“First they came for the Jews…” It’s become a cliché by now, but as I watch the ‘liberal establishment’ (for want of a better slur) twist and squirm at the rise of the fascistic nativism of Donald Trump I can’t help but think of that Niemöller quote, though not in terms of the Jews.
Instead, how about blacks, Iraqis or women?
Imagine if the crimes inflicted on the people of Iraq by that unprovoked war inspired half as much widespread outrage as the rhetoric of Donald Trump? Or the incarceration rates of black Americans? Or the stripping away of women’s rights to control their own bodies?
Feminists and reproductive rights advocates have watched and warned as, year after year, both in rhetoric and reality, a woman’s right to control her own body has become mainstreamed as a political target. Has the liberal establishment given much of a crap? There were a few muted dissenting voices, but, hey it’s about nasty old abortion and that doesn’t really count because it’s – you know – abortion. From the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act” of 2003 (and you know what else happened that year), to endless new mandatory requirements on women seeking abortions, to TRAP laws that close clinics, right up to the more recent political mainstreaming of opposition to contraception – all proving that it was never really about abortion in the first place. Which is what feminists and reproductive rights advocates were saying right at the start.
You can surely make this case about every progressive cause – that they’re largely ignored by the mainstream until someone as unpalatable as Donald Trump comes along and weaves them all into a successful populist platform that threatens the liberal establishment’s fantasy that it lives in a liberal country. It’s a special kind of American Exceptionalism, or perhaps blindness is a better word: We might do a lot of things that aren’t ‘liberal’, like invade other countries and cause the deaths and displacement of millions of people; like incarcerate more citizens than any other country in the world while giving police a license to kill black and brown people; like stand by while the social safety net gets reduced to tatters; like not really bother much about the fact that abortion doctors are terrorised on a daily basis… But, hey, we’re still “the greatest nation on earth”, to quote President Obama.
What is so surprising to me about the liberal freak-out in the U.S. over The Donald is how surprised they seem. This kind of thing is part of America’s DNA, it’s always there – it’s just that it doesn’t usually break out of its “individual cause” ghetto and reach the consciences of the liberal establishment. Writing in The New York Times, columnist Timothy Egan notes that the table for Trump “was set by years of dog whistles and codes”. True! But he continues: “The very ‘un-American’ sentiment that Republican elders now claim to despise has been a mainstay of conservative media for at least a decade”. Um, “Un-American”. Nuh uh! It’s American. That’s the problem. Paul Krugman does something similar in insisting it’s the Republicans (not America-the-exceptional) who are to blame. I agree with him that “this ugliness has been empowered by the very establishments that now act so horrified at the seemingly sudden turn of events”. Except that the establishments he’s talking about are Republican, whereas mine would be much broader and would embrace not just the Republicans, but the republic.
So what happens next? Under this scenario, The Donald will likely end up reinforcing the liberal American fantasy of itself. When he eventually does disappear, they’ll be able to put down their pens in satisfaction – satisfaction that not only is America still exceptional (in that good way), but that they the good liberals of the establishment, did their bit to keep it so.
Meanwhile, back at the abortion clinic, there’ll be another doctor wearing a bullet-proof vest sneaking in the back entrance and another woman ordering abortion meds over the Internet; at the prison, there’ll be another 20 black men in the intake line; for police in cities and towns across the nation, it will still be open season on non-whites; in the Middle East, the dead will keep piling up and the refugees will keep coming up as ever more failed states are created; and everywhere corporates will continue acting in ways that ensure the planet becomes uninhabitable. All because America is the greatest nation on earth, it’s liberals safe, finally, from Donald Trump.