In barely a month, the new US president has managed to spread chaos and uncertainty – and a degree of fear that would make any terrorist proud – at a dizzying pace. Not surprisingly, citizens and leaders in business, civil society, and government are struggling to respond appropriately and effectively.
Any view regarding the way forward is necessarily provisional, as Donald Trumphas not yet proposed detailed legislation, and Congress and the courts have not fully responded to his barrage of executive orders. But recognition of uncertainty is not a justification for denial.
On the contrary, it is now clear that what Trump says and tweets must be taken seriously. After the election in November, many hoped he would abandon the extremism that defined his campaign. Surely, it was thought, this master of unreality would adopt a different persona as he assumed the responsibility of what is arguably the most powerful position in the world.
Something similar happens with every new US president: regardless of whether we voted for the new incumbent, we project on to him our image of what we want him to be. But while most elected officials welcome being all things to all people, Trump has left no room for doubt that he intends to do what he said: a ban on Muslim immigration, a wall on the border with Mexico, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, repeal of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms, and much else that even his supporters dismissed.
I have at times criticised particular aspects and policies of the economic and security order created in the aftermath of the second world war, based on the UNs, Nato, the EU, and a web of other institutions and relationships. But there is a big difference between attempts to reform these institutions and relationships to enable them to serve the world better, and an agenda that seeks to destroy them outright.
Trump sees the world in terms of a zero-sum game. In reality, globalisation, if well managed, is a positive-sum force: America gains if its friends and allies – whether Australia, the EU, or Mexico – are stronger. But Trump’s approach threatens to turn it into a negative-sum game: America will lose, too.
That approach was clear from his inaugural address, in which his repeated invocation of “America first”, with its historical fascist overtones, affirmed his commitment to his ugliest schemes. Previous administrations have always taken seriously their responsibility to advance US interests. But the policies they pursued usually were framed in terms of an enlightened understanding of national interest. Americans, they believed, benefited from a more prosperous global economy and a web of alliances among countries committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
If there is a silver lining in the Trump cloud, it is a new sense of solidarity over core values such as tolerance and equality, sustained by awareness of the bigotry and misogyny, whether hidden or open, that Trump and his team embody. And this unity has gone global, with Trump and his allies facing rejection and protests throughout the democratic world.
The American Civil Liberties Union, having anticipated that Trump would quickly trample on individual rights, has shown that it is as prepared as ever to defend key constitutional principles such as due process, equal protection, and official neutrality with respect to religion. And in the past month Americans have supported the ACLU with millions of dollars in donations.
Similarly, across the country, companies’ employees and customers have expressed their concern over CEOs and board members who support Trump. Indeed US corporate leaders and investors have collectively become Trump’s enablers. At this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, many salivated over his promises of tax cuts and deregulation, while eagerly ignoring his bigotry – not mentioning it in a single meeting that I attended – and protectionism.
Even more worrying was the lack of courage: it was clear that many of those who were concerned about Trump were afraid to raise their voices, lest they and their companies’ share price be targeted by a tweet. Pervasive fear is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes, and we are seeing it in the US for the first time in my adult life.
As a result, the importance of the rule of law, once an abstract concept to many Americans, has become concrete. Under the rule of law, if the government wants to prevent firms from outsourcing and offshoring, it enacts legislation and adopts regulations to create the appropriate incentives and discourage undesirable behaviour. It does not bully or threaten particular firms or portray traumatised refugees as a security threat.
America’s leading media, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have so far refused to normalise Trump’s abnegation of American values. It is not normal for the US to have a president who rejects judicial independence; replaces the most senior military and intelligence officials at the core of national security policymaking with a far-right media zealot; and, in the face of North Korea’s latest ballistic missile test, promotes his daughter’s business ventures.
But when we are barraged by events and decisions that are beyond the pale, it is easy to become numb and begin looking past major abuses of power at the still-greater travesties to come. One of the main challenges in this new era will be to remain vigilant and, whenever and wherever necessary, to resist.