John Bercow, champion of the commons! Citing opposition to racism and sexism, support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary he announced that he would not invite Trump to address Parliament if the proposed state visit does indeed take place.
Predictably, headlines began to pour in slamming the short speech as outrageous, an attempt to silence the president, a breach of speaker impartiality, unjustifiable and hypocritical.
James Duddridge MP levelled the accusation that Speaker Bercow has previously welcomed Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and the leaders of Oman and Kuwait to address Westminster. Mr Bercow joins an ever growing list of public individuals who’ve never had much to say about the leaders of other, less democratic countries, but are piling criticism onto Trump and his administration just three weeks since they took office.
Is it morally inconsistent to criticise Trump so ferociously while remaining silent about or even praising other, comparatively unethical leaders and governments?
I believe it isn’t, and I strongly support those speaking out against Trump, or at least anyone resisting May’s national project to prostrate ourselves in front of him, endorse all his domestic policies, and offer a full state visit before he’s even been in office a week.
PROGRESS, NORMS AND EXAMPLE
History may zig and zag, and I firmly believe that historical trends and events are highly contingent. Cause and effect are almost impossible to pin down, and our world could very easily be completely different. However, to deny human progress is to deny an overwhelming body of evidence. Progress in length and quality of life, citizen participation in decision making and the freedom to live our lives as we choose.
When it comes to decision making and the exercise of power, we must accept that liberal democracy is by a long way the least worst form of rule. Not just elections, but the accountability and transparency, the rule of law, separation of powers and free speech and free press that are all a part of a pluralistic, democratic society. I don’t claim that it’s the ultimate form of government, but at the present time, it’s by far the best we’ve got.
And so, to be considered an ally of the UK – not just a nation we work with in order to further our own self-interest, but a partner, with whom we discuss and shape our aims and interests – surely every nation must be moving towards democratising their decision making. Otherwise, we are clearly not viewing the world and our citizens in the same way, and will only be able to cooperate in strict self-interest.
But the institutions of democratic decision making don’t come about overnight, neither do the rights, responsibilities and norms of behaviour all integral to such a political system. They are readily accepted into some cultural practises and strongly opposed by others. They take root in habits and reflexes which take generations to form. Successful democratic change is slow, incremental, and almost always led from within – by the powerful voluntarily rescinding some control – not imposition from without or by violent revolution. Political leaders should be judged with respect to the institutions and norms of their own domestic political system and encouraged as they democratise them, questioned if they undermine them. On this charge, Trump is an underminer.
Even in countries where democracy is established, these institutions and norms remain fragile. Trust is hard won and easily lost, defecting is always a better short-term choice than cooperating, power corrupts. Thus although Trump’s current material effect on democracy in the USA is minimal, he consistently assaults the institutions and norms of conduct that it relies upon to function and persist.
Finally, the United States is the sole superpower of the world. In addition to an overwhelming military might that makes it the unquestioning apex of the nation-state food chain, the USA is a cultural powerhouse. Since World War II, American culture and values have spread all over the world, and many of them have been instantly, fervently accepted by local populations of any and every human culture; fast food, jeans, music, movies, English, capitalism, the ideal of democracy.
With its unassailable military and economic might, the USA holds the power to guarantee the independence of its allies, and threaten and coerce its enemies. All world leaders consider Washington’s response before doing something that might be against US interests or values. Their citizens use exemplars from American social and political life to hold those in power to account and demand their rights. The USA is the example of a successful, free, tolerant, democratic nation.
THE STATE VISIT COMPARISON
Xi Jinping, whose state visit I wasn’t in favour of, but nonetheless wouldn’t have taken to the streets to oppose, governs China in broadly the same way as his predecessors. His restrictions on the Internet continue a trend put in place before his tenure, but he has consolidated power into his own hands, expanded militarily into the South China Sea, and eroded the freedoms of the press, the judiciary, and Hong Kong. However, he has led China to massive investment in renewables, cracked down hard on Communist Party corruption and overseen a democratisation of economic development.
Juan Manuel Santos, president of Columbia, was received by the queen last year, this after winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his tireless work to end the civil war there. In 2014, there was a state visit from the President of Ireland Michael Higgins. He who passed Ireland’s first ever abortion law and legalised same-sex marriage.
Donald Trump, in contrast, in both word and action consistently violates the democratic norms of his country and of international relations. He openly insulted a disabled reporter, has said an endless number of sexist and demeaning things to and about women and expressed the most essentialist, racist opinion of African Americans. Ethically he won’t release his tax returns, despite that being an agreed norm for US presidential candidates and having promised to do so. He continues to keep control of his entire business empire and actively uses the presidency to improve his own and his family’s business interests.
Trump, even as president, ignores and insults his closest allies – Mexico and Australia so far – and praises states that threaten the UK. While Russia has been stepping up its already intense bombardment of cyberattacks against the UK, Trump eased sanctions against Moscow and is moving toward ending them altogether. He agrees with ISIS that our age will be defined by a clash of fundamentally incompatible civilisations – Islam vs the West – and is determined to bring this war into being. His unconstitutional order to bar a wide swathe of people from entering the USA a fortnight ago, a decision taken unilaterally just hours after Theresa May left after a ‘successful’ visit, immediately harmed many British citizens and has increased our risk of attack from extremist Islamic terrorists. The accompanying order to halt all refugee admissions violates one of Britain’s, and Western liberal nation’s, core international laws.
I’ll stop this list here for brevity, but it could go on and on.
Does Donald Trump order paramilitary squads to intimidate, harass and murder? No, but let’s judge in historical context. In the twenties and thirties African Americans were regularly lynched and had almost no legal rights in the southern USA. In the most liberally democratic countries of the time, Women were beaten and arrested for trying to vote. The violent, repressive behaviour of Fascists that rose to power during this time was existing attitudes and behaviours pushed to the extreme. A rise that was greeted with significant praise from quarters of the British population and press. In 1934 The Daily Mail ran the following article, “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”:
Much of Trump’s personal behaviour and his administration’s decrees are exactly this – the extreme fringes of acceptable conduct made mainstream. He may not command his own Blackshirts, but has again and again called for violence to silence dissenters:
“Part of the problem … is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”
“The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”
“They used to treat them very, very rough, and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily”
“[In the] old days. . . [a protester would] be carried out on a stretcher.”
“If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously.”
“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”
In the context of global norms of the relationship between those in power and their citizens in 2017, and in particular in the USA and Western liberal democracies, Trump represents a gross aberration and a serious threat to all our liberty.
If the other liberal democracies of the world pause for breath as power changes hands in the USA. If we raise questions about what we see, and diplomatically hang back, America isn’t going to shun us, tear up alliances and become a pariah state, repressing its people and terrorising its neighbours. Domestically, an inspiring number are fighting to preserve institutions, keep their rights and maintain democratic norms.
Unfortunately, the British government immediately nailed its colours to the mast, endorsing Trump and handing out the quickest state visit ever. This has forced many of us, and I’m sure the usually very reserved, impartial Bercow is included, whose default response would be one of open-minded scepticism – better to work with a nation than exile them, innocent until proven guilty – into openly condemning Trump and our overeager embrace of him and his administration. At least half of my protest is at my own government’s response.
Criticism of him is absolutely justified.
We must not allow progress to be discarded. We must not allow his policies and behaviour to become normal in the USA or in international relations. We must not allow him to set an example for legitimate political conduct in the UK, or in any other country.