Donald Trump has been president for less than a month and it already feels like we are deep inside a nightmare. Everything is inverted, old certainties turned upside-down, things once solid now melted into air. “Don’t normalize this,” we are told by media pundits. “This isn’t who we are.” But they’re wrong. Trump is abhorrent, but he is not aberrant. He is simply the next step in the grim, global decay of our ordinary politics.
Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Whatever awful policy he has implemented, you can find its antecedents in the Obama administration. After all, it was President Obama who refined the drone program into an exquisite killing system and normalized its use. Thanks to Obama, President Trump can now pause from tweeting about TV ratings to murder people on the other side of the world by remote control. And when it comes to surveillance, state secrecy and cracking down on whistleblowers, President Trump simply needs to copy the Obama playbook.
The same is true, to an extent, with Trump’s Muslim ban. State surveillance of mosques didn’t end when Bush left office. And what is a no-fly list but a registry of Muslims by another name? Let’s not forget the enormous numbers of undocumented immigrants deported under Obama. Things are worse now than ever, but this isn’t a downward spiral that started on Trump’s first day in office. It was already unfolding.
Nor should anyone, in looking for the good in American politics, succumb to the ridiculous fantasy of the moderate Republican. Paul Ryan is not a moderate. Reince Priebus is not a moderate. Mitt Romney went from anti-Trump leader to groveling supplicant at the drop of a MAGA hat. And you only need to look at what local GOP leaders are doing at the state level to understand how foul the whole party’s plans are. Trump is not an aberration—he’s your ordinary GOP politician without the mask of civility.
And the ugly politics Trump represents aren’t limited to the United States; look abroad and you’ll find the same patterns. In Australia, genuine refugees—many of them Muslim—have been held for years in quasi-legal, offshore detention camps. Self-harm and suicide attempts in these prisons are common; two refugees have died by self-immolation. Australia’s policy still enjoys bipartisan support. It has also provided a working model for many right-wing extremist groups, including the one currently installed in Washington.
Many media outlets have been quick to see in Germany’s Angela Merkel a calm, cool-headed alternative to Trump, one who welcomes Muslim refugees instead of banning them. But Merkel is no #resistance leader. She is in thrall to the same ugly forces underpinning so much of our politics. In December, trying to draw voters away from emerging far-right groups, Chancellor Merkel called for a ban on the full-face veil and pledged to send some refugees home.
In post-Brexit Britain (and indeed well before), the sort of restrictive immigration bans Trump has ordered are daily fodder for newspaper front pages and policy discussions. In France, the leading conservative candidates in the upcoming presidential election are a Trump-style ultra-nationalist and a “centrist” who is known as the French Margaret Thatcher. In countries like Hungary and Poland, terrifying hard-right forces are tightening their grip on the institutions of government. We’ve been here before: as capitalism begins to devour itself, liberal democracies succumb to their worst impulses, never far from the surface. Terrible things follow.
Trump is not an aberration, he’s the realization of our ordinary politics. He’s the inevitable result of structures, practices and ideologies that were already there. Our system has always been vulnerable to fascism and demagoguery. And as long as this system is built on crushing competition, state violence, material inequality and racism, it will remain vulnerable.
Resistance to Trump is the most important action right now. But casting Trump as a lone menacing villain instead of attacking the system that birthed him won’t really help anyone in the long run. We can’t remove President Trump only to end up with President Pence. How would that help the vulnerable?
Clear diagnosis is the first step in treatment. There are no miracle cures. We can’t just paper over the systemic faults of our failing system. We can’t fight the deportation of immigrants under Trump only to ignore it when the next Democrat president inevitably continues it. The better answer is to resist our normal politics as a whole, the politics that gave us Trump and will give us worse in the future. We need to strive for better leaders, better politics, and a radically better world.