The great writer Noam Chomsky calls Trump a showman, a conman, whose raison d’être is to distract and outrage with erratic behaviour while, behind the show, every aspect of government which works for the benefit of the majority is dismantled. Workers’ rights, pollution controls, consumer standards, each is decimated while corporate welfare booms and the taxes of the elite are slashed.
But what’s happening within the US is also happening globally. Rules and institutions created to make the world more peaceful and equal are being undermined and stripped away by Trump, in favour of the rule of the bully. Without question this will vastly increase suffering, as well as bringing the world closer to devastating war. No leader who meets Trump can allow this to go unchallenged. Yet by ingratiating herself with Trump, Theresa May is normalising his destructive behaviour.
In the wake of the First and Second World Wars, new international rules and institutions were created to prevent the horrors of those wars ever being repeated. These laws assigned rights to every person in the world, attempting to create a dignified life for all, as well as making sure vulnerable groups like refugees and civilians in warzones receive special protection. The horrors of the Nazi death camps, of Guernica, of total warfare, could be consigned to history.
The post-war architects, especially British economist Keynes, also recognised that war didn’t come from nowhere. A major factor was inequality, financial instability and cut-throat economic competition. They tried to create an economic system that would prioritise jobs and wellbeing, and undermine the causes of war.
Of course, in a sense these laws and institutions failed when they came up against power and self-interest. Conflict has been a constant since 1945, with near genocidal levels of carnage from Vietnam in the 1960s to central America in the 1980s to central Africa in the 1990s. Refugees rights are stamped on routinely. Nearly a billion people are without adequate food, while the global economy is now geared towards further enriching the super-wealthy regardless of the wellbeing of the majority. Indeed some of those post-war institutions, like the World Bank, are so captured by the interests of big businesses, that they themselves are morally bankrupt.
The problem is that Trump doesn’t dislike these rules because they are inadequate or captured by elites. He dislikes them because they constrain the power of the richest. Trump pulled out of the UN human rights council because it was a space where persistent human rights abusers like Israel (and the US) could receive some form of criticism, however inadequate. He is blatantly violating refugee laws, not because post-war refugee rights are inadequate (after all what is really the difference between someone fleeing extreme poverty and someone fleeing conflict?) but because he believes desperate people have no rights at all.
Even when Trump opposes bad rules – like international trade laws – he does it not because they allow exploitation around the world, but because they do not allow him and his friends to exploit enough.
Ignoring such powerful men, as if they were naughty children, will not work. As Eleanor Rooservelt, an early proponent of human rights law, once said: “Hate and force cannot be in just a part of the world without having an effect on the rest of it”. In Trump’s shadow emerges a world of tyrants and strongmen, from Turkey to the Philippines, Italy to Russia, who also dislike the rules that constrain them. What’s more, even leaders that regard themselves as pillars of the liberal establishment – including most European powers – are themselves happy to undermine and override human rights laws. Just look at the latest EU migration deal which tries to force upon much poorer countries our responsibility to offer safety and security to migrants fleeing problems that we have all too often created.
Trumpism is a poison seeping through the body politic across the globe. Compromise with bullies and bigots like Trump won’t work, any more than appeasement halted the advancement of fascism in the 1930s. We have to stand up against Trump’s attacks on human rights and on attempts, however inadequate, at peaceful cooperation. And we must go further – to transform these institutions so they actually work to realise human rights for all people, to halt aggression, and to give the poor the tools to hold the rich to account.
The likelihood of May taking this approach is close to zero – not least because her policies towards migrants and human rights is not so different to Trump’s. ‘World leaders’ do not have the imagination or the will to offer a real alternative to Trumpism. That’s why we, the people, will come out this Friday in a carnival of creativity and diversity which is a direct answer to Trump. We refuse to appease the bully. We will rather offer hope. Human rights, a more equal world and peaceful international cooperation can become a reality, if we want it enough.
Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now and a member of the Stop Trump Coalition’s steering group