He stormed Washington like a vengeful ill-wind. Donald Trump came to tame and to conquer Washington, like a Roman General entering the Eternal City. He saw, and desperately wanted to be seen by his adoring multitudes that came to see him and listen to him from the faraway provinces and to watch his coronation. He darkly spoke about a dangerous world, telling the people that he came to disrupt traditions and observed customs, not to preserve them or live by them. He used his words sparingly not to elucidate facts but to obfuscate them, not to reveal truths but to conceal them. This was the dawn of a not so brave new world, in which words and facts keep melting and changing their contours and meanings like the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory. In the days that followed he would spew fire and brimstone, lashing out at would-be conspirators within and hostiles beyond the seas. Trump did not see his realm as a 'shining city upon a hill', but rather a city with crumbling walls that could not withstand the repeated assaults of the modern day Visigoths. His walls, which will bear his name, will be tall, mighty and impenetrable.
“The world is a mess”
In his first seven days, Trump wielded his pen like a sword slashing previous decisions, undermining settled laws, and signing new executive orders proclaiming new policies that are likely to create new adversaries and enemies. In the city where Trump reigned, Executive Orders were raining daily; he signed them with relish under the limelight, pretending that his signature will render them concrete realities. He may not know, or even care that some of them may not muster the inevitable legal challenges. He signed them with the abandon that only the head of a Junta could display after a successful coup, signing military communiques introducing the new post-coup political reality. For what Donald Trump and his new lieutenants have wrought is nothing short of a political coup. Yet beyond the glee and the arrogant braggadocio, President Trump could not hide the fact that most of his executive orders related to international trade and security, were rooted in the fear and loathing of a hostile world. In his first television interview with the ABC network, president Trump was asked about the impact of his decision to suspend immigration from seven majority Muslim countries; his answer mirrored the gloomy world he invoked in his inaugural speech. “The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets. What, you think this is going to cause a little more anger? The world is an angry place.”
It was ironic that President Trump signed his order banning Muslim immigrants and refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The symbolism was powerful and poignantHisham Melhem
One of the most enduring and disturbing vignettes of President Trump’s first week at the White House was the joint brief press conference at the conclusion of his talks with visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May. A surreal moment came in the middle of the press conference when president Trump extolled the benefit of torture, oblivious to the fact that American law prohibits torture. Trump stated that his defense secretary retired General James Mattis had stated publicly that he is against torture, specifically waterboarding, then he added “I don’t necessarily agree” but that in this case Mr. Mattis “will override” him. Before this encounter, president Trump emphatically told an interviewer that he believes that torture “works”.
In seven days, President Trump began to upend the complex political, economic and strategic architecture that Democratic and Republican presidents have built and preserved in the world and at home since the end of the Second World War. Even before his inauguration, Mr. Trump succeeded in alienating America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia, by questioning the validity of an “obsolete” NATO alliance, and by dismissing the importance of the European Union, and calling into question the benefits of maintaining strong alliances with countries like Japan and South Korea. Mr. Trump’s strange admiration of Russian president Vladimir Putin, his refusal to condemn his domestic repression and occupation and annexation of Crimea, threaten to undermine 70 years of special Trans-Atlantic relations.
Globalization and its discontents
By withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, designed to deepen and expand economic ties among the twelve countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, minus China, Trump dealt a blow to an old established and bipartisan American economic orthodoxy: open, free trade. The president of the United States, the mother of globalization, instead of deepening America’s economic heft in Asia, was beating a retreat while threatening trade protection measures and ceding the Asia-Pacific theatre to a rising China.
Trump’s decision to act on his xenophobic pledge to build a wall separating the United States from Mexico, its third largest economic partner and a country with which America is linked in so many complex ways, is disconcerting to say the least. Mr. Trump came to undermine the policies of his three predecessors towards Mexico which were based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) enacted in 1994 among the United States, Canada and Mexico, creating a major economic zone without tariff barriers among the three countries. Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA, which has been on the whole a positive agreement for the US From the beginning of his untraditional campaign, Mr. Trump treated Mexico as a free loader, a country that exports drugs and rapists and what he sees as human refuse to America. And to deepen the humiliation of America’s southern neighbor, Trump wants to build his wall and demand that Mexico foot the bill. It is as if Mexico is expected to deliver on an edict issued by a colonial master. When Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto called off his trip to Washington protesting president Trump’s decision to start building the wall, the White House threatened to slap Mexico with a 20% import tax on Mexican goods to finance the wall. Thus, in less than a week Mr. Trump was threatening a gratuitous trade war with a close friend, a neighbor and a major trading partner.
President Trump’s position on the Mexican wall is bizarre and embarrassing, but his views on Iraqi oil that he repeated during the campaign and during his first week in office are downright dangerous and illegal. Mr. Trump has been criticizing the Obama administration because it withdrew from Iraq early, and did not seize, control and exploit Iraq’s oil fields. When he visited the CIA on his second day as president he repeated the old lament but added flippantly, “so we should have kept the oil. But, okay, maybe we’ll have another chance.” Trump kept insisting on his position and claimed that his critics are “fools”. The president of the United States, circa 2017 was thinking out loud about the possibility of using America’s armed forces to violate International Law and act like pirates by occupying and stealing the natural resources of another country.
The Muslims are not coming
And on the seventh day, it was the Muslims’ turn to get Trump’s angry attention. During a visit to the Pentagon, president Trump brandished his pen and signed another executive order suspending admission of all refugees for 120 days pending the establishment of a rigorous system of vetting the backgrounds of applicants from majority Muslim countries, while giving, for the first time preference to religious minorities, namely the Christians. The order also halts the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and bars entry into the United States for 90 days of citizens from seven “terror-prone” majority Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa. Those countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. What was especially shocking was the announcement from the Department of Homeland Security that the executive order will, in fact, stop Green Card holders (permanent residents) from the seven countries from returning to the United States if they traveling abroad. As expected, lawyers representing civil rights groups and affected individuals began writing their legal briefs challenging the legality of the president’s executive order.
The order was called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. The new vetting system will be designed to weed out “radical Islamic terrorists”. President Trump said “we don’t want them here;” referring to Islamist terrorists “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.” In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, before he signed the order, Trump was asked if he would give priority to persecuted Christians in the Middle East for admission as refugees, and his answer was an emphatic “Yes”. The president of the US was engaging in illegal religious discrimination. During president Obama’s administration admission was based on the merit and not on religious or sectarian basis. Trump said the Christians in Syria have been “horribly treated,” he added. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian it was almost impossible. And the reason that was so unfair — everybody was persecuted, in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody, but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.” But, Trump’s implied discrimination against the entry of Christian refugees during the Obama administration was totally baseless, according to numerous independent investigations.
When drafts of the order were leaked to some newspapers earlier in the week they contained a section calling for the establishment of safe zones inside Syria and neighboring states to protect civilians fleeing violence pending their return to their homes or resettlement in other countries. It is not clear why this section was removed.
“The voyage of the damned”
What followed the day after the order was issued, were countless tales of woes, by immigrants, refugees and permanent residents who were stranded at airports all over the world; families were ejected from planes waiting to take-off from overseas airports, others detained after landing in the US and others were send back to their original homes. By one stroke of a pen, president Trump debased the ideals of America and left a trail of international tears. Americans all over the country staged protests at airports, denouncing the order as illegal, discriminatory and un-American.
It was ironic that President Trump signed his order banning Muslim immigrants and refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The symbolism was powerful and poignant. In the spring of 1939, the United States refused to allow more than 900 Jewish refugees on board the transatlantic liner St. Louis fleeing Germany to enter the country. The “voyage of the damned” as the plight of the refugees became known later, was covered extensively by the European and American media while the ship was sailing off the Florida coast, but America remained inhospitable. The ship returned to Europe and the passengers found refuge in 4 countries. When Germany conquered Western Europe in May 1940, most of the refugees were trapped, and 254 of them were killed in the Holocaust. In 1939, America was not kind to strangers, even those whose lives were in peril. The Great depression which victimized many Americans, hardened the hearts of many more; in one poll 83 percent of Americans were opposed to easing the restrictions on the immigration quotas imposed in 1924. In those bleak years, America was swept by an unforgiving wave of nativism and isolationism that sought to keep the country out of the coming war in Europe. The current wave of xenophobia, Islamophobia and nativism unleashed by Donald J. Trump, echoes the fear of the 1930’s.
Brick walls and virtual walls
President Trump’s first week, saw him dueling with journalists and pundits and politicians including members of his own party who criticized his obsession with his image as a strong and popular leader, and his insistence contrary to the facts that his inauguration was the most watched in history. Mr. Trump even defended his senior advisor Stephen Bannon who accused the American media of being the “opposition party”. Mr. Bannon went as far as demanding the silence of the media since it failed to understand the Trump phenomenon, saying to a reporter from the New York Times “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”. The next time a journalist in an autocratic country is kicked in the teeth, the tormentor will be quoting Stephen Bannon, telling the journalist to keep his mouth shut. Never before, a senior official in the White House dared to insult and intimidate the American media as Mr. Bannon did. It is as if Mr. Bannon was putting another brick in a virtual wall separating the media from president Trump’s White House.
Throughout history, great civilizations and great cities mastered the art of erecting walls to fend off “the barbarians”. Magnificent walls were built to protect China from northern invaders, the emperor Hadrian built the wall named after him in Britain to separate the Romans from the barbarians, and Constantinople’s famed wall repulsed many an invader for many centuries until it succumbed to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. But history is replete with many examples where walled empires and cities declined and fell because of corrosive threats from within even when the walls deterred the threats from without. It is doubtful that president Trump would understand or appreciate this historic truism.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem