Epic confrontation brewing
Liberal opinion is in open revolt against the new president, writes Eddie Ford
Each front cover worth a thousand words
Though it is still very early days yet, there is no sign of the Trump administration moving towards a more consensual or conventional modus operandi - or the president himself getting his wings clipped by the bureaucratic machinery. Quite the opposite, if anything: established norms and protocols are being thrown out of the window, as Trump continues to wage war on what he views as the liberal establishment.
This is graphically illustrated by the continuing showdown over Trump’s executive order 13769,1 which imposed a temporary, 90-day travel ban on people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen - all of which, of course, have a predominantly or overwhelmingly Muslim population. Revealingly, insiders were said to be “stunned” by the apparent lack of legal groundwork done by White House aides (reportedly senior counsel Steve Bannon and policy chief Steven Miller) who wrote Trump’s executive order, which created chaos at airports.
The resulting legal challenges to the order have led to what one American lawyer called an “epic confrontation” between the president and the constitution itself - sparked off on February 3 when a Washington state federal judge, James Robart, granted a temporary restraining order halting Trump’s decree. There is to be a review of the lawsuit brought by Washington attorney general, Bob Ferguson, which maintained that the ban was “unconstitutional” and “harmful to the state’s interests”.2 By doing so, Robart was siding with Minnesota and other states that are also attempting to sue the government. More precisely, Ferguson argued that the Trump order “violated” the guarantee of equal protection and the first amendment’s establishment clause, infringed the constitutional right to due process and contravened the federal Immigration and Nationality Act - the attorney general is hoping to turn the temporary restraining order into a permanent injunction.
In response, a furious Donald Trump issued a volley of Twitter attacks on the “so-called judge”, saying he “cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril” - and “if something happens blame him and court system”. Another tweet went: “I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country very carefully”, but “the courts are making the job very difficult!” Doubtlessly making Trump even angrier, attorneys for the department of justice immediately filed a motion with the Ninth Circuit appeals court requesting an emergency stay of the order - but were denied the request “pending briefing”. Naturally, the DoJ continues to rigorously defend the travel ban and urged the court to reinstate it in the interests of national security - a 15-page brief argued it was a “lawful exercise of the president’s authority” and not a ban, or “shut-out”, against Muslims as such. However, at the time of writing, DoJ lawyers appear to be having a tough time - Trump’s electoral campaign statements specifying a Muslim ban have been cited, as were remarks by one of the president’s advisors, Rudy Giuliani, about coming up with a way of making such a ban “work legally”.
Trump’s move has outraged large swathes of bourgeois and liberal opinion in the US - provoking nationwide protests and demonstrations (with the enthusiastic support of the Democratic Party, of course). Bernie Sanders - who gave Hillary Clinton a serious scare during the battle for the Democratic nomination - denounced a president who “apparently has contempt for the entire judiciary”, urging congress and the courts to “actively check each other and the president”, as the US is supposed to be a democracy, “not a one-man show”. He worried that Trump was leading the US into a “dangerous and unprecedented moment in American history”, and declared that the “onus” was on Republican leaders - especially Mitch McConnell - to “have the courage to stand up” to Trump’s “movement toward authoritarianism”.
These ructions over the travel ban have reverberated throughout the world. In Britain, it was said that executive order 13769 would prevent the Iraqi-born Tory MP, Nadhim Zahawi, from visiting his children, who are studying in the US - he described the order as “cruel”, “sad” and “hugely discriminatory”.3 Reflecting this outrage, John Bercow, former Tory minister and now the House of Commons speaker, said he was opposed to the US president addressing parliament during his already controversial state visit to Britain, because “opposition to racism and sexism” were “hugely important considerations” for the Commons - which might puzzle some on the left who insist that capitalism is inherently or institutionally racist. Bercow added he was “even more strongly opposed” after the president’s travel ban, as it posed a threat to “equality before the law and an independent judiciary”: ie, good bourgeois values.
Obviously, Bercow’s comments irked many - even if he has said he is “generally sorry” for not following protocol and consulting his counterpart in the Lords, Norman Fowler.4 Naturally, US Congressman Joe Wilson told the BBC’s Newsnight that Bercow’s ‘ban’ was a “slap” to Trump and the Republican Party as a whole - “if ever in recent years there’s been a more pro-British president of the United States, it’s Donald Trump”. As evidence, he pointed out that Trump had “assured” Theresa May over his commitment to Nato, expressed a desire to boost UK-US trade relationships, and - most important of all - brought the bust of Winston Churchill back into the Oval Office.
Many Conservatives are indignant, accusing Bercow’s of “arrogance” and “hypocrisy”, of “abusing” his position and “speaking out of turn” - one unnamed Tory MP and former cabinet member grumbled to the BBC that Bercow “must be close to standing down”, whilst Crispin Blunt, Tory chair of the foreign affairs select committee, darkly suggested that the speaker was going to have to deal with “the consequences” of his comments. But, of course, the opposition benches unequivocally welcomed Bercow’s intervention. Harriet Harman twittered that Bercow’s stance was a “proud moment” for the Commons - “Racism and sexism not welcome here” - and her colleague, Wes Streeting MP, waggishly parodied Trump’s inflammatory tweet: “Speaker Bercow has decided to check people coming into our parliament very carefully”. As for Jeremy Corbyn, he warbled about how Bercow was defending “British values” and everything that is nice. Similarly, the right-moving Owen Jones offered “all praise to John Bercow”, because he “spoke for Britain” - unlike the government which is out to “humiliate” the country by making it “Trump’s lapdog”.
With few exceptions, world leaders are increasingly alarmed by the US president - who seems intent on turning the established political-diplomatic world upside-down. Concern is particularly mounting in Europe, deeply worried that the US administration might start some sort of trade war. Or, as Nigel Farage gleefully put it, the European Union is “terrified” of the Trump presidency.
So recently we had the extraordinary spectacle of Donald Tusk, the president of the European Commission, classifying the Trump administration as comparable to other “threats” like China, Russia and radical Islam - now that it has “put into question” the last 70 years of American foreign policy. And EU leaders are nervously waiting for Trump’s choice of ambassador, given that the name, Ted Malloch, keeps cropping up.
Malloch is infamous for likening the EU to the Soviet Union, making it “another union that needs a little taming” - not to mention calling the bloc “outdated” and “unelected”. He has also bluntly asserted that “the post-Berlin Wall globalisation consensus is over” and “read the obituary: Davos-man is dead” - in fact, the “only supranational organisation in which the president believes is God”. Manfred Weber, leader of the centre-right European People’s Party grouping and close ally of Angela Merkel, has accused Malloch of “outrageous malevolence” towards “the values that define this European Union”. Not without reason, appointing Malloch as ambassador would be taken as another sign that Trump is aiming to break apart the EU.
Europeans are not the only ones upset by Trump. It has been widely reported that he abruptly hung up the phone on the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull - whom Trump told that he was going to “review” the Obama-brokered plan for the US to take up to 1,250 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention facilities, which the president described as the “worst deal ever”. Apparently, Trump even accused the Australian prime minister of trying to send America the “next Boston bombers”. Sean Spicer, a White House spokesman, said the refugees - if they ended up coming - would be subject to an “extreme vetting” process to ensure they had “peaceful intentions” and did not pose a threat to “US security”. Australian officials remain concerned that the refugee deal could be scrapped altogether or made effectively meaningless by the vetting process.
Relations between the US and Canada are getting frosty too - how times change. The relationship between Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, and Barack Obama was called a “true bromance” in a White House Instagram post. Alas, this is not the case now - the love has turned sour. One of Trudeau’s top foreign policy advisors has admitted that Trump’s travel ban came as a “shock” to the prime minister - raising questions, for example, about whether Ahmed Hussen, Ottawa’s own immigration minister and a former Somali refugee, could still cross the two states’ shared border.
Other potential flashpoints between the US and Canada include the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump blames for the loss of US jobs and which he has pledged to overhaul; Nato, which Trump has labelled as “obsolete”; immigration, with Canada pledging to admit 25,000 Syrian refugees this year; and climate change, as Trudeau tries to push through a carbon tax plan - with Trump, it goes without saying, going in completely the opposite direction. Madly, the US president thinks that global warming is a “Chinese hoax”.
You do not have to read the leftwing press to find open hostility to Donald Trump. There is plenty of it in thoroughly mainstream journals and publications. For instance, Der Spiegel caused a flurry of controversy with its February 4 front cover illustration, depicting a cartoon figure of the US president with a bloodied knife in one hand and, in the other, the Statue of Liberty’s head dripping with blood.5 Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of Germany’s Free Democrats (FDP) and vice-president of the European parliament, complained that the cover was “tasteless”. Meanwhile, Die Welt thought that such a provocative cover “damages journalism” - whilst another German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, editorialised about how this was “exactly what Trump needs - a distorted image of him, which he can use to work more on his distorted image of the press”. Appease the president instead.
But Der Spiegel’s editor-in-chief, Klaus Brinkbäumer, was unrepentant - telling Reuters that the cover art was intended as a response to the “seriously endangered” principles of democracy and freedom of the press. He went on to write in an editorial that Trump was “attempting a coup from the top” and wanted to “establish an illiberal democracy”. The cartoonist, Edel Rodriguez - who arrived in the US as a political refugee from Cuba in 1980 - told the Washington Post that he wanted to make a comparison between Islamic State and Donald Trump, as both “both sides are extremists”. Staging a similar provocation, The New Yorker, which endorsed Hillary Clinton, showed on its front page the Statue of Liberty’s flame being extinguished.6 John W Tomac, the artist, explained that the statue’s “shining torch was the vision that welcomed new immigrants”, but now, it seems, “we are turning off the light.”
In yet another striking image, The Economist - not known for its revolutionary or insurrectionary views - has a baseball cap-wearing Trump throwing a Molotov cocktail. The accompanying article, entitled “An insurgent in the White House”, begins by saying that Washington “is in the grip of a revolution” - meaning America’s allies are “rightly” worried about latest developments. The article singles out for opprobrium the “grenade-chuckers-in-chief”, Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller.7The “secrecy and confusion” of the immigration ban, it continues, are not a sign of failure, but rather how the Trump team “shun the self-serving experts who habitually subvert the popular will” - America’s allies, the journal concludes slightly apocalyptically, “must plan for a world without American leadership”. The world is being reconfigured right before our eyes. Almost anything goes.
If anything, Simon Schama is even more vicious about Trump in the eminently respectable pages of the Financial Times (January 21). He laments the “abandonment of the America” of the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic Charter and Nato - of the America which under FDR, Eisenhower, John F Kennedy and Reagan, “took the freedom and safety of Europe and the remainder of the world as intrinsic to its personal sense of democratic obligation”. The “cantankerous” and “mentally lazy” Trump, is, he said, a “shameful” and “terrifying prospect”. Damningly, writes Schama, the America of Trump has “been greeted by ultranationalists and fascists” in Europe with the “form of manic glee displayed by seaside bullies kicking in the sandcastle”. These forces may be “living a dangerous fantasy”, he adds, but until they are stopped in their tracks “their goals will change into all of our nightmares”.
The bourgeoisie is worried.