True fake news
Perhaps there is another agenda lurking behind Trump’s travel ban, muses Mike Macnair
Donald Trump had been pushed out of the UK news headlines in the last week by the manoeuvres round the Brexit article 50 bill and Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum. But he hit the online headlines again briefly on the morning of March 15 when part of his 2005 tax return was leaked to the press. It showed that in that year he paid 25% of the tax he owed (and only paid that much because of a rule intended to limit tax dodges, which he pledged in his campaign to abolish).1 But he was pushed off the lead position again by lunchtime by the UK budget U-turn on self-employed national insurance contributions.
Of course, in the US matters are different. Trump-stuff remains headline news, along with the Congressional Republican majority’s efforts to repeal ‘Obamacare’ and reduce the availability of healthcare to those among the elderly and long-term sick who are not massively wealthy.2
Trump has abruptly sacked 46 federal attorneys - public prosecutors - appointed by the Obama administration, without having replacement appointments ready. The jobs are regularly appointed on a ‘spoils’ basis (to political friends), but it is unusual to sack so many all at once or without being ready to replace them.3
Trump’s new Environmental Protection Agency chief believes CO2 emissions are not the major cause of global warming; and the president is about to abolish fuel economy standards for carmakers and restrictions on coal-fired power generation.4
And, as from March 6, there is a new ‘Muslim travel ban’.5 The administration has, of course, now claimed that the new ruling isnot directed against Muslims as such, but merely enhances control on entry to the US from “countries that had already been identified as presenting heightened concerns about terrorism and travel to the United States.” But it has also drawn back pretty radically from the previous instrument, in three fundamental ways.
The first is that the new order no longer affects people who already hold visas for entry to the US, or a fortiori those who hold ‘green cards’ allowing them to live and work in the US. This removes the fundamental reason for the federal courts’ willingness to strike down the first order: that it denied due process rights to existing passport holders.
The second is that Iraq has been removed from the list of affected countries. This is pure politics rather than law. It should be obvious from the alleged motivations of the order - that terrorists may use US legal immigration rules to infiltrate the US - that Iraq should be on the list, as one of the main bases of Islamic State. Indeed, the logic of the order is certainly that Saudi Arabia should be on the list: after all, it was Saudi citizens who were mainly involved in 9/11. However, the US has allies in Iraq and troops on the ground, and the original order could be mocked as more obviously antagonistic to the US’s military interests.
Thirdly, the original order contained a provision for discretionary waivers by the secretary of state and for members of minorities facing religious persecution in their countries of nationality. On its face this appeared liberal, but in its context it amounted to saying that the ban affected only the Muslim majorities of Muslim-majority countries, and could thus be used to show that the ban violated the establishment clause of the US constitution. This little feature was, though, very much less important in the actual judicial decisions than Trump’s statements in his election campaign that he would bring in a “Muslim travel ban”. It is replaced by discretionary waiver power in special cases, without reference to the specific feature of religious persecution.
Several states and others have commenced, or are immediately contemplating, litigation over the new travel ban.6 Washington in particular applied to Judge James Robart, who issued the temporary restraining order (TRO) against the first ban, claiming that the new version was still affected by that order. He initially rejected the application pending further argument due later on March 15. While it is not excluded that Robart will reimpose the TRO, US legal commentary makes it look unlikely. In particular, the exclusion of current visa-holders means that the states probably no longer have a present interest to give them standing to sue the federal government. Moreover, the argument about ‘due process’ affecting existing visa-holders is gone, and this was a much stronger argument, both legally and politically, than the ‘establishment clause’ argument about religious discrimination.7
Sleight of hand
All of these ‘Trump news’ items are, in principle, true. They are not ‘fake news’ in the same sense as the story that “Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop” was. But they are fake news in another sense. That is, at least some of them are put out there to distract attention from something else. They are in this way a political form of the stage magician’s sleight of hand, which directs our attention to one action, while something else is happening behind the scenes.
The Cameron government expertly used this technique in relation to its privatisation policies, concealing them behind the rhetoric of ‘austerity’, while in reality engaging in Keynesian stimulus - money-printing - on an unprecedented scale. By campaigning to oppose ‘austerity’ as its prime objective, Labour and the left effectively failed to oppose the actual privatisation policies hidden behind the rhetoric.
The problem is to make some sense of which bits of the news are real and which are this sort of ‘true fake news’, designed to attract opposition and thereby divert attention from real policy. What the Trump administration’s policy really is remains extremely obscure. It is, therefore, possible that what the news stories are concealing is an absence of policy. But we can probably draw at least some inferences.
In the first place, back in January I argued in this paper that ‘Trumpism’ might turn out to represent a major change in US geopolitical orientation.8 We have had several indicators since then that this is not the case: the absence of any steps against Saudi Arabia in relation to the ‘Muslim travel ban’; Mike Flynn’s February 13 resignation over contacts with the Russian embassy; Mike Pence’s February 18 Munich Nato speech, reaffirming US commitment to eastern Europe; encouragement of Israeli annexations in the West Bank; the more or less open threats of war against Iran with a view to ‘regime change’.9 All these indicate that the Trump administration’s foreign policy is drifting towards being mainly the return of the neocons.
Two caveats have to be made in relation to this. The first is that Trump and his advisors continue to talk up protectionist measures in world trade and bilateral trade deals. This is a marked change from the last 40 years, in which the US was all for ‘free trade’ and multilateral agreements as a sleight-of-hand cover for US unilateralism and protectionism (under cover of various ‘sanctions’ arrangements and other forms of non-tariff barriers and hidden subsidies). For the US to act on the basis of open protectionism and bilateralism would legitimate retaliation by other countries, and be a big shift away from the regime of ‘globalisation’. How far this will last is unclear - Fox News reports a ‘rift’ between Trump’s ‘chief strategist’, economic nationalist Steven Bannon, and the White House National Economic Council director, Goldman Sachs man Gary Cohn, over precisely this issue, and it would not be that surprising to see the ‘extremist’ Bannon (against whom there have been many liberal scare stories) shafted over it.10
The second caveat is that, while Pence has reasserted the importance of Nato and the (illusory) ‘Russian threat’, Trump’s anti-European Union rhetoric and ‘Brexiteering’ has not been dialled back by any part of the administration. Angela Merkel’s intended visit to Washington this week (delayed until March 17 by bad weather) may turn out to be an occasion for some pro-EU speech; but it is, frankly, pretty questionable. The administration is quite possibly waiting on the results of the Dutch (March 15) and French presidential (April 23/May 7) elections before deciding whether to welcome the destruction of the EU, or to find some modus vivendi with a surviving continental bloc.
In addition, Trump’s domestic policy looks increasingly like a completely ordinary Republican policy. ‘Obamacare’ is to be killed (somehow). The budget cuts targets are all conventional Republican hates; military spending is to be increased.11 The tax proposals would massively favour the rich.12 The ‘border adjustment tax’, which is central to the House Republicans’ reform proposals - besides being a pure and unqualified protectionist tariff policy to charge imports and subsidise exports, leading to retaliatory action - would very probably worsen the budget deficit.13
Hence, it is possible that if we focus our attention on the razzamatazz around the border wall and immigration, around the ‘Muslim travel ban’ and the litigation about it, and about the gender issues (particularly Trump, the serial indecent assault man, and the attacks on abortion rights), and all the more if we imagine Trump as a fascist, we may be taking a radically false step. We may be playing into the hands of a very conventional Republican administration, for which these are dog-whistle issues, which allow it to distract its constituents’ attention from the fact that it is actually merely concerned to put money in the pockets of the rich. We would thus be diverting attention from the fact that this administration will deliver razzamatazz on gender and race issues to its supporters, while changing nothing else of substance and actually worsening the economic position of those workers and petty bourgeois (American ‘middle class’), who were conned into voting Trump in November 2016.
2. Eg, ‘GOP senators suggest changes for healthcare bill offered by House’ New York Times March 14.
4. ‘EPA chief doubts consensus view of climate change’ New York Times March 9; ‘Trump using Detroit as stage for loosening Obama’s fuel economy rules’ New York Times March 15.
6. ‘Donald Trump’s revised “Muslim travel ban” under scrutiny by US federal courts day before introduction’ The Independent March 15.
7. On the litigation on the old ban see Howe Cheatem, ‘Put not your trust in judges’ Weekly Worker February 16.
8. ‘The new president and the new global order’ Weekly Worker January 26 2017.
9. See Yassamine Mather’s articles in recent issues of this paper.
11. ‘Trump’s first budget will test GOP’s ability to keep promises’ Denver Post March 12.
12. ‘Donald Trump’s tax plan would mean huge breaks for millionaires like Trump’ Washington Post March 15.
13. ‘The fatal flaw that may spell death for Trump’s tax plan’ Fortune March 8.