Donald Trump’s dismissal of our institutions shows how he could put our way of life in danger, writes Ella Crine
Throughout the campaign, I thought a lot about what a Donald Trump presidency might look and feel like. Sounds odd given that over here people thought there was no way he could win. ‘Why are you in Pennsylvania?’ they’d say. ‘Go to Florida’. I knew they were wrong but I never thought he would win.
When he did win, I was devastated – for America – for its identity, its national purpose; its soul. And, since the election, comparisons with Brexit have been abundant. Tired and lazy comparisons between Brexit voters and Trump voters. I often wonder what a poll of ‘leave’ voters would say about Trump? Because the thing is, Trump did not lie about who he was, or what he sought to achieve. His misogyny, his racism, his nationalism, they were all apparent from the start. While there are some shared elements –nationalism, protectionism and disillusionment with the establishment – Brexit came with a veneer of legitimacy and rationality. Even if, like me, you believe in the European project, the bureaucracy of Brussels can seem frustrating at times
There is also far more to fear from Trump than Brexit. The Brexiteers want to separate from Europe for a de-regulated economy, or for an outdated concept of ‘sovereignty’. The politicians in charge want things which I believe would do untold harm to our economy and British jobs, but they are not morally abhorrent. Many voters wanted to reduce immigration, but as we have seen through the Windrush scandal, the British people are not vindictive, cruel, or xenophobic. Many others thought we’d have more money for the NHS. Trump described Mexicans as rapists, and then won the presidency.
People say that, in politics, the pendulum always swings back the other way. And that is surely more true for Trump than for Brexit. In two, or six, years Trump will no longer be President. Brexit may dominate my lifetime, and determine my grandchildren’s future. Yet, for those in charge of the Brexit idea, though, it is about the European Union as an institution. Trump could be far more damaging – his project is about the very concept of the American nation, and it is this that he radically wants to change.
My concern two years on, is that I was wrong about the pendulum. Because the question now is, what will be left of American institutions when the pendulum swings back? If we are left with a supreme court which is in Republican hands for a generation, what becomes of Roe v Wade? What policies will they let Trump implement? What if the Supreme Court is no longer a vestige of legal and moral reason? What rulings, currently inconceivable, could eventually be made?
What will be left of free speech, when Trump has so eroded the concept by attacking and degrading the media, and by pronouncing that there were ‘very good people’ on both sides of a white supremacy march? How will we react when by shocking us so deeply and consistently, words seem to lose their meaning and trust is no longer a feature of politics?
But I still think we can recover from these things. I still believe in the concept of America. But something new and darker has troubled me ahead of Trump’s visit.
When I cried over America’s soul, I cried for a nation built by immigrants, in pursuit of liberty, where anyone could go and make a new life, and work hard to achieve their dreams. But Trump’s nationalism has proven to be not simply about the most horrific white supremacy you can imagine, but also about the whole world order.
Since the second world war the western alliance has been strong and unbreakable. It is on this basis that Theresa May has sought to find ways of interacting with the president productively and positively. Together we created the institutions of the liberal world order, including Nato and the World Bank. These institutions would not have been created without America, and have been necessary for European peace and security. Brexit is a sign that we failed to defend their purpose and necessity. But my concern is that Trump’s threat is existential.
Only this week a British woman was killed on our soil by the Russian state. Russian activity in Ukraine, in Crimea, and Syria demonstrates our increasingly volatile relationship with other powers. Other states are developing military capabilities and their intentions are not yet clear. Now is the time when we need our international institutions most. The national security we have built over the last 70 years relies on cooperation, for mutual benefit.
Trump’s attitude is that America is great. So great, in fact, that is does not need European allies at all. Our relationship to him is not a symbiotic one of mutual cooperation and support, based on a shared world view, but rather parasitic. He rejects the traditional narrative of American foreign policy, endorsed by those as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, that western peace and security is in American interests, vital to achieving peace worldwide, and is a true moral responsibility.
In his criticism of Nato, and threats to remove its funding, Trump is revealing this rejection. He is not scared of Putin, but it will not be America that suffers. This protectionism and isolationism puts us – and other countries around the world – at tremendous risk.
Trump’s obvious racism and sexism is terrifying. But the instability he seeks to create in an already fraught world, and his indifference to it, might just be more so. We in the west have become accustomed to peace, prosperity, and freedom: things which we believe everyone everywhere ought to have. Trump is attempting to export his brand of protectionist nationalism, and has shown he will exploit Brexit to sow division in Europe: on security, on trade, and on immigration.
Our government must defend the institutions we have built, or we may watch the established world order change for the worse. So protest, if you want to. Show Trump what Britain believes in. But we have to do more: to win the battle of ideas and campaign for something better. The fight will not stop when Trump leaves next week.
Ella Crine is a Labour activist and former organiser for Hillary Clinton. She tweets @EllaCrine
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