Why is Trump so terrifying for many people? Because he represents the ascendancy of the anti-immigrant far right to mainstream American politics. He is an almost openly racist President, as opposed to a closeted one.
But what is different about Trump that wasn’t already embodied in someone like Ted Cruz or the Tea Party? What’s scary about Trump is that he represents the non-“moderate” wing of the Republican party winning. McCain was a notorious “maverick” and spoke softly, and Mitt Romney also presented himself as a moderate. But those were lies.
Furthermore, past US presidents were also notoriously racist, and in recent memory Nixon particularly comes to mind. The war in Vietnam was a fundamentally racist endeavor. Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign was racist at its core (he popularized the term ‘welfare queen’).
And yet its the anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric and actions that make Trump the pariah in the mainstream media (CNN) and has polarized the nation. And yet, when Obama became dubbed “deporter in chief” it barely got any news coverage.
I’ve seen Trump top the list of worst presidents of all time after only 2 years in office. But it would be a victory for the right and for Trump if he managed to make us lose our collective historical memory and forget the horrible policies of the Bush and Reagan administrations. The scandals, the corruption, the racism: now its all out in the open. This is a boon for the left, not a doomsday scenario. The worst possible take from this is that we need to return to the “moderate center”. It was the moderate center that gave us Trump in the first place by their continual failures.
A hardline immigration stance has been a mainstay of Republican politics for many years. So why is Trump such an abominable figure? Why do people continue to absolve people like John McCain, who voted with Trump 83% of the time? If Trump is a nightmare, and McCain is a hero, then by that logic Trump is 83% hero.
The problem is, to the media, its style over substance, rhetoric over policy, sound bytes over reality. McCain was no leader of the resistance, and neither is Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, who continue to kow tow to Trump’s demands for greater military spending and refused to fight when it came to his nominations for significant positions.
Trump is the symptom of the rot in American society, not the cause.
The veiled rhetoric of the Reagan administration (welfare queens) is being gradually replaced by overtly racist messaging. But at the same time, we should understand that the actions of the Trump administration fall under the historical category of protectionism, which has a long history in the US as well. It is not the first time immigration policy has been the focus of US politics (the Chinese exclusion act) nor will it be the last. As hard as it is for liberals to admit, illegal immigration is a problem, and as much we must be committed to the human rights of refugees and international migrants escaping poverty and war from third world countries, we must see it as a problem so we can attack the problem at its source. Illegal immigration is driven partly by US policies on trade and past US interference in Central and Latin American governments. This has continued to this day, with Hillary Clinton supporting a coup in Honduras in 2009 that drove instability in the region and caused a wave of migration from Honduras.
So in a bizarre way, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama helped get Trump elected!
Perhaps it was even more direct than that. Wikileaks released cables that provide evidence that Clinton ran what is known as the pied piper strategy because Clinton polled more favorably against far right candidates than moderates (because there isn’t that big of a difference between them).
To astute political historians and avid leftists, this all comes as no shock. What may come as a shock is that despite all this, we still need to work within the confines of the existing democratic system. That is where the legitimate fight is, and if you care about short-term policy victories as well as long-term political strategy, we still need to play the political game and defeat Trump electorally. Somehow, we should not kow tow to the “lesser of two evils” mantra that brought us to the situation we are in today. Nevertheless, we should realize that leftists can’t win every battle, and sometimes the ideological ground is not ripe for success. The majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War, for instance: there was a massive protest movement, but politics reflect the ideological state of a country. A revolution will never work if there is not the cultural groundwork for it.
Therefore, the ascendancy of social democrats and social democracy (and even the term “democratic socialism” is an immensely positive trend in American politics today. Not only does it represent a real political alternative to the politics of yesteryear, it is a starting point from which to achieve real radical change.
The recognition that the Trump administration represents something new and dangerous is a good thing for the previously “apolitical” American mind, but it is based fundamentally on an ideological obscuring of the real problems. Perhaps that is why Al Jazeera ran an opinion piece on the new Spike Lee movie BlackKKKlansmen that was a very strident and vehement critique. To some extent, the movie does feed into the larger liberal mentality of “Trump bad, Democrats good”. But the problem is that we shouldn’t completely dismiss what the Trump administration is: it is the ascendancy of the far-right. David Duke did endorse Trump. It is frustrating that blockbuster movies can’t focus on Palestine or other more disturbing human rights issues, but that simply wouldn’t make good material for a hit political comedy.
The truth is, Americans always look at their own problems first. Trump dominates every headline of CNN and MSNBC, and meanwhile Yemen is in tatters. World news simply doesn’t matter as much to the insular and largely content American populous. If Al Jazeera and a professor of Iranian studies is frustrated by lack of focus on imperialism, he should recognize that that is the uphill ideological battle that America has been fighting for a century. Imperialism is one of the fundamental contradictions of modern global politics: it is our collective blindspot, and this isn’t a uniquely American problem. Europe is also to blame. Tony Blair shares the blame with Bush for Iraq.
So as bad as Trump is, we should recognize that when viewed through the lens of foreign policy, there is no recognizable difference between him and any other administration. In fact, Trump may even be slightly better when it comes appeasement of North Korea, preventing conflict with Russia, etc.
The Trump-Russia story is the pinnacle of what is wrong with liberal politics today. A long and worn out legal battle involving Trump administration officials and an unlikely impeachment over “meddling” obscures the actual policies of Trump vis-a-vis Russia, which are largely hawkish. In Lacanian-Zizekian terminology, Trump-Russia represents the objet-petit-a, the unattainable desire, of the liberal establishment, and the traumatic kernel of the Real that America refuses to recognize continues to be our involvement in the Middle East during the Bush administration and beyond. The true weight of the moral atrocities that occurred there, and continue to occur there, due to the US and our imperialist meddling, have yet to be fully realized. Therefore, the “political awakening” to the Trump administration, and the rise in activism around it, is a mixed blessing, because it represents the possibility for further collective forgetting and mis-remembering.
To use a spatial analogy, things that occur in our own backyard, such as mass shootings, far right hate group protests, have a direct traumatic impact because they are imprinted into the American collective memory because of literal spatial proximity. The deaths of hundreds of thousands overseas, on the other hand, remain a statistic, separated by oceans and borders, only made real by TV broadcasts. The American collective imagination always lags by a few decades: the reason 911 was so traumatic was not only did it kill so many people, but America was open to outside attack after so many decades. Our lashing out at this king of offenses in Afghanistan and Iraq was the typical hysterical reaction: an eye for a leg. It is the logic of revenge writ large, born out by America’s fundamentally xenophobic ethos. Our borders are sacred, our sovereignty is supremely sacred, so much so that we can violate other countries sovereignty to maintain our own. In short, it is the logic of America First.
Thus, we should recognize that while Trump is vocalizing the axiomatic of American exceptionalism and supremacy, this logic was inherent to American politics and history, perhaps since the beginning (Manifest Destiny). Trump is a rule, not an exception, the logical culmination of centuries of American history. It is traumatic only because it is subjectively experienced as a present reality and because it is not viewed in the proper historical context. The present is always more shocking than the past: the immigration crisis is more worrying than Vietnam, because it already happened. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need a properly materialist and firm grasp of history (perhaps even a dialectical one).
Is Trump a fascist? Yes, but Nixon was a fascist, and Reagan was a fascist, and so was Obama and Clinton too. They are all fascists of one form or another, if we are going to play lose with terminology. More aptly put, the American system is more fundamentally authoritarian than the establishment would like you to believe. This should not create more political apathy, but a truly revolutionary change from within: within our consciousnesses and minds, in order to break the chains of mental enslavement to the status quo