Don’t shit where you eat
Theresa May is only one of many people put in an awkward position by Donald Trump’s travel bans, argues Paul Demarty
As I write, there is still a formal invitation from the British government to Donald Trump for his first state visit. Theresa May has batted away a series of increasingly urgent demands that it be withdrawn - first of all in Turkey, and then again in a joint press conference with taoiseach Enda Kenny.
The proximate cause of all this is, of course, Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ - to be precise, a travel ban for all foreign nationals originating from seven named countries with majority-Muslim populations, initially including even legal permanent residents of the United States.
Trump first mooted the idea in December 2015, calling for a “complete and total shutdown” of Muslim immigration to America. It became one of the many policies that caused a great scandal - the sort of scandal that would have led to its retraction even by a rightwing professional politician, but was instead doubled down on again and again, and rather began to merge into all the others. He did this so many times, and it seems odd to remember that each time he was roasted in the media and stood his ground, the great and the good seemed genuinely to expect that the condemnation would work, but now its failure is spectacularly and chillingly complete.
The implementation of this policy - initially barring visitors from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen - is now in train. Your humble correspondent cannot recall ever seeing an American president’s actions condemned so universally, in every corner of the media, by prime ministers and presidents the world over ... with one or two notable exceptions. The world howled - but May was the British bulldog that could manage only the merest yap. At PMQ she called the travel ban “divisive”.
Ironically, this puts her in the same camp as the Kremlin, which has likewise remained circumspect, attempting to balance a potential thaw in relations with the United States under its new commander in chief with the immediate military alliances it operates in the Middle East. For May, the difficulty is perhaps the other way round: in Ireland, she spoke of that “special relationship”, and would only point out that the “UK takes a different approach” to the question by way of ‘criticism’. With article 50 looming, and uncertain times ahead, she needs that ‘special relationship’ to survive the Trump era’s transvaluation of all geopolitical values.
There is the additional matter that she has so far been successful in taking ownership of the Brexit vote, and hardening the British tone of negotiation, especially on immigration. The point is to ensure that the Tories are the ones to benefit from that vote, and not rightist challengers like the UK Independence Party. Now would be a poor time to have an attack of the bleeding hearts.
There is one fly in that ointment - Nigel Farage. The latter has used Brexit to propel himself into the firmament, as (alas!) a kind of rootless cosmopolitan exemplar of all national chauvinism, popping up in Washington for November’s excitement, and gaining earlier access to the president-elect than any British official. Patrick Wintour, on TheGuardian website, claims that it was this that led to the hasty offer of a state visit - according to his ‘cabinet source’, “The queen is the key here. She’s not a secret weapon, she’s the biggest public weapon you have. Nigel Farage can’t get [Trump] in front of the queen.”1
As often in the last few months, we find ourselves asking in earnest a question that, before November, would have been laughably naive: to wit, was the government’s decision to extend a courtesy to the president of the United States of America an error of judgment? There remain very good reasons to keep on the sunny side of the Oval Office - The Donald, as we remember with mounting trepidation, does after all have his finger on The Button. Yet the story of the transition period, and even more of the first days of Pax Trumpicana, is of a violent autoimmune reaction on the part of the global elite.
Again: when was the last time disapproval of the White House was so deafeningly unanimous? We read, day to day, of dismal approval ratings; of policies causing ‘panic’, ‘chaos’; of racism and misogyny at the very summit of world politics; of climate change denial, shady alt-right advisors, Russian spycraft ... It reminds us almost of the relentless barrage of establishment opprobrium that greeted Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party, except with an increasingly shrill note of desperation, with the stakes so very much higher.
The bottom line is: the possibility of a constitutional coup, an impeachment or suchlike, or even an unconstitutional coup, cannot be ruled out. Elements of the military brass brief against their commander in chief, anonymously. The CIA is considered an enemy, apparently accurately - the CIA! The thought of toppling Trump must have occurred to many a well-placed individual, who could at least give it a go; the question is more one of risk. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will tell you, with some relief, that coups can go disastrously wrong.
There is a more insidious issue at work here, which is the particular relationship Trumpism has with its political predecessors. A few people looked at that list of countries caught up in the travel ban, and thought it all sounded familiar; and familiar it was. The exact same countries were excluded, by executive order, from the US visa waiver programme by Barack Obama, almost exactly contemporaneously with Trump’s vow to “figure out what the hell is going on”. Perhaps today, Obama would not ban the same countries - he did, after all, pursue to his domestic-political cost a thaw in relations with Iran - but it is undeniable that he set them up, for Donald to knock ’em down.
The list, moreover, has other striking commonalities - Glenn Greenwald pointed out that “five of the seven ... were ones bombed by Obama, while the other two (Iran and Sudan) were punished with heavy sanctions”.2 Indeed, “bombed by Obama” is rather a weak way to put it for the five: all have been reduced by US foreign policy and/or military intervention over the last three decades, to varying degrees, to failed states.
Greenwald and countless others point out that the combined population of all seven countries are responsible for exactly zero terrorist attacks on US soil (9/11 was perpetrated by Saudis, the Boston bombing by Chechens, and more or less everything else by natural-born Americans of various religious and political stripes); but frankly that is a surprising fact, for there must be no end of the displaced and bereaved on a twisted but understandable quest for vengeance in these ravaged lands. Trump treats them no worse (so far ... ) than his predecessors; he simply dispenses with the ‘humanitarian’ doublethink, and openly avows himself a defender of “America first”.
The same applies, it seems, across the full range of America’s dirty little secrets. Whereas past presidents exalted the nation’s immigrant heritage, while reducing illegal Chicano migrants to a superexploitable underclass to the great benefit of a certain sort of tycoon (including one Donald J Trump), the current resident of the White House demands a wall and promises to make Mexico pay for it. While previous presidents forced neoliberalism and free trade on others, at the same time as spending their own way out of crises, Trump advocates nationalist, Keynesian protectionism for everyone, with lofty internationalist virtue.
Trump’s tragedy is that the doublethink of his predecessors is objective - that is, it is an effect of stubborn reality over them, not an expression of their own will. Imposing free trade on the rest of the world, while reserving protectionism for oneself, is the hallmark of all dominant capitalist states since the initial rise of that form of society. The lies are necessary to the smooth functioning of the world order.
Yet lies they remain; and there grows the risk of cynicism at their relentlessness. Those who today lament the credulity with which Trump’s utterly fantastical assertions are met in some quarters (for example, the idea that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered as they watched the Twin Towers fall) are almost invariably the people who insist that neoliberal free trade is the rising tide that lifts all boats; meanwhile, the Rustbelt rusts.
If there is a moral to this story, it is this: don’t shit where you eat.