Yesterday, just two weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump got started on his 2020 re-election campaign, with a visit to Melbourne, Florida.
The problem I have with Trump and his rhetoric – well, one of the many, many problems I have with Trump and his rhetoric – is that I’m both a writer and a lawyer, which means that I’m simultaneously cringing at his cavalier disregard for the English language, and exploding with rage at his even more cavalier disregard for little things like, oh, let’s see, the rule of law, for example.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent a lot of time reading commentary on the things Trump has said and done since his inauguration. Something that has come up time and time again, in various guises, is the ‘shock event’ theory. Some political commentators believe that actions like the short-lived travel ban are intended to serve a purpose other than, or in addition to, their stated intent.
Some people see it as a test, a power-hungry president pushing boundaries in order to establish exactly how far he can go before the public digs its toes in and pushes back, or to figure out which agencies will back him if he sets himself in direct opposition to the judiciary.
Others see it as a calculated and cynical means to an end, the government deliberately overreaching itself in order to create space in which it can ‘climb down’ to the position it always intended to occupy, leaving protesters with a false sense of victory.
Whatever different motives the commentators ascribe to the president, all proponents of the shock event theory seemed to be in agreement on one key point. That we should not be drawn in by it. That the real danger is elsewhere and that we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball, while focusing on protests and calls to arms that ultimately achieve very little, but which create a brittle and dangerous illusion of progress.
I can see the logic in this argument, and I understand why these commentators are warning against becoming too caught up in the circus of Trump’s extravagant promises and equally extravagant threats. But…I don’t entirely agree.
How we react to Trump’s pronouncements – and, more importantly, to his attacks on the fundamental human rights of certain sections of society -is about more than stopping this runaway presidential juggernaut in its tracks.
It’s about us.
It’s about what kind of people we want to be. It’s about what sort of society we want to live in. It’s about what we are prepared to tolerate, and the point at which we say this far and no further.
And it’s about sending a clear and unequivocal message, not only to the administration, but also to the people who are in the firing line. Effective protest involves a much wider demographic than just the people directly affected by whatever it is that is being protested. It can’t be just about a minority group saying ‘this is being done to me and I want it to stop.’ It has to be a consensus, a coming-together of all sorts of groups and interests, where those with strong voices stand alongside the voiceless and the vulnerable. It has to include people who are not directly affected, but who are willing to stand up and say ‘this isn’t being done to me, and I still want it to stop.’
I understand the arguments about the limited effectiveness of marches and slogans and flash-mobs. Ultimately, protest cannot force the hand of government. Protest can only succeed if it manages to persuade those in power to listen, whether that comes about through fear – fear of voter alienation, or even uprising – or through acceptance of the will of the people. If the administration is one that is unwilling to listen, ultimately, protest will fail.
Well, it will fail to change whatever it is that is the subject of the protest. But it may well succeed in other respects. In giving those fighting through legal channels the confidence to fight on. And in letting those directly affected know that people are on their side.
Those people who went to the airports with banners, welcoming former detainees when they finally made it through to US soil, the protesters marching with ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners, the veteran who pinned his Purple Heart onto the jacket of the Iraqi military translator who had found himself challenged when he returned to the US from a trip overseas – did any of these people have any impact whatsoever on the president’s determination to plough on with his illegal and chaotic scheme? Almost certainly not. But did they serve a purpose beyond self-indulgent, bleeding-heat liberalism?
Yes. I believe they did.
In a scene near the middle of my book, The Space Between the Stars, the two main characters cross swords over the issue of some historical protests against a controversial forced emigration program. One of the characters was forced out of his home by the programs, while the other, from a much more privileged background, had been involved in the protests. The protester has to concede that they ultimately made no difference to the direction the program took, but defends their motivations, asking What else could we have done?’
Yes, to some extent protest is about the way it makes the participants feel. But this doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Protest doesn’t have to be mawkish bleeding-heart-ery. It can be a coherent expression of what we believe about ourselves as a society, and a statement of what we want to be when we come out the other side of this – and we will come out the other side. Whether that is in four years’ time or in four weeks’ time, Trump’s time in office will come to an end. (Obviously, I would very much prefer his presidency to be numbered in weeks rather than years, and I am hanging on to the hope that at some point in the future we will look back and say ‘hey, do you remember that February when Trump was in charge?’)
When it is over, there are going to be a lot of broken pieces to pick up, and there’s an opportunity to use them to make something better and stronger. If there is a positive side to Trump’s administration, it has to be that it is making people examine what it is that they believe, and what it is that they want for their society. The travel ban was so entirely wrong, so overtly prejudiced, that people mobilised to make it clear that it wasn’t happening in their name. There must be a way to harness that strength of feeling and use it to build stronger societies – ones in which people like Donald Trump cannot be swept to victory on a wave of disenfranchisement and resentment.
Of course, protest alone isn’t going to solve the problems that the Trump administration seems hell-bent on creating. The travel ban was defeated by legal challenge, and the lawyer part of me thinks that this is entirely right and proper- that the legality of government action should be considered carefully and thoroughly inside the walls of a courtroom, and not on the streets, by those who shout the loudest.
But shouting has a place too.
Lawyers and writers have a lot in common. Lawyers are, to a great extent, wordsmiths – maybe that’s why there are so many past or present solicitors and barristers among the ranks of published authors. And we need both types of words. We need the clear, calm, dispassionate voices of lawyers, calling upon our judiciary to do exactly what they were put in place to do – to hold someone to account. Because there has to be a mechanism by which the most powerful can be held to account. If power corrupts, then the legal system is there to prevent that corruption from becoming absolute. We need the courts, the lawyers, the law students sitting on the airport floors on their laptops, demanding accountability in the most measured and formal of language.
But we also need the protesters, the people with banners, the satirists on social media, the ordinary people on internet forums, asking questions, and telling others why this is not acceptable.
I read this Huffington Post piece earlier today. It’s about Senator Patty Murray, who has set out to make sure that Trump’s cabinet nominees are subjected to rigorous vetting. The Democrats don’t have the numbers to block appointments, but Senator Murray, along with other members of the Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee, has made a point of asking searching questions and talking to Republican senators about the suitability of the candidates. She’s had some success, but her stated aim is to make it clear that some things are not acceptable. Speaking recently, she said this:
There is a bully in every classroom. And the best way to teach other children in your preschool class that it’s not OK is to make it not OK.
We need to do the same. We need to make it not ok, by any means at our disposal. And, to that end, we need the media. Yes, we need them to keep their eye on the ball, in whatever incomprehensible game is being played. But we also need them to keep stating the obvious.
Travel ban = not ok
Casual racism = not ok
Demonising entire social or ethnic groups = not ok
Attacking the rule of law = not ok
We need them to keep asking those pesky, inconvenient questions over and over again. I was pleasantly surprised to see a scathing criticism of Trump’s attack on the mainstream media, by an anchor at Fox News, a generally pro-Trump network. We need this. We need the free press to defend the free press. We need the press to be both watchmen, and warriors, fighting their way to the truth, no matter what lies and distractions the Trump administration tries to throw in their way.
We need words. Of all sorts. From every quarter.
From a Guardian journalist’s damning indictment of a ‘confidently unhinged’ president, through Donaeld the Unready’s Anglo-Saxon satire, to a former Trump supporter, with all of half a dozen Twitter followers, taking to social media to ask ‘Dude, I voted for you, but wtf?’
Because words have power. Think of Martin Luther King and his dream. Think of William Wilberforce speaking out against slavery. My late grandmother lived through WWII in Tyneside. She was bombed out twice, and saw dozens of other South Shields inhabitants killed in a single direct hit on the marketplace. She once described an air-raid that saw her sheltering with her mother and my newborn uncle, both of them crying ‘the baby, the baby.’ Like a Punch and Judy show, she said, with typical humour. While this was going on, my grandad was in the Atlantic convoys, with orders to take his ship to Canada in the event that the British line did not hold. My gran had to face the very real prospect that she might never see him again. And into all this mess of separation and bombs and sirens and death at just a few streets’ remove, there came the voice of Winston Churchill, speaking over the radio.
We will fight them on the beaches…
It’s easy, with hindsight, to dismiss it as hackneyed, empty rhetoric, as something that made no difference to the actual business of winning the war. But my gran said that it did matter, that it made them feel that they were part of something bigger, and that they could and would endure whatever came their way. She said that they were ready to go out there, onto the beach, wielding whichever household implements seemed most suitably lethal at the time.
So no, we can’t afford to let any of Trump’s hate-filled words go unchallenged. We can’t afford to let any of his lies go unchallenged. And we need to call them what they are.
Not alternate facts. Not a justifiable response to ‘FAKE NEWS.’
We need to fight them on the streets, on the page, on the screen, in the fine print of legal documents. We need measured judgement, balanced commentary, articulate argument. But we also need slogans and rallying-cries, and all the old, clichéd speeches.
We can probably even make room for every hackneyed line of film dialogue that gave us a little tingle – even if it was accompanied by a sideways glance to check that no-one else in the cinema had noticed that you were actually enjoying the ‘we will not go quietly into the night’ speech from Independence Day – and for every mug-adorning quote from every cult TV show ever made.
Because there is a reason words move us, whether it is in books, in real life or on the screen. Have you ever read a line in a book that rings so true that you think ‘YES!’, with the hairs standing up on the back of your neck? Sometimes people strike on just the right combination of words to make us understand, or remember, something about what ourselves, as individuals or as part of a wider society.
We need to harness those moments. If someone – a commentator, a politician, a journalist – comes up with something that moves us, and makes us think, we need to make sure we respond with that ‘YES!’ Re-tweet, share on Facebook, tell people about it, find a way to put it into your own words and pass it on. Keep saying it. Keep challenging. Keep expressing that outrage.
Trump is not a natural orator. His speech transcripts are rambling, incoherent and contradictory. He is ill-equipped for a battle of words. So that is what we need to give him. All of us. The media, the judiciary, every user of every social media network across the world.
And perhaps a teeny-tiny little bit of childish mockery…