Ignore the conspiracy theorists and "experts" claiming Trump's Muslim ban is a plot to distract us, his administration is as shambolic and racist as it seems.
Ignore the conspiracy theorists and "experts" claiming Trump's Muslim ban and other far-right executive orders are a headfake and a plot to distract us, argues James Butler. His toxic administration is as shambolic and as racist as it seems.
Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have been punctuated by a flurry of executive orders, from attacks on the Affordable Care Act through to a freeze on non-military federal hiring. The most controversial of these is the travel ban on both refugees and migrants from seven majority-Muslim countries.
With exemptions for minority religions, this looks like a barely-disguised Muslim ban. The policy has generated huge protests, not only in the US but across the world, including in many cities in the UK, against both the policy (which is seen as the centrepiece of a more extensive xenophobic and anti-migrant turn) and Trump’s authoritarian and anti-democratic style of politics more generally.
The shock-and-awe style of the orders has also spurred a cottage industry in purported ‘explainers’ of Team Trump’s real strategy. Circulated breathlessly on Twitter and Facebook, these pieces claim to discern a hidden motive behind the volley of executive orders, as a ‘headfake’ or a ‘trial balloon for a coup’. Other versions allude to the ‘dead cat’ theory of politics (when you don’t want attention drawn to something you’re doing, throw a dead cat on the table, and everyone will talk about that instead), or, more modestly suggest that the disorientation caused by the orders will be just somehow useful to the Trump regime.
These theories can sometimes be entertaining or terrifying (and parts of them might even be true), but most often they rely on a way of thinking about politics which is mystifying and disempowering. The first part of this way of thinking is to assume whatever happens at the surface level of politics is somehow a misdirection away from the ‘real’ story; the second is that the secret motive can be discerned by an insider’s knowledge of (or speculation about) the personalities inside the Trump Whitehouse; the third is that your instinctive responses to these policies will be wrong, and play right into the hands of these fiendish (and fiendishly clever) game-players.
There are some good intuitions here: people in power really do have strategies, sometimes they really do try distraction, and personalities matter in politics more than we sometimes think. But the rise of a conspiracy theorist – remember Obama’s birth certificate? – to the most powerful office in the world shouldn’t convince us that conspiracy thinking is a good explanation.
Speculation of this kind flourished amid the silence, graft and backstabbing of the Soviet institutions: but most Kremlinology was bunk, and we should expect most Trumpology to be as well. Inflected with a tech-bro twist – the most breathless of the Trumpologists are tech entrepreneurs and coders – these analyses can wind up suggesting everything is secretly its opposite and any attempt at political action (except, perhaps, by a few experts) is doomed to fail.
But in politics, one of the most serious errors is to fail to see what’s right in front of you. Throughout his rise and since the inauguration, the worst instinct has been to treat Trump as if he’s a conventional politician merely wearing the mask of a grotesque; as if he’s some rubber horror, maybe frightening in the half-light but ridiculous in the light of day. But the mask is the face: Trump really does want to ban Muslims from coming to the country; he really does want to build a wall; he really does want to fire or sideline those elements of the state that get in his way; he really does have the political instincts of a dictator in a way largely unprecedented in U.S. politics.
The exercise of power is often brutal, inelegant and gauche – but it needn’t be delicate, and its indelicacy is no indication that there’s a secret double motive to it.
The most sophisticated of Trumpologists concentrate on Steve Bannon – the guru of the alt-right and founder of white-supremacist propaganda site Breitbart – as the power behind the throne, author of many of the executive orders, and now worming his way on to National Security committees. Bannon’s rise puts the far-right closer to power than they have been for decades, but there are plausible explanations for the kind of chaos he has been creating in government other than a sophisticated plot – that very few people in Trump’s team are well-acquainted with the actual mechanics of what they’re doing, and the Trump administration really is capricious and chaotic.
That chaos may serve Bannon: it’s not wrong to see this flurry of orders as an attempt to ‘hegemonise’ his vision for a Trump presidency – that is, to make his vision of the world the ‘common sense’ of the discussion, the thing that ‘everyone knows’ and which politics starts from (‘everyone knows Muslims are a danger’, ‘everyone knows Mexicans are overrunning the borders’).
But what is dangerous is to assume that he’s doing it from a position of impenetrable strength or as a ‘test’ for some other grand plan lurking in the darkness: it is equally plausible, and perhaps more so, that the administration is a ramshackle mess and gambling that the sheer exercise of power will help smooth its way.
They might be right: many Americans are surprised to learn that the ‘checks and balances’ they are taught about as children do not exist independent of a citizenry willing to enforce them. One of the things Trumpologists get right is the disorienting effects of executive blitzkrieg: so many of us feel tense, sick with anxiety, sleepless with worry for friends or relatives, anxious about what’s next.
But the Trumpologists draw exactly the wrong conclusions from this – overestimating the administration’s strength, coherence and forward planning, they assume it must both expect resistance and have factored it in to its grand plan. Therefore they prescribe passivity, reliance on journalism (of the kind which failed to understand Trump thus far) Washington manoeuvre (of the kind which keeps approving his appointments), and idle hope in American exceptionalism.
In fact, the protests which erupted after the inauguration and in opposition the Muslim ban are bad news for Trump and Bannon – their size and their social breadth are good signs of opposition. Their willingness to stare things in the face and object to them is worth a million Trumpology thinkpieces: they show that the exercise of power will not go uncontested.
They are not enough, no: resistance will come in the form of refusal (as in the case of now fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates) and in conflict between the different arms of the state, as much as it will in protest signs or strikes or marches.
And even a final victory against Trump – in four years, perhaps – will leave the larger question of the long-swelling social ills and economic divisions which generated him largely untackled. Many Americans will have been taught the reply of Ben Franklin to a woman who asked what type of government the early States now had: ‘a republic, madam, if you can keep it.’ That ‘if’ again looms large.