At exactly 12.03 on the 20th of January 2017, the age of liberal equivocation ended forever.
Thirty seconds into the most thuggishly nationalist, race-baitingly divisive presidential inauguration speech outside of a disaster movie, anyone still believing that this was somehow a normal presidency where the normal rules might apply suddenly realised that the tune they’d been dancing to was a screaming alarm. In one shameless week, the US has moved decisively towards becoming an authoritarian kleptocracy. They thought it couldn’t happen here. It’s happening.
In the nine days since he took office, Donald Trump has effected an aggressive corporate takeover of the most powerful nation on earth, thrown the entire political system into chaos, made a laughing stock of the Presidency and trampled over the lives of millions like a power-crazed elephant that can only scream its own signifier: trump, trump, trump.
Does anyone else have anything to say about ‘legitimate concerns?’ Does anyone want to explain how Hillary Clinton would have been an equivalent threat to Western democracy?
No? Didn’t think so.
Somehow, it feels simpler now. We can now call this violent, vengeful new nationalism, this war on women and minorities, by its name without worrying about seeming somehow elitist or out of touch. It’s pretty clear who the elites are, and what they intend to do, which is everything they promised and more.
As I write, thousands of people are shutting down the airports in major cities across the United States. Boston, Chicago, San Francisco. Protests organized hours ago online have swelled as otherwise mild-mannered individuals drop their Saturday plans and head out to stop a national tragedy: the forcible deportation of Muslim citizens from seven nations by executive order of the new president.
The executive orders Trump signed this week will strip away vital services and fundamental rights from millions of Americans and place immigrants and refugees around the world in greater danger. These protests erupting this weekend against the ‘Muslim Ban’ were not months or even days in the planning. How could they be? The executive orders were rammed through yesterday, including a complete ban on refugees – on Holocaust Memorial Day, as if it were planned that way to shove an extra finger up at what remains of popular morality.
Ordinary Americans who may have been on board with the idea of stopping terrorists at the border are now watching in realtime as millions are denied entry to the US. Academics are stranded at airports. Silicon Valley workers are being recalled. Green Card holders and citizens with dual nationality are marooned on holiday. Families with all the right paperwork are being shipped back to war zones and the press is there to cover it all.
Everything is moving fast- too fast for a lot of people who may have previously believed that Donald Trump and his team were merely an expression of “legitimate” white working class rage. Nobody is talking about legitimate concerns any more. That argument is over. Done. Dead. Now the only question is how we stop this and when we start.
There are protests going past outside my window as I write this. In San Francisco hundreds of citizens have taken to the streets as thousands more head to the airport to demand an end to the detentions. I’m watching as the breath held in for eight excruciating weeks is let out in a sudden rush. All those weeks of paralysed inertia, of asking how ‘we’ had allowed this to happen without suggesting that maybe, somehow, of trying not to say outright that democracy had not delivered justice, that maybe, somehow, ‘the people’ had got it wrong. That mood is gone, replaced by a growing certainty that whatever ‘the people’ wanted, it wasn’t this.
In the past month, as successive revelations about Russian interference in the elections and massive media manipulation of the voting public have come to light, that democratic fallacy has begun to shred. Even without a sure alternative, it is becoming clear that this simply wasn’t the will of the people. Almost three million more voters picked Hillary Clinton – the second least popular presidential candidate in living memory- over this matinee-villain oligarch with the self-control of a shaken can of Fanta and the complexion to match.
The mockery this petty little emperor is making of the rites and ceremonies of American democracy makes this harder for centrists to stomach. Ordinary voters may believe that the government is corrupt, but they believe in the Constitution and the office of the presidency in the way British people believe in the Queen: with a quietly religious fervor. Trump does not have the subtlety to trash the mechanisms of bureaucracy while respecting the rituals of state that Americans across the political spectrum hold dear.
That would have been the smart move. Instead, Team Trump has gone for shock and awe and achieved neither. Nine days in, they’ve gone too hard, too fast, and very possibly too far.
In Milton Mayer’s extraordinary book They Thought They Were Free, he explains how the Nazis built and maintained consensus by never taking “steps which would have rocked any good villager on his heels and made him say -‘no, not this, not this. Ordinary people – and ordinary Germans – cannot be expected to tolerate activities which outrage the ordinary sense of ordinary decency…it is actual resistance which worries tyrants, not lack of the few hands required to do the dark work of tyranny. What the Nazis had to gauge was the point at which atrocity would awaken the community to the consciousness of its moral habits. This point may removed forward as the national emergency, or cold war, is moved forward…
It remains the point which the tyrant must always approach and never pass. If his calculation is too far behind the people’s temper, he faces a palace putsch; if it is too far ahead, a popular revolution.”
Trump and his team do not have the finesse to negotiate that delicate moving boundary. In just nine days, it has become awfully, abundantly clear that the concerns of the American white working class are no longer even vaguely the concerns of the administration. This administration does not give a good goddamn about ordinary working people of any hue, not now the corporate scions hustled into power have got what they wanted.
In six years of reporting on protests in the United States, I’ve seen nothing like this energy, this anger. This is not 2003. The time for trusting the system to hold a rogue Presidency in check is done. The Trump administration is eight days old and already the fightback includes government workers, civil servants, academics, judges, and whatever the collective noun is for a lot of angry lawyers – possibly ‘an inconvenience’. Everyone across this vast continent who couldn’t quite get on the Hillary bus. Bernie Bros and diehard Democrat centrists and anarchists are standing side by side in the airports right now, along with a lot of people who joined in because they saw something happening on Twitter.
An extraordinary thing is happening: for the first time in eight years, everyone not on the extreme right is united in resistance. In San Francisco, local lawmakers and tech moguls are showing up at the airport alongside thousands of demonstrators. Rancour and confusion are giving way to a terrible clarity of purpose as millions come alive to the realization that resistance is not only good for the soul- it works.
It works. It’s working today, as a federal judge has just responded to the protests and stalwart ACLU lobbying by putting the kibosh on the ‘Muslim Ban’ – for now. Resistance works. And I think a great many Americans may be about to find out what the far right, the alt-right and the tea party have known for a very long time: that when you’re torn with anxiety and weighed down by despair there is nothing quite like going for a good old noisy march with a large number of people who believe that oppression is real and justice is on their side. This time, as it happens, it is.
It remains to be seen whether history will be on their side, too. It is too early to tell what will come from this new energy of resistance, what the backlash will look like, whether it can be sustained, what new movements will emerge from this cauldron of popular unrest. It’s only been nine days. But already the number of Americans prepared to accept this new normal is dwindling, and it is becoming clear that this is a moment that matters. In years to come, the question will be asked not just of politicians, not just of protest leaders, but of every citizen: what did you do in 2017? What was your line in the sand? How long did it take you to stand up and say ‘no- not this, not this?’ And what did you do to fight back?