prevent the country from becoming part of a multicultural world.

It’s also a patently racist strategy, though Trump himself doesn’t care what color you are as long as you show absolute loyalty to him. It’s racist not only because of the anti-immigrant animus that it generates. It’s racist because the only way Trump and the GOP can win is through racial gerrymandering and voter suppression in non-white communities.

The mid-terms are over. The Democrats have regained the House and lost ground in the Senate. It’s going to be messy here in Washington as the partisan battles intensify.

But the administration’s game plan is clear for the next two years. Trump has found the one issue that can unify his domestic and foreign policies. The caravan is only the latest example of the president’s efforts to use fear and racism to galvanize his base. By 2020, voters will be deciding not just who occupies the White House. They’ll be voting on what it means to be an American.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 7, 2018