By Pervez Hoodbhoy
25 February 2017
Donald Trump’s presidency is the tip of the spear that xenophobic white supremacists are using to reconquer America. A Republican-dominated Senate and the House of Representatives may differ with Trump on smaller matters but will support him on core issues. The alt-right’s goal is to barrel over traditional American values of freedom and generosity, terrorise Muslim and immigrant families into leaving, and remove the checks and balances that have preserved the country’s openness to new peoples and ideas.
The future is uncertain. An unhinged, foul-mouthed, openly racist, narcissistic casino owner is not just president but is also commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. Under him the United States could become the Fourth Reich — a reincarnation of a Nazi-like Germany. Let’s note that Trump is only four weeks into his presidency with 98pc still to go. Yale history professor Tim Snyder says that American democracy has less than a year to live. He predicts that the Madisonian republic, founded in 1789 and renewed in 1865, could die.
But whatever ultimately happens, something is definitely slowing down — and even stopping — the right wing’s mad charge to topple all that is good and decent about America. What?
The thousands of Americans who protested the Muslim ban at airports were there to protect a principle.
First, it’s the American people. Most of the articulated opposition comes from well-educated Americans brought up on decent, enlightened values learned in school. Tens of thousands have stormed congressional district offices and town hall meetings to vent at Trump’s regressive agenda on climate change, banning Muslims and Mexicans, increasing income inequality, and denial of women’s reproductive rights. One in three Californians want their state to leave the US legally and peacefully in 2019. Cal-Exit may not actually happen, but it shows how upset Americans are.
The pace of resistance is astonishing. Back in 1970, as a student in Boston, I had travelled to Washington to join a crowd of 50,000 people protesting America’s war against Vietnam. It had taken about 10 years of patient organising to achieve this size. But last month, with barely a few weeks of effort, an estimated 3.3 million angry people — mostly educated women appalled at Trump’s misogyny — took to the streets. In Washington D.C. itself there were 500,000, significantly more than the estimated attendance at Trump’s inauguration the day earlier.
Second, Trump faces an obstinate, uncompliant judiciary. He fired Sally Yates, acting attorney general, for declaring illegal his executive order blocking Muslims. Subsequently, a lower court reaffirmed her decision, which was further upheld by three judges from the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Thousands of barred travellers could thereafter enter the US.
Faced with defeat, Trump retreated and says he will issue a new executive order. But, unless he replaces most of the judges, that too will fail. Under a system of checks and balances, an American president appoints judges but courts can declare his orders unconstitutional.
Third, a free American press is fiercely resisting. Trump says that the media — specifically naming CNN, ABC, CBS, and the New York Times — is acting as an opposition party. Last Friday he tweeted that they are not just his enemies but also “the enemy of the American people. SICK”.
This outburst comes because the press has exposed Trump’s shady business dealings, exaggerations on the size of the inauguration crowd, promotion of his daughter’s fashion business, lewd remarks on women, help received from Russia for getting elected, and the dubious character of his political henchmen. All this must hurt, but what gets Trump apoplectic are mocking parodies on TV channels and YouTube videos that feature impersonations of Trump and his spokespersons. Such lampooning weakens his authority by depriving him of the gravitas that other US presidents have enjoyed.
This is music to the ears of most Pakistanis — and a relief to much of the world. But now we need to compare this with our own score card on the above three counts.
Media: Yes, Pakistan’s media is free — free to slam politicians and elected governments on evening talk shows. This is, of course, as it should be. But none can touch generals and mullahs. If you want to hide in cyber space and still try then be prepared for abduction, declared as missing, and perhaps returned — as four of the five bloggers are known to have been — but terrified into silence.
America has Fox but also other channels; Pakistan has only numerous versions of Fox. America has Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Glenn Beck among others who spew stupidity and ignorance, lie, and pander to the lowest level of society. But, for fear of lawsuits, they still cannot match the infinitely more degraded, life-threatening, fact-less nonsense spewed by some highly popular Pakistani anchors.
Judiciary: In theory, Pakistan’s too is independent of the executive branch. But nobody believes this, and nobody should. If it was true, Asif Ali Zardari would have long been in jail, Panamagate would have been settled, and the grant of land to generals could be legally challenged.
Of course, we have our heroes. Justice of the Supreme Court Qazi Faez Isa single-handedly put together the detailed Quetta terrorism inquiry commission report that convincingly indicts the interior minister for improper behavior. But nothing has happened yet and nothing will. In contrast, a mere US sessions judge could stump Trump and overturn his executive Muslim-ban order.
People: I cannot remember the last time when Pakistanis rallied together for a cause that was not specifically Muslim. Of course, Kashmir, Palestine, Bosnia and Myanmar are all worthy causes, but they are Muslim causes. In contrast, the thousands of Americans who stormed airports last month to protest Trump’s Muslim ban were there to protect a principle — that all peoples of all religions and ethnicities should have exactly the same rights.
Perhaps someday we too will learn to respect people for what they are — humans — and fight for their rights also, not just our own. Perhaps an Ahmadi, Hindu, Christian or Parsi will be allowed to run for president of Pakistan or become the army chief. Until that time, in moral terms, we cannot really protest where Trump wants to take America.
Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.