The de-Trumpening continues, as our upcoming orange overlord continues to backpedal on many of his more outrageous campaign promises, to the chagrin of his most obsessive fans. We may soon be looking at the cheerful prospect a full-scale anti-Trump revolt as the hardliners who he spent the last year and a half courting turn against him.
Or perhaps not. A disturbing number of Trump-adjacent people have been floating the idea of a reinstatement of the post-9/11 registry for immigrants from Muslim-majority countries (some even bringing up the WWII internment of Japanese Americans as a potential road-map), and for reasons we’ll get to in a minute, Trump himself may soon no longer be the most critical component of a right-wing apparatus that would probably be more effective without his incompetent ass leading it.
Over the last several days Trump announced several cabinet and staff appointments, and they’re sobering indeed. Let’s run down the list:
Mike Pence, Vice-President
Pence has been a known quantity for some time, but I feel like people aren’t giving this guy the caution he deserves, especially considering speculation that Trump, who seemed blatantly ill-suited to the Presidency from the beginning, may in fact be blatantly ill-suited to the Presidency, leaving him to basically serve as the rabble-rousing figurehead while Pence does most of the actual work.
Frankly, the idea of Pence at the wheel worries me more than an actual Trump-led America. He may not be as outspoken or inflammatory as Trump, but Pence has some truly ugly views, including support for shock-based conversion therapy and discriminatory “religious freedom” laws. He’s basically your classic religious-right hardline conservative, and the fact that he’s one Trumpian breakdown away from the top seat should be cause for serious concern.
Stephen Bannon, Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor
If you know who Stephen Bannon is, you’re almost certainly as horrified by this news as I am already, and no further explanation is needed. If not, read on.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the internet over the last several years then you’re probably aware of the birth of the “alt-right”, a loose far right-wing movement than can best be described as old school 20th century European fascism filtered through several layers of 4-Chan and Gamergate, both of which played important roles in its rise. The core tenets of the alt-right– white supremacy, violent nationalism, traditional “family values” that vilify LGBT people and enshrine sexism– are well-worn ground, but they’re granted a unique internet-powered shot in the arm so that, for example, alt-righters tend to frame their misogyny in terms of Pickup Artist and MRA ideologies and language alongside more old-school ideas about what role women should play in society and the home.
The thing to keep in mind is that these are really just thin veneers of modernity applied to ideas that have been kicking around for decades or even centuries, and many people in the movement don’t try particularly hard to hide it; frequently, alt-righters who start an argument gabbling about genetics and IQ profiles will quickly descend to quoting neo-nazi slogans word for word.
Where does Bannon come into these? He’s the executive chairman of Breitbart.com, a sleazy internet rag that’s become a sort of unofficial nexus for the disparate threads of the alt-right. Its content over the last few years in particular has skewed more and more extreme, playing host to thinly-veiled white supremacy and parroting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “international bankers” controlling the world. Whether or not Bannon himself personally believes any of this is irrelevant when he’s presided over (and profited from) a website whose main focus is the production of racist and xenophobic lies. His appointment by Trump represents the knowing elevation of the alt-right and all that it stands for to the White House.
This should be completely unacceptable to anyone with a moral bone in their body. If you’ve been taking a “wait and see” approach to Trump, stop waiting: with this move, he’s shown us everything we need to know.
An interesting wrinkle to Bannon’s hiring is that the old-guard Republicans who are being elevated to other positions in Trump’s administration reportedly don’t mesh well with alt-right figures, being leery of their open racism and propensity for wild conspiracy theories (Breitbart.com was a major clearinghouse for Hillary Clinton health conspiracies during the campaign). This is actually fairly par for the course for autocrats and dictators, who tend to preside over fractured, squabbling courts filled with back stabbing and internal power struggles, often exacerbated by the autocrat’s tendency to turn on and purge underlings who displease them (another feature of the Trump campaign– he even apparently fell out with Pence to the point of almost dropping him as VP at one point).
Jeff Sessions, Attorney General
Another hardline conservative, with a predictable history of opinions and judicial action on civil rights, immigration and LGBT issues. His views on race are particularly troubling— he was denied a position as a Reagen-appointed judge after a Senate hearing highlighted a litany of racist comments.
The important thing to keep in mind about the non-cabinet picks is that Trump can’t simply assign these roles unilaterally, and Republicans are likely to balk at his decision to go outside the party mainstream and into the further reaches of America’s right wing. If so, it could be an interesting litmus test of how Trump will respond to being challenged. I suggest keeping a close eye on how he handles this sort of opposition, as almost all strongman leaders begin their dictatorial trajectory with their own staff and subordinates before expanding their grip into the general public.
Mike Pompeo, Head of the CIA
How do you feel about a proponent of mass surveillance, torture and unlawful imprisonment being in charge of one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world? Not great? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
America’s intelligence apparatus transformed into a truly dystopian beast under Bush and Obama, and a Pompeo-led CIA seems poised to throw off the (extremely weak) shackles that were placed on it during Obama’s second term, bringing us at the very least back to the untamed paranoia of the immediate the post-9/11 years.
People like Pompeo (and, come to think of it, Trump himself) would very much like the USA to return to the survival-at-all-costs siege mentality of that time, and unfortunately they have the recent string of heinous attacks in Europe to win the America public over to their way of thinking. I shudder to think of what they’d do with another major terrorist incident on US soil.
Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor
Speaking of which, there’s this guy, who’s been offered the job of National Security Advisor. Flynn is by all accounts the sort of sabre-rattling conservative who likes to buy into the whole “clash of civilizations” deal: the idea that the (enlightened, progressive) West is at war with the (barbaric, uncivilized) Muslim world, not just abroad but on American soil, where concerned citizens must be wary of the spread of Shariah law. The obvious parallels to Red Scare-era McCarthyism apparently sail right by these people’s heads.
The frustrating thing about this sort of rhetoric is that ISIS (the closest actual thing to the worldwide Islamist conspiracy imagined by proponents of this mindset) very much believe the same thing, differing only in which side they choose to support. The idea that the west and Islam are locked in a total war that only one side can survive helps their recruitment efforts enormously, and convinces members to accept any atrocity they’re ordered to commit; imagine what will happen if Muslims– who have perhaps witnessed the murder of their fellow citizens in drone strikes and bombings– hear this worldview coming from the mouth of one of America’s top military figures? How can you effectively argue against radicalization in that sort of environment?
This ridiculous situation can only lead to an endless cycle of violence, whereby terror is used to justify war which is used to justify terror, and rinse and repeat. The only way to stop the cycle is for one side to refuse to rise to the bait; with groups like ISIS having already made the decision to fight to the death and Islamophobic hawks providing military strategy and guidance to the US government, I severely doubt we can count on that happening.
There are more staff picks to come, some of which will no doubt be at least as alarming as the ones already announced (Sarah “drill baby drill” Palin is apparently in the running for Secretary of The Interior, which should be highly disconcerting to anyone who cares about the environment), but these selections give us a very clear idea of the sort of government that Trump intends to preside over. It also tells us that his strategic softening and post-election calls for reconciliation are entirely hollow, and that he’ll lead exactly the way he promised to: by leaning heavily into both the old-guard conservative right, and the emerging neo-nazi alt-right movement that embraced him so enthusiastically during his campaign.