“The situation remains extremely complicated. You still have (…) an atmosphere, a difficult operating environment where counterterrorism legislation and the threat of legal action is in place. And where there’s a very kind of risk-averse international community who are worried about legal threats, reputational threats …””Tension (…) remains high as the economic crisis which has engulfed the country shows little sign of abating. The government and the opposition blame each other for the dire state of the economy.””Broke and divided, ” the United States’ legislative is looking at a growing pile of executive orders calling the country’s democracy into question. The recent wave of controversial policies “has thrown the (…) nation into political turmoil, alarmed its neighbors and prompted concern for foreigners in the country.”
These are but slightly tweaked quotes from major Western news outlets, referring to countries in the global South in crisis or post-election situations.
They – or we – don’t talk about the United States in the same terms. The current political developments are not referred to as “crisis”, despite there having been protests around the country – and abroad – almost every day since he took office, and despite his main activities so far being restricting liberties through executive orders.
Why do I care about that? Well, firstly because the Western bias in all things democracy and good governance is laughably hypocritic, and this is just another example of it. Secondly, because the way things are framed in media and debate strongly shapes the actions governments and citizens take in response. Thirdly because we need to be very careful with what we focus on – this immigration ban move may be the start of a much wider political danger.
If this was a smaller economy in the global South, with a government whose democratic legitimacy was more openly questioned than that of the undemocratic US, what would the West do?
a) Democratic leaders would “strongly condemn” legal actions curtailing the rights of minorities, or threatening to feed international terrorism. While we see such warnings from some Western leaders, they are hidden behind polite diplomatic messages. There is nothing wrong with being polite, but really, why does the new autocrat on the bloc get such a different treatment from leaders in the global South?
b) In cases of ongoing human rights violations, international responses would depend on the country’s material resources – if it has oil, or rare earths, or a specific strategic value, chances are international law violations are simply ignored for the benefit of trade.
c) If it doesn’t, the West traditionally has the options of economic and political sanctions, UN resolutions, or – usually under US-leadership – intervention. Economic sanctions don’t work in curtailing the power of autocratic leadership, as you can read here, and here. UN resolutions don’t have the greatest track record either, especially in relation to dangerous nationalist policies.
In the case of the US, all of the above are likely to be adopted by Trump’s Twitter propaganda into a seamless story of how the world wants to hinder American greatness, thus increasing the sense of victimhood, of the need for radical anti-liberal policies, that fuels his popularity.
What do we learn from this? All of the options the West traditionally considers for states failing the liberal ideals have both been proven to be rather inefficient in the past, and are not even considered at the moment.
We learn from this that Western leaders currently have no clue or strategy towards the Trump administration. They have no blueprint to prevent the erosion of minority protection, human rights and international liberal standards in a democracy too big to fail.
And actually, that can be really good. Because it leaves open a window of opportunity to push through alternative ideas, before the litany of sanctions, isolation and resolutions kicks in again. Activists inside and outside the US need to grasp this moment to make alternative visions of domestic and international politics tangible, and preferable to the good old “condemning” policies.
Alternative visions? What the protesters and activists in- and outside the US are demanding is not a simple return to the status quo before his election. The protests are against xenophobia and racism, for gender equality and for “bridges, not walls” between opposing ideological groups.
We need to show we mean it. We need to show how these things work. We need to show they work better than bans on arbitrarily chosen scapegoats, better than building walls.
The Dutch government has made the first step already: when Trump stopped all funding for abortion services abroad through US sources, they stepped in, increased their own funding for such services and called on other governments to do the same. Similarly, Canada stepped in by tweet when Trump barred access to refugees, saying it would host those fleeing persecution – and almost immediately, Scotland followed with a similar proclamation.
These examples show it is possible: rather than trying to confront an administration that is clearly intent upon provoking both its national and its international audience, such actions show Trump that his power is limited. That, where he pulls out of international agreements, human rights standards, or trade deals, others will take his place. Who knows, the Canadians, the Dutch and all those who will hopefully follow may even do a better job at providing protection to all those the Trump administration seeks to denigrate than the Obama administration. If Trump cuts funding to UN and USAID agencies, there will be people in other countries who will find solutions to the problems this causes. Other financial models, other donors, a new balance of power will take the place the US has dominated for so long. If Trump pulls out of NATO, there will be something to take its place, something that will shape military relations in the global North.
This is the time to shape what that something looks like, the something that takes the place of the US government. The something that will take on the challenges of massive inequality, of discrimination, of poverty, of conflict, both domestically and internationally. The something that will step into the gap some UN agencies are likely to leave when their funding is curtailed, the something that will improve people’s livelihoods through new sources of funding, or through entirely new methods. The something that will step into the “sanctuary city” scheme, that will protect immigrants through new, citizen-shaped ways. The many thousands of people that have taken to the streets in all sorts of cities since his inauguration make me hopeful that there is a great deal of weight, power, momentum for positive change out there, that only needs to get channeled and focused in the right way.
We need to start building a new, alternative future that leaves Trump out of the equation. Both because we cannot count on his support for anything that could be seen as progressive, and because the way to minimise his negative impact on the world is to show him his own irrelevance, not give in to his manic bids for attention. We play into Trump’s card if we spend our days watching his next move, rather than making a move ourselves. Or indeed, if we make the moves his followers are only waiting for us to make: playing the “my ideology is better than your ideology” game.
So what moves do we make? There are quite a lot of good ideas out there. At this point, it is about finding the decision-makers and influencers most likely to become your ally against this newly found enemy and convince them to take these ideas forward. It is already happening in the US, with lawmakers scrambling to proclaim their opposition to the much-hated policies against immigration. Find those people who are at a point in their career when they need to stand out, or people with enough balls to do it regardless, and pitch your idea to them. Convince them that this is what a large, loud and persistent group of people want (i.e. make a large group of people make noise on- or offline). That applies inside and outside the US: make governments see their gain in stepping up their support for all those the Trump administration is targeting, in increasing their activities for gender equality, against racism, for smooth migration and integration. If governments don’t work, try corporates. Or other organisations with lots of money and influence. Or small citizen’s organisations that take matters into their own hands. People reaching out to people, people building relationships across divides.
In the end, any holder of a decision-making position, and anyone who hopes to hold one, will do whatever they think their voting/consumer audience wants.
Maybe the way around his “alternative facts” is to create real alternative facts. Alternative facts that tell a story of strong people building bridges, showing true openness to persons of other faiths, nationalities, and convictions. Alternative facts that make the “progressive” ideals of equality and social justice a bit more real.