Regarding the Normalization of Trump
Many on the Left, including myself, believe Trump and the GOP agenda will be a disaster for most people. As Trump and the GOP advance their agenda a common refrain uttered in response by those on the Left is, “This is not normal.” This is part of the larger insistence from those on the Left that we resist the normalization of Trump. What people on the Left mean by this is that we should not accept Trump’s extremes as the “New Normal” thus allowing it to become the status quo in the U.S. now and into the forseeable future. While I understand the concern around normalizing Trump and agree with the idea, I wonder where these people have been the last several years and even decades.
Trump is vulgar, uncouth and generally repulsive in a lot of his statements and behaviors. This is a jarring contrast to the polished presentation of President Obama, and even (the less polished) President Bush. However, policy wise, Trump is not an abnormal figure that exists completely outside of our political status quo. Many of the policies and legislative aims Trump has called for have actually been part of the political status quo here for some time and have even enjoyed support by the Democratic Party.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
Immigration: Trump has famously called for deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants and building a border wall with Mexico. While his rhetoric around these issues is inflammatory, this is not a huge departure from the Democrats. Democrats have supported border walls, barriers, and fences as part of attempts to increase border security. Under Democrats, billions have been sent to Israel’s to subsidize their defense spending including their militarized apartheid wall and the development of technology related to it. As a result Israeli contractors have already been employed along our border to secure it and stand to gain even more under Trump. Obama has deported a record number of undocumented immigrants. ICE detention facilities, including family detention facilities, that are often run by for-profit groups and maintain horrible conditions for the detainees have proliferated under the Obama administration.
Palestine: Trump is a staunch supporter for Israel and the moving of the capital and U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. However, it was clear after the primaries that the U.S. status quo of blind support for Israel would continue regardless of who won the Presidential election. U.S. taxpayer money continues to fund Israel’s slow project of ethnic cleansing, Trump impotently called for Israel to slow down illegal West Bank settlements, and is advocating for a Two-state solution which is no longer a viable option at this point anyway. The exact same situation and cycles operated for the last eight years under Obama and would have continued under Clinton.
Islamophobia: Trump has signed an executive order permanently banning Muslim refugees from Syria and a similar temporary ban from other Muslim majority countries. This is driven by the fear that terrorists disguised as refugees could gain entry to our nation and attack us. While this executive order is Islamophobic it cannot be denied that the Democrats are not blameless when it comes to Islamophobia. Obama and the Democrats have also continued to bomb and intervene in majority Muslim countries around the world killing thousands of Muslims in the process. As several people saw it our choice this last Fall was to elect someone who would bomb majority Muslim countries or ban them from seeking refuge here. Obama did react to the Paris attacks and San Bernadino shooting by tightening visa restrictions on the countries that the refugees were from. While visa restrictions are not the same thing as a travel ban, the underlying fear-based rationale was the same; the Obama admin tightened visa restrictions because they thought the violence of some Muslim refugees made entire majority-Muslim countries suspect. Surveillance (without warrants) of Muslim communities and civil leaders also continued under Obama. Clinton also exhorted loyal Muslims to act as their eyes and ears within their community for the security state as it seeks to fight Islamic extremism. This implies that Muslims are more prone to terrorism and that they have to prove their loyalty through being vigilant and reporting on one another and that part of their job of Muslim civilians is disrupting extremists who claim their identities (are all Christians asked to be the eyes and ears against the KKK?).
Military and Security Policy: Trump has proved to be more than willing to provoke foreign nations, including our allies, regardless of the political fallout and potential dangers for armed conflict. This is dangerous and in stark contrast to the calculated and managed foreign policy we expect. However, Trump’s military policy is not a huge departure from the Democrats, who have dropped three bombs a day on average for the last seven years, armed various rebel groups, launched bombing campaigns that destabilized entire regions, and killed many innocent civilians. The Global War on Terror, the Military-Industrial Complex, and new wars and conflicts are sure to ensue in the next several years, as they did under Obama and as they would have Clinton. The extrajudicial dronestrike assassination program and surveillance state have flourished under Obama and will certainly be used by the Trump administration. Some of the players are even the same. Trump did put General Flynn, but General Flynn was nominated to by the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency by Obama in 2011. The Deputy Director of the CIA, Gina Hansel, was installed by Trump’s pick for the head of CIA Pompeo. Hansel ran a blacksite torture site for the Bush administration and was part of destroying tapes of these torture sessions, realities the Obama administration failed to prosecute her for. This is not really surprising as Obama’s pick for the head of the CIA supported some of the same torture techniques. Perhaps the greatest symbolic example of this unity so far is Trump authorizing a raid in Yemen that was planned under Obama, which killed the sister of a teenage U.S. citizen Obama had assassinated with a dronestrike after doing the same to his father.
Antagonism with the Media: Trump has a clearly antagonistic relationship with the press. Trump’s handler Bannon referred to the media as “the opposite party” and Trump has turned the accusation of “fake news” against the media themselves (with at least a grain of truth in some of these accusations due to recent serious failures in journalistic ethics). While Obama maintained a lot more decorum with the press and has championed them as a vital part of our democracy, the Obama administration was not a friend to critical reporting either. In 2009 a senior Obama staffer stated their intent to treat Fox News as an opponent which sounds an awful lot like Bannon’s comments. More importantly, the Obama admin prosecuted, put under surveillance, intimidated and sought to punish leakers, whistleblowers and journalists who published content that was embarrassing to the government, ultimately charging nine people under the Espionage Act, which only has been used three times by all previous Presidents. While Obama talked about the free press making us better, he sure spent a lot of time undermining and fighting it, when it wasn’t publishing stories favorable to the official narrative.
Use of “Alternative-Facts” (A.K.A lying): Trump and his spokespeople have repeatedly declared things to be true that are clearly not true. These lies have ranged from the mundane (the size of his inauguration crowds) to the serious (fictional massacres carried out by Muslims, fictional acts of war by Iran). Trump’s lies are blatant and clearly false, but Democrats have used a lot of “alternative-facts” themselves. In the last eight years Obama has compiled a rather extensive list of “alternative-facts” that have been revealed to be false. Clinton likewise has her own record of falsehoods. Even if some of these are explained away as honest mistakes there are many others where it appears these top Democrats have lied for political reasons. The use of “alternative facts” by Democrats does not just come in the form of public statements but also arise in matters of policy. The meaning of “imminent threat” for example, was twisted linguistically and legally to the point of becoming an “alternative-definition” of that phrase to justify dronestrikes. Thousands of airstrikes that happened in Obama’s administration were simply not been reported, which means government reports regarding civilian casualties, the effectiveness of our campaign against IS, and the cost of this war were all false. The Obama admin also considered all male civilians over the age of 18 killed by dronestrikes to be militants or terrorists with no evidence to support these claims. This was done to hide the real number of civilian casualties of Obama’s decisions.
Nepotism, and Self-enrichment: Trump is set to enrich himself and many members of his family that he has put into power. Trump also has many financial conflicts of interest and it appears very easy for the wealthy elite to influence him. This is dangerous and unethical but it is not without precedent. If you examine the Democratic and Republican parties you will find a broad array of instances of nepotism and self-enrichment. The Clintons made $153 million in speaking fees for short talks to financial groups, financial groups helped by Bill’s deregulation in the 1990s and Hillary’s continued support of the banking and financial industries. I find it impossible to imagine a situation where the Clintons, who are not financial experts, would be paid this much money if they did not have the political power they had while holding official government positions. Where foreign powers might try to gain Trump’s favor by utilizing his hotels abroad, they did much the same thing by donating to the Clinton Foundation and since Clinton lost the election these donations have begun to dry up, proving that many were motivated by a desire to gain favor from an incoming political power. There are at dozens of examples where Republican and Democrat members of Congress securing legislation that benefits industries they or their spouses are involved or invested in. While branded as “dynasty politics” Democrats have grown increasingly comfortable with nepotism over the years. Hillary Clinton’s own positions under Bill Clinton even paved the way and set precedent for Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law to a position of power.
Corporate Ownership of Our Government: Trump’s cabinet is flush with high level businessmen representing a range of financial and industrial corporations. Many have called this a corporate takeover of our government. The problem is this situation is not all that new. For decades (and centuries?) large financial and corporate interests have been the true drivers behind U.S. domestic and foreign policy. From the economic needs that drove European exploration for a new continent with new resources to exploit, to the annexation of Hawaii so missionaries-turned-sugar-barons could dodge taxes, to the invasion of Iraq so Western companies could take direct control of their oil, financial interests have driven our actions. In recent decades an army of lobbyists, armed with over $3 billion, in Washington push our representatives to craft laws that favor the companies that pay them, or simply enact the legislation crafted by those companies word for word. This is often to our detriment, however, our representatives our beholden to the money these groups provide and donate to their re-election campaigns. Republicans and Democrats have managed a facade that a representative government exists in theory when in practice it does not by keeping financial interests one or two steps removed from actual government positions. They do not even do this perfectly as many lobbyists become government officials. From the beginning, hundreds of Obama’s appointments were lobbyists-turned-government officials that sailed through the revolving door he talked about closing, which is not surprising given that the Citigroup bank had a major role in shaping his cabinet. While Trump has abandoned this facade and just put wealthy individuals into direct power, I’m not convinced this represents a dramatic change to what has been going on in D.C.for decades.
Etc., Etc., Etc.
An Escalation of the Status Quo, not a Break with the Status Quo
While Trump is vulgar, while Trump is oppressive, while Trump is doing away with pretense, Trump is not new. Trump, or more accurately the policies that Trump is pursuing, is an escalation of the status quo, not a break with the status quo. Many of the policies he advances or dubious actions he takes are but one or two steps removed from standard fare for the GOP and the Democratic Party alike. The fact that many see Trump as an outlier underlines the uncritical relationship many have with politics. The fact that many Democrats are now up in arms about Trumps behavior but were silent when Democrats did very similar things is an alarming indication that their morality and ethics are based in partisan politics not principle.
While I understand the call to not normalize Trump, I fear the time to have resisted the normalization of the Trump’s behavior and policies has already passed; the need for alarm and resistance already existed long before Trump. The fact that many on the left do not understand this, the fact that they do not get the status quo was already intolerably oppressive, under Republicans and Democrats alike, and major action was already needed, is part of the problem. The fact that many liberals were comfortable as others were fighting the unjust status quo that existed under both parties is part of the challenge to unity the Left now faces.
Understanding the Problem Correctly Leads to Correct Solutions
I do not bring all this up to excuse Trump or his escalation of existing problems. I do not bring this all up to shame liberals suddenly concerned and active after ignoring these issues for the last eight years. I bring all this up because without understanding Trump in the correct way we will pursue incorrect or incomplete solutions to the very real problems in our society.
Framing Trump as an exception to the rule implies that once he is dealt with, we can get back to our normal political lives and routines. For many liberals this means voting for Democrats down the ballot and ignoring or accepting the consequences of Democratic policies that hurt many people. Our resistance to Trump would just be a fight back to a previously unjust status quo that many liberals tolerated because they did not feel personally targeted by. Liberal activism would amount to a form of oppression management that sought to keep oppression and injustice in the U.S. at levels that didn’t offend their sensibilities.
Framing Trump rightly as an escalation to the status quo forces us to see that even after Trump there will be much work to be done. Such a resistance will be forced to reckon with why we tolerated so much injustice to become the norm, especially from those claiming to be champions of the Left, and question what solutions outside and inside of electoral politics we can and should pursue. Liberal activism would be forced to grow towards a form of liberation movement that sought to end oppression and injustice in the U.S., even when it didn’t impact them personally.
While this may seem like nitpicking or an unnecessary nuance to explore in the dire times we live in, I fear that if we do not make this distinction clear in our thinking and praxis, the best the resistance to Trump could accomplish is a return to a disengaged Left and an oppressive status quo which created the conditions for his rise.