Trump Presidency – Ominous Early Days

On 20 January this year, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the President of the United States. It has been just one month since the Trump administration took charge. Yet, these tumultuous 30 days have provided us with ample material to anticipate the nature of the days to come. Throughout the long Presidential campaign, and even after Trump’s victory in November last year, there were some who suggested that Trump was essentially more sound byte rather than real bite. Trump’s xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist, misogynist, deeply divisive, rabble-rousing campaign was all rhetoric, we are assured, simply aimed at polarising the American people and winning an election. However, if the past month has some messages for the US, and for the rest of the world, it is this: Trump is dead serious about his toxic agenda.

The Trump administration’s star cast, headed by him and directed by Bannon and Miller, has made its intentions pretty much clear in its first month. Trump has signed a slew of ‘executive orders’, clearly aimed at publicly announcing his willingness to implement his pro-business, anti-immigrant agenda. The Dakota Access Pipeline has been declared a “national interest”, and roadblocks in its construction have been removed, despite massive protests from environmentalists and Native Americans whose lands will be affected by the pipeline. Another order attempts to reduce regulations (read transparency and accountability) on corporations – for every one new regulation in place, two old regulations will now have to be rolled back. In keeping with Trump’s long-standing anti-environment, climate change-denial track record, he has blocked regulations which prevent coal companies from dumping mining wastes in waterways, and has appointed as head of the EPA (Environment Protection Agency) a person who wants to drastically cut the EPA’s budget and lay off two-thirds of its employees.

For the best part of the past month, people across the world have been busy dealing with the repercussions of Trump’s executive order targeting immigrants. In the name of cracking down on “illegal” immigrants, and those who are deemed potential “terrorists” and “rapists” by Trump’s demagoguery, an executive order stopped the entry of all refugees from Syria. All those with any connection to 7 Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – were prevented entry into the US. Faced by massive protests following the implementation of this travel ban, the Trump administration claimed this was not a ‘Muslim’ ban; it was simply a “rational” effort of “extreme vetting”. Much as Trump and his spokespersons invoked “national security” as they tried to defend this move with generous doses of fear-mongering, the real agenda was easily revealed. Not a single person from any of these countries has mounted a terror attack on the US for several years now. There is no huge influx of unvetted, undocumented immigrants from these countries. Trump’s own statements on Twitter, and his oft-repeated promises on the campaign trail make it clear that this ban was meant to target Muslims. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” he grandly declared in December 2015. As for the intentions behind the travel ban, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has effectively let the cat out of the bag: “…when [Trump] first announced it, he said, ‘Muslim ban’. He called me up. He said, “Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally”, conveyed Giuliani. Clearly, then, the travel ban is a crude attempt to cloak the ban on Muslims with a thin veil of ‘legality’!

This executive order, the public response to it, as well as its fraught legal trajectory, is hugely telling in so many ways. We now know what the Trump administration will do. The courts in the US might (as they have so far done in this case) put brakes on the Trump agenda. This, as Trump repeatedly assures us, will be resisted. Responding to the widespread criticism of the travel ban, Trump and his team have employed every maneuver possible. They have argued that the judiciary cannot intervene in matters of national security. Vicious targeting of judges apart, they have ominously paved the way for a dangerous witch-hunt. Americans are being told that anyone who puts a spanner in Trump’s agenda, be it individual judges or the media, they will be held responsible for future terror attacks in the US. In other words, scapegoats are being prepared, the ground is being laid for a mob frenzy against dissenting voices. The latest we hear is that Trump is coming up with yet another executive order to curb immigration. Whatever be the exact language of the order, we now know beyond doubt that Muslims are the target. The experiences of Juhel Miah, a young Muslim school teacher from Wales, should make matters amply clear. Miah had a valid visa to visit the US as part of a team of school children. Yet, a few days back, he was ignominiously barred from entering the US, for literally no reasons whatsoever.

Trump has delivered on yet another of his pet agendas: building a wall on the Mexico border. An executive order has now ordered the construction of this wall, and Trump insists that Mexico must reimburse US taxpayers for the construction costs! Mexico has rejected the demand outright. To supplement the wall, there have massive nationwide raids supposedly targeting undocumented immigrants. Around 700 people have been rounded up and arrested in just one week. A series of fresh orders have given more powers and funding to this crackdown on ‘illegal’ immigrants, even as they propose to increase the prosecution of people who “engage in crimes against law enforcement officers”. Given that “attacks on the law enforcement officers” have commonly been the racist codeword to justify police killings of Black men, this is yet another assault on the well-constructed “other” in Trump’s xenophobic, white world.

The “Global Gag Rule” is back with a vengeance, clearly aimed at appeasing Trump’s conservative support base. This rule, imposed by Republican presidents since Reagan in 1984, blocks US federal family planning funding for NGOs that provide abortion counselling or referrals, advocate to decriminalise abortion or expand abortion services – even if they use their own funds for these purposes. Trump has not just reinstated this rule, he has expanded it. Now, now all global health funding by the US (not just family planning) will face the gag rule.

There is every indication that the executive orders will continue, with their impacts being felt in the US and globally. But more than the actual impact of these orders, is the dangerous discourse which is now official policy of the strongest nation of the world. It is characterized by provocative lies and semi-truths, designed to foster an atmosphere of hate and xenophobia. In just one month, the Trump administration has trotted out lies about “terror attacks” at least four times. Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway went on national media several times, speaking of the “Bowling Green” massacre, which she claimed no one knew about because the media didn’t cover it. Fact is, the media didn’t cover it because there was no Bowling Green massacre. It was simply a piece of fiction. The White House press secretary spoke of the “Atlanta” massacre, which once again turned out to be a lie. At least one incident in a long list of terror attacks issued by the White House is not a “terror” attack. Trump himself informed an admiring crowd of followers in Florida that Sweden had witnessed a terror attack “last night”. There was no attack, and yet, Trump and the White House are busy defending this statement. They continue to spread paranoia about rising crime rates in Sweden due to immigrants, clearly targeting Sweden for its immigration policy. Within Europe, Sweden has taken in the maximum number of refugees per capita, thus earning the ire of the Trump administration. Spreading outright lies about “illegal” votes and massive voter frauds in the US is yet another constant emerging from the Trump White House.

There is, however, method in the madness. This relentless propaganda war – regardless of facts – is being waged intentionally, to normalise xenophobia and anti-immigrant biases. Intelligence reports and facts, and even adverse media coverage are hardly deterrents. In fact, the media is now being converted into a popular and convenient scapegoat, drawing on widespread perceptions of media bias in the US and elsewhere. The major embarrassment faced by the Trump administration over the resignation of Michael Flynn in an indication, however, that the propaganda war is not all that easy for Trump to win. For quite some time now, the Trump campaign’s links with Russian intelligence has been a source of much speculation. There is ample evidence, for instance, that the Trump campaign spent abnormal amounts of time communicating with Russian officials. It is widely believed that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers, releasing Hillary Clinton’s emails and thus ensuring a Trump victory. Months before this, Trump after all, had publicly asked Russia to do exactly this! Flynn’s ignominious retreat from the White House was an attempt to deflect attention from this blatant lack of transparency, accountability and meddling in democratic processes. Despite all its efforts, the dubious Russia-Trump connections remain an uncomfortable issue, which the Trump administration has not been able to shake off its back.

What does the Trump administration mean for us in India? For one, US-China relations will have a huge impact on India. As John Pilger points out in his documentary The Coming War on China, China is actually US’s No. I target, both economically and politically. The US has a ring of a huge number of nuclear-armed military bases around China. This is in many ways preventing China from accessing resources and markets, and also pushing the entire region to a state of constant and massive tensions. China seeks to defend itself militarily, and is mooting a China-Pakistan economic corridor which will give China access to the Middle East and Africa. This is, for China, a way out of the informal economic imbroglio imposed by the US military presence. The China-Pakistan economic corridor passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir, and will clearly have an impact on India-Pakistan relations as well. As it is, India-China relations have been somewhat frayed due to tensions over China not supporting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, and China’s refusal to sanction Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar at the UN Security Council sanctions committee. Diplomatic tensions between India, Pakistan and China have only exacerbated thanks to the prevailing tensions between the US and China. And with a belligerent Trump at the helm of affairs in the US, these tensions are unlikely to recede.

India will also have to face up to the contradictions brought forth by Trump’s aggressive ‘Make in America’ campaign. Jobs and manufacturing outsourced to countries such as India which offer cheap labour have been specifically targeted by the Trump campaign. This rhetoric shows little signs of receding in the Trump administration. In all probability, Trump will have to make conciliatory noises to his core base on this issue, which he himself has converted into a highly emotive one. 97 companies – including Apple, Facebook, Uber, Levi Strauss, Microsoft and Twitter – have filed a brief in US courts defending immigration and services provided to US companies by employees across the world. How Trump will manage this pressure from the multinational corporations is yet to be seen. For the Modi government, it promises to be a complex situation. Modi and Trump are more than happy shaping and colluding with the global agenda of Islamophobia and Muslim-bashing. But, how does Modi’s grand calls to corporations to ‘Make In India’ square with Trump’s ‘Make in America’ agenda? Will Indian jobs be protected? All this needs to be seen. Nevertheless, we do have seeds of a possible dispute.

The days to come promise to be full of tumult. There is sustained people’s resistance to the Trump agenda in the US – with massive ‘No Ban No Wall’ protests all over the US. Across the world, people are gearing up to boldly resist the noxious Trump agenda. In Barcelona, thousands have come out on the streets demanding that their government take in more refugees. In England, the campaign against Brexit, Trump and racism is only growing. The Swedish people, along with millions across Europe, are responding to Trump’s obnoxious baiting and intimidation with resilience and humour. In India, we must join the global resistance against xenophobia and racism, against corporate profiteering and loss of jobs and livelihoods.

Trump’s team:

Stephen Kevin “Steve” Bannon is now the White House Chief Strategist, and one of the most influential drivers of the Trump administration and its policies. Who is Bannon? A former banker, he is better known as the executive chair of Breitbart News, a website which Bannon declared is the “platform for the alt-right (alternative right)”. Breitbart used to be a somewhat obscure website, (in)famous for its white supremacist agenda, unapologetically publishing racist, xenophobic propaganda. Breitbart is not known for its attention to “facts” or logic – prone as it is to plain lies, fear mongering and an obsession to paint immigrants, Muslims and non-whites as the root of all the world’s problems. This “fringe” dog-whistle phenomenon, as we now know, now defines the functioning of the White House.

Stephen Milleris senior advisor to the President. Miller is also actively associated with the alt-right and has been the President of the anti-Semitic and white supremacist National Policy Institute. Miller has also worked with Richard Spencer, who after Trump’s victory, led a group of supporters to give the Nazi salute in a public function.

On the economic front, Trump’s entire cabinet is filled with billionaires who have made their money through vehemently opposing minimum wages, workers’ rights and public-funded education and healthcare. For all his talk of ‘concern’ for the American working class, jobs and unemployment, Trump has appointed former CEO of Goldman Sachs Gary Kohn as his chief economic advisor! Goldman Sachs’ claim to fame is of course its ignominious role in the 2008 economic recession which rocked the US, and its defrauding of its own investors.

The resume of Trump’s first choice for Labour Secretary Andrew Puzder (Puzder ultimately withdrew) included a consistent opposition to raising minimum wages.