Trump’s vision of “American carnage” that he described at his inauguration is one that he is using to great effect. It is not only in the United States that this inflammatory rhetoric – Steve Bannon’s chosen register – has taken hold and is burning through hard-won gains in human rights and environmental protection. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the largest country in South America, was the latest, but the language and actions of men with totalitarian proclivities stretch across the globe. We know them – Duterte, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán and the right-wing parties in Europe. Their impulse is to ever-smaller groupings of people, a kind of dangerous neotribalism in which the enemy has become anyone who is not “you”. Trump’s cynical deployment of troops to the southern border of the United States, ostensibly in response to a group of desperate people fleeing the poverty and violence of Central America, is an unprecedentedly theatrical performance of visual political rhetoric. These are not the only “enemy” being constructed.
One target of the ire of dangerous nationalists is migrants and refugees, the increasing number of people displaced by climate change, war and poverty. Another target are the people deemed by Trump and his ilk to be “globalists” or “cosmopolitans”. The overt anti-Semitism in the attacks on George Soros is especially chilling in the wake of the massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue of elderly Jewish worshippers by a white supremacist terrorist. This, following so soon after the arrest of a fanatical Trump supporter for sending pipe bombs to prominent Democrats frequently targeted by Trump as “enemies of the people”.
In the United States the spectre of nativism and of an us-against-all mentality has taken hold in the hearts and minds of many Americans. This narrow, nationalist discourse is the same as the narrow, inward-looking impulse in Britain that drove the campaign – and won – for the UK to leave the European Union. The impulse in both these nations is to retreat into the defensive laager of a uniform identity in which the rights of others are denied or mercilessly erased. They make us smaller and thus amplify or make themselves bigger.
Populist political leaders attack what people have in common and exaggerate what sets us apart from each other. They fear and therefore deplore the universal. Trump’s United States has, in the name of “making America great again”, intentionally attacked the institutions – all of which protect human rights – that were painstakingly constructed after the Second World War to ensure that the killing and destruction would never happen again. Leaders set out to establish protections for people – for us.
The most important of these is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but it is the very notion of universality that is under sustained attack. And so are the principles of human rights. Increasingly one sees twisted discussions on alt-right sites of the notion of “human rights for the right humans”. A spin on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that brilliant satire of the Soviet Union, in which all animals were equal, but some were more equal than others.
This attack on “the universal” is not surprising. It has to be undermined if human rights – and the rule of law – are to be hollowed out. Trump’s embrace of white nationalists in the United States is a direct attack on the Civil Rights Movement. Bolsonaro’s misogyny – like Trump’s, like Duterte’s – is very dangerous to the hard-won gains women have made. The homophobia of Putin’s Russia and in the ex-Soviet Republics has been lethal. All of these men are walking back environmental protections.
This toxic global mix is a threat to democracy. It is a threat to us all. Our global social fabric – the weft and weave of similarity and difference – that holds people together in community, in law, in solidarity and in peace – is unraveling. To stop that from happening, to hold the centre, to prevent things from falling apart we need to weave things together again. This – as anyone who has ever dropped a stitch while knitting will tell you – is not an easy task but it is an essential one.
We know what to do. We know that we need a politics of resilience and hope and not fear. We need a language that is inclusive rather than combative. But we also know that we need to fight for the values and the ideals that have made the world not perfect but fairer and better. One in which there is the ideal of justice and of human rights for all. A world that is whole, rather than broken up into fearful, warring groups. It is a world many of us have been privileged to experience and it is one we know in our hearts.
“Wholeness is not a Utopian dream,” wrote Anni Albers, the Bauhaus textile designer, in 1947.
“It is something we once possessed and now seem largely to have lost, or to say it less pessimistically, seem to have lost were it not for our inner sense of direction which still reminds us that something is wrong here because we know something right.”
These words resonate with the destruction we will – unless we are very careful – face again unless we find a way to stop this tide of corrupting brutality. DM