“If evil has a geographical place, and if the evil has a name, that is the beginning of fascism. Real life is not this way. You have fanatics and narrow-minded people everywhere.” – Marjane Satrapi.
The Trump Effect
Michelle is heading for the ballot, holding strong to the protected piece of paper, her confident gaze overlooking the people she passes by. She is voting for Trump today, as primaries are being held in her state, and she feels proud about it. Like her, over the next few months millions of people all across the United States will decide to elect first their party’s presidential nominee, and then their president. With 458 delegates won as I write, Trump is leading the way of the Republicans, supported by the enthusiasm of his fans.
Many pieces of analysis have been brought about recently to explain Trump’s rise. A series of them is pointing to identity and moral as the main underlying factors. Trump’s supporters, far from being ignorant fools unaware of the radical implications of Trump’s program, know too well what they’re getting from him: the liberating feeling that comes with the unleashed power of racial superiority and disregard for human rights that liberals had been stuffing under the carpet for too long and that a part of the population was willing to uncover again in full force, without the “political correctness” of mainstream politicians.
Some others have emphasised the economic dynamics at work for decades in the US. The neoliberal policies brought about since Ronald Reagan and reinforced by subsequent republicans and democrats like Clinton have failed to foster a more inclusive and equitable society . An opinion paper from the New York Times explored the implosion of American society during the past decades through evidence-based observations. From the decline of the middle class, toiling more for less through income stagnation and rising inequalities, to the ill-conceived management of the financial crisis who favoured corporations over people, all of this led some Americans to feel estranged in their own country, rejected and misrepresented by the mainstream of political parties that they see as self-serving elites. As the author puts it, “Trump has mobilized a constituency with legitimate grievances on a fool’s errand”. In this scenario, the vote for Trump appears as an expression of the need for the suffering middle class to designate a group of Others as responsible for their own misery.
Certainly most of these of explanations hold a bit of truth. And as much as it is an important task to try and dig out the root causes of the Trump phenomenon, sadly, at this stage, it all seems a tad too late. Considering recent electoral successes of the man, we’d rather look forward in the case that Donald does get elected as president. Let’s examine the implications of this slow motion train crash that we, as foreigners, are watching from abroad. For only this way will we prepare ourselves with the ideological tools to embrace this mayhem, if possible.
A potential train crash which would have some repercussions abroad
It seems quite logical to everyone that American elections matter to all. But in which terms? Why are we all riveted to our social media screens in a constant flux of anxiety at watching the rise of this once called muppet who now seems to be taken seriously by a large part of its fellow citizens? Amin Maalouf had put it simply in one of his books: “Of course, some will affirm, the president of the United States is powerful; his political decisions have an impact on the whole globe; therefore, people who elect him find themselves entitled to some form of power that has not been granted to them by law, because the choice they make in the ballot often appears decisive for the future of Asians, Europeans, Africans and Latinos […the American government’s] jurisdiction covers the whole world” (my own translation, A.Maalouf. 2009.”Le dérèglement du Monde”, Grasset).
Of course, this global jurisdiction is not set in law, but in deed. It has established itself through practices of military intervention and policing in foreign countries, through diplomatic arm twisting and economic sanctioning of all kinds. It has strengthened its hold over time through the creation of supranational institutions of which it largely controls the governance process by holding large voting powers and providing a majority of the funding. Just look at the IMF quotas for each country. In this sense, as the linguist Noam Chomsky has put it, the United States are the hegemon by excellence.
Yes, one can easily argue that this hegemon is in decline, it has lost of its supremacy, its economy is being challenged by new rising powers, the world order is set to drift towards multilateralism or regionalisation, and so forth and so forth. Whatever contesting arguments we can find to affirm its decline, it is still tough to negate the fact that the US remains, right now, largely uncontested on the international scene, representing the top of the global structure and speaking with authority.
And it is precisely this structural position of authority that is the reason why these elections matter so much to us all foreigners. In the hyperconnected context we live in, this position of hegemon has granted the United States with an ability not only to project its might and financial weight on the global scene, but also its values and norms – to set the tone and define what is normal behaviour for other states and individuals.
Copper bullets, silver coins and golden words
The established liberal political theorist Joseph Nye has called this face of power the American soft power. This term is in my opinion a diluted version of far richer notions of power than other theorists affiliated with the constructivist school of international relations have called discursive or productive power. The idea here is to recognise that political language does not solely reflect power, it is constitutive of it. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu stated, language is not solely an instrument of communication, but also of “political domination, and potentially, resistance”. It can be used by the dominant element in the structure as a mean to define what is legitimate practice and what is not, what should be on the agenda and what should be obscured. Efficiently used, knowledge and words will allow some concepts to be taken for granted, left unquestioned and unchallenged. In short, they can help set and maintain a status quo.
The discourse of the war on terror that was established after 9/11 is the prominent example: George W.Bush, through public appearances of all kind, made popular a series of terms on the international scene such as Axis of evil and Exporting democracy. His inclination for Manichaeism allowed policymakers to take advantage again of this good old and rhetorically powerful tendency to split the world in two: liberal democracies versus rogue states, well behaved secular whites vs. dangerous Muslims. It surely does not matter that Saudi Arabia was kept inside the first block despite the kingdom’s overt contributions to terror, the important was to know who was on each side.
This discourse ultimately succeeded in legitimating certain practices such as preemptive military actions abroad in the name of stabilising rogue states or fighting terrorism, despite the fact that some of them rested on fragile legal grounds, sometimes violating the United Nations Charter completely. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the prominent example. The discourse on the War on Terror also facilitated the establishment of a policing state at home through the enactment of the Patriot Act in order to deal with ‘dangerous’ individuals.
Words are not just words, they are vehicles of power. When the tone is set, one does not need to wait for democratic approval; it has been tacitly given through a process of legitimation which then facilitates its institutionalisation in law. If one still wonders how to detect the use of productive power, a trick makes it easily detectable: if the same words were uttered by President Putin you would surely have a flurry of western media accusing him of propaganda or misleading rhetoric. When used by the West, it’s called fair game.
Trump’s version of ‘soft’ power
So the crucial aspect that makes Trump’s rise matter so much is not solely the fact that Americans are in a position of intervening abroad (actually, when looked in comparison to other Republican candidates, the foreign policy proposed by Trump looks less terrible than others in terms of interventionism). It is because ultimately, the unleashed fascist discourse held by Trump that so many are finding ridiculously radical (despite the fact that it is largely in continuity with the rhetorical Manichean legacy of the Bush era) could start to penetrate the global normative framework.
Let’s recall what’s on the Trump menu here: an utter disrespect for all norms of international law such as the prevention of torture, with Donald proudly affirming that he will make use of waterboarding. The construction of a wall paid for by the Mexican government to prevent illegal migration in the US. The War on Terror was a fade pudding prepared by an old aunt compared to this Halloween treat bonanza. This voice is constantly projected abroad through social and traditional media, and it would be even more if Trump wins the elections, so that one day the notion of building walls to protect from foreigners might lose its current nonsensical status and appear as a legitimate political solution.
Let us also remember that the United States have ratified the Convention Against Torture (CAT) on 21 October 1994, an international treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations after years of hard work of cooperation between states. They are also signatories of the Geneva Conventions that relate to basic rights of wartime prisoners. Sure, recent American’s administrations have been using torture, as Guantanamo or other centres of detention such as Abu Ghraib have revealed. But this has been done covertly, and having a strong framework of good practices in place allowed international human rights organisations to have a legal basis on which to support their argument. Most importantly it maintained in a large part of people’s mind the idea that torture was illegal and should be avoided by all means, whatever the context. Now Trump wants to make it normal business again.
The duty to fight back… With words
So how to protect ourselves from this upcoming potential disaster? Well, sadly the ballots are in American hands. But we, foreigners, will have the duty to fight tooth and nail in order to maintain our own standards. This task will require a high level of critical thinking and intellectual alertness.
We should start by identifying the subtle resemblances between Trump’s overtly fascist discourse and a recent tendency in Europe to capitalise on far right ideas in a more disguised fashion. France’s current attempts at reforming the constitution in order to strip French nationality from convicted terrorists after the November’s events are the perfect example. This reform is an implicit recognition that terrorism is of foreign origin, a way of designating a group of Others as responsible for a complex issue, presenting a binary vision of the world as ‘Us vs. Them’ that aligns with Trump’s rhetoric in some ways. No binary reductionism will help us sort current crisis, things are and will always be more ambiguous that than.
Other countries responses to the refugees crisis in Europe also demonstrate that the far right is offering an attractive ideological answer for some. It is easy to point out to the boldness of some of Trump’s statement when here at home the whole political spectrum seems to make a similar shift to the extreme right. Trump getting elected would give even more credit to these ideas – “well if the Top 1 liberal democracy of the world does it, it must surely be OK no?”
Let’s fight this ideological nightmare by embracing complexity and offering political solutions that reflect this one and that would go at the root causes of issues by analysing them in an interdisciplinary fashion. The demonisation of minorities and the creation of an Other has always been an easy political lever in times of crisis, but right now politicians are increasingly rewarded for it, instead of being countered and dismissed from the political landscape. This is extremely dangerous. This is the slipping edge of fascism, and there is no other word for it.
Some now all too famous extracts from Trump’s programme extracted from OntheIssues :
Bring back waterboarding and other interrogation methods. (Nov 2015)
35% import tax on the Mexican border. (Jun 2015)
“I do not like the migration. I do not like the people coming.”
Ship millions back to Mexico, like Eisenhower did. (Nov 2015)
Walls on borders work; just ask Israel. (Nov 2015)
Mexico & Latin America send us drugs, crime, and rapists. (Jun 2015)
“You prefer me to use for the people who are hell bent on bankrupting our nation, stealing our jobs, who spy on us to steal our technology, who are undermining our currency, and who are ruining our way of life? To my mind, that’s an enemy.”
An example of his inconsistent rhetoric:
He’s saying his foreign policy would be defensive not offensive, but still note that If Obama had attacked Syria, we wouldn’t have refugees now. (Sep 2015)
“I will…quickly and decisively bomb the hell out of ISIS, will rebuild our military and make it so strong no one — and I mean, no one — will mess with us.”
….Who said progress is a straight line?
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Photo credits to Darron Birgenheier
The title of this article was amended on 22nd March 2016, it was initially “How to protect ourselves from Trump’s ‘soft power’ – or why every vote for Trump should matter to us all non-Americans.”