After one year in office, President Donald Trump has not made America great again. Instead, he has presided over a country that is more deeply divided along partisan lines, proposed staggeringly racist reforms to the immigration system, supported a tax bill that will see economic inequality grow, pulled the US out of the Paris Accord, upset allies, emboldened adversaries, and reminded the world just how dangerous nuclear weapons are.
And in the background throughout all of this, the FBI investigation continues to piece together the links between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election.
It’s quite a list of extraordinary events, any one of which in a normal year would have dominated commentary for months. But this has not been a normal year. The above represents merely a fraction of the near weekly, sometimes daily, shocks to the system in which the occupants of the White House remind us they are not playing by the rules.
It’s a good moment to step back and take stock of the impact Trump’s presidency has had in America, and how it is changing the international system.
Then there was the recent publication of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, and the sensation it caused. But even when taken with several generous pinches of salt, the book confirmed that Trump is ignorant about most of the major issues facing the country, and doesn’t really seem to care.
The scandalous revelations also seemed to confirm that Trump’s base is unlikely to abandon him, no matter what.
Immigration continues to be one of the nastiest and most divisive issues. His recent comment about immigrants and refugees from “shithole countries” confirmed his racist attitudes about immigration and race.
Beyond the tax bill and his efforts at imposing punitive immigration reforms, Trump has achieved very little of his campaign promises. The most important of these, to his supporters, is the scrapping of Obamacare.
Reforming access to, and provision of affordable health care in America is urgent. Yet the recent announcement that Kentucky will require Medicaid recipients to participate in a work scheme, which has been approved by Trump, suggests that future reforms will not expand the social safety net for Americans, but see it shrink further.
After this first year, those Americans who voted for Trump still don’t have their wall, they don’t have better access to health care, they are more ideologically divided, and unless they already wealthy, they are likely to become economically more insecure. Yet they seem to be maintaining the faith.
Trump around the world
In terms of foreign policy, it’s harder to assess Trump’s impact and whether it will usher in lasting shifts in the international system or instead become an anomaly, after which things return to normal.
He has consistently upset traditional allies and called into question America’s commitment to security alliances that have underpinned the post-war order. But these relationships can probably be repaired once Trump is gone. It’s clear that no lasting damage has been done to the relationships with Germany or the UK, Japan or Australia.
What is more troubling has been Trump’s championing of authoritarian leaders while ignoring human rights abuses.
America is hardly a model citizen when it comes to upholding human rights; despite this, it often ensured that the discussion of human rights was front and centre of certain foreign policy discussions, a reminder that states did not have a license to abandon one of the most essential pillars of the global order.
In effect, Trump has given the green light to some of the world’s worst leaders to act with impunity in depriving citizens of their most basic rights and dignity.
The periodic flareups with North Korea, and the increasingly antagonistic tone toward Iran, have made 2017 a little hair-raising at times. Together with the announcement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the US military could remain in Syria indefinitely, global conflict and the idea of perpetual war seem to have become the norm.
Most concerning is the radical rewriting of the rules and norms around nuclear weapons. Trump’s Twitter posturing and pathetic manhood measuring would be alarming enough, without the cavalier attitude to the most destructive weapons being written into policy.
The draft Nuclear Posture Review proposes a range of scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used in non-nuclear attacks, completely abandoning any pretence that the weapons are for deterrence, or that the US would hold to a “no-first-use” commitment.
Not that the US has ever really committed to the no-first-use principle. Again, it remains to be seen if this will result in a long-term transformation of the US nuclear strategy, but there are some worrying hints that Trump sees a greater utility for these weapons.
On climate change, there has perhaps been a silver lining to Trump’s belligerent denial of scientific fact: the rest of the world, led by the EU and China, has aggressively recommitted to meeting the Paris goals and moving ahead without the US. It has undermined the argument US leadership is essential in confronting such an urgent global problem.
China’s lead on moving to lower carbon emissions also hints at the shift in the global balance of power. While it is still far too early to assess, it does appear that China is slowly replacing the US as the most important economic and political partner for many states on a range of issues.
It has been a bizarre and sometimes alarming year. Trump’s impact on global political and cultural norms may be fleeting, or it may be the beginning of a substantively different role for America in the world. My hope is that 2018 will be, by comparison, decidedly uneventful.
Donald Trump is flexing the United States’ economic muscle in East Asia by introducing a web of new-generation bilateral trade deals to contain China’s challenge. But Beijing is fighting back by political means.
Obama used trade deals, such as one with South Korea, to confront China on the regional status quo. But Trump is reshuffling the cards.
Under Trump, the US Trade Representative (USTR) office prioritises the strict enforcement of US trade laws to counter foreign government subsidies – even if that means undermining the World Trade Organisation and risking trade retaliations.
Previous US administrations have often sacrificed domestic industrial manufacturing to prop up international trade, using it as a bargaining tool to exert security influence over geopolitical partners and rivals. Before Trump, the US openly accepted trade deficits and the rorting of international trade laws as the price paid for advancing its defence policy agenda globally.
Imagine it as a strategic pyramid, with defence on top, trade in the middle and industry at the bottom.
Now with Trump we have a strategic triangle. Industry is the top point, with trade and defence interlinked, on the same level, at the bottom. This evolution is nowhere clearer than in the Asia Pacific region.
Strangely, Trump’s strategic triangle is making US policy look like China’s, after it opened to the global economy in the 1980s. Conversely, Xi Jinping’s more assertive regional politics is moving China where the US was before Trump – with defence on top of trade and industry.
A balanced US-India FTA would be a win-win solution for both countries in their quest to muscle out China commercially and politically, especially if it precluded finalising the RCEP.
Adding to this is a recent US trade report which urged allied economies to coordinate an anti-dumping action on China’s industries. This is designed to protect trade secrets and intellectual property rights.
The report pointed out that China systematically:
…imposes requirements that US firms develop their IP in China or transfer their IP to Chinese entities as a condition to accessing the Chinese market.
In exchange for all of this, the US offers maritime security for a close range of key partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This explains why the US administration is wooing India to join Japan and Australia in a revived trade-security alliance against China, the so called Quadrilateral Security Forum.
This recent Trump policy is a remake of Nicholas J Spykman’s “Rimland Theory” that framed the US understanding of Eurasian power politics during the Cold War years. Spykman memorably wrote:
Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.
For one thing, Trump’s restoration of bilateral trade shows a clear direction for the US strategy in Asia. Beyond that, the convergence of trade and security policies has the potential to effectively reshape the US as an indispensable Asian power.
The power of laughter is something of a theme in Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s humourless response to Barack Obama’s jibes at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011 allegedly steeled his reserve to run for president in the first place; the New York Times recently asked why Trump himself seemingly never laughs at all.
And in October, it was reported that a US woman would stand a second trial for simply laughing at Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, at a congressional hearing. Desiree Fairooz had already been tried for this “contempt” – or as Stephen Colbert termed it, “first-degree chuckling with intent to titter”.
The prosecuting attorney stated that Fairooz “wasn’t just merely responding, she was voicing an opinion”. The argument that laughter alone was enough to convict was thrown out by the first judge; Ms Fairooz’s “brief reflexive burst of noise” has just been dismissed by the Department of Justice.
In the US’s rough political climate, laughter is having a hard time, too. Many questions on its worth have been posed: is laughter muffling potentially more effective forms of criticism? Is satire defusing political commentary by humanising its targets? Alec Baldwin has expressed concern that his impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live has disarmed real incisive commentary, reducing the presidency and its incumbent to a crass approximation of the more troublesome reality.
Weapons of the weak
What these qualms reflect is that as a political gesture, laughter has a considerable range. It can be used to defuse a situation, or to inflame. It can serve as a conciliatory gesture, and equally as a means of defiance. It can single out a target while also uniting a crowd. Laughter is used by many politicians; when they laugh along they can diffuse tension, and relax the public gaze. They become relatable, approachable, and at least acknowledge that they are meant to be the their audience’s equal, not their better.
But laughter can also carry a potentially revolutionary force. It’s a way for a group to recognise their common view of a figure, an issue, or a political standpoint. To quote George Orwell: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
Laughter was for much of history considered the mark of a fool, an uncontrolled reaction of the body and mind that betrayed an absence of reason. Many, including Plato and Hobbes, viewed laughter as a base expression, an animalistic response, devoid of reason. But in the 20th century, many scholars, including Henri Bergson and Mikhail Bakhtin, came up with more nuanced analyses of laughter and its political clout.
It was true that in what Bakhtin called carnivalesque culture, laughter became synonymous with the grotesque and the obscene, but it still serves an important social purpose: a means for those who had no other recourse to protest to register their views of the status quo.
Rumour, gossip, and laughter have been termed weapons of the weak, opportunities to defy authority in unofficial and often indefinable ways. Traditionally, this has made them harder for oppressive regimes to clearly identify and possibly prosecute. To this day, laughter remains a means of political expression for those who are otherwise disenfranchised: it subjects the powerful to both ridicule and scrutiny.
In the early modern period, laughter played a significant role as a political language. The celebrations of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass allowed people of all levels of society to both display their places in the social order and to ridicule them. It was at once an assertion of authority and a challenge to it.
During the 18th century, political satire gained much ground. Enlightenment authors across Europe took aim at institutions of authority, often in underhand and opaque ways to circumvent censorship. Oftentimes “getting the joke” affirmed one’s membership of a political creed or club. Indeed, when political upheaval took hold in France, the need to laugh “appropriately” emerged as a measure of one’s loyalty to the revolution. The “rire sardonique”, the aristocratic snigger, was replaced with the good-natured belly-laugh of the “sansculotte” – the honest, genuine expression of mirth of the ordinary man, rather than the contrived, artificial ridicule of the polished courtier.
This idea of laughing the right laugh, of laughter as an indication of identity and mentality, is echoed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1935 essay, Bolsheviks Do Laugh. The laughter of the Bolshevik, Eisenstein wrote, was loaded with the weight of revolution, of striving for the proletarian order. Unlike the laughter of others, Bolshevik laughter was not idle, nor frivolous. It was invested with the irony of Chekhov, the bitterness of Gogol; it was not for mere amusement, it had a higher purpose. For Eisenstein, laughter represented ways of seeing and understanding the world.
Politicians and those in positions of authority who actively resist or deny the right of those who have elected them to deride, ridicule, and laugh at them are also denying the idea that they are their citizens’ equal, that they are subject to scrutiny and indeed that they are accountable. While standards of comedy and perceptions of laughter have changed over time, one thing has remained immutable: laughter has always provided a means of dialogue between those in power and those they rule.
When that dialogue is suspended – or rather, when the powerful lose their sense of humour – it’s time to worry.
Outsiders head to the United States in times of crisis not at random but because historic ties point them in this direction. When nativists like President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions refer to immigrants as “criminal aliens” – perpetuating the idea that foreigners are “invading” the country – they ignore this key fact.
In the 1790s, thousands of white and mixed-race residents sought refuge from a revolutionary war in colonial Haiti, which was then called Saint Domingue. Fleeing an uprising by enslaved men and women of African descent, French colonists boarded ships following historic trade routes to U.S. port cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York. Some brought with them the people they had enslaved.
As a result, migration between the two nations continued, too – and not just from Haiti to the U.S. In the 1820s, some 13,000 African-Americans sought refuge in Haiti, seeking freedom from slavery, anti-black violence and lack of economic opportunity in the U.S.
Powerful commercial lobbies with a business stake in Haiti – particularly the financial and sugar industries – also meddled in the island’s affairs. Foreign merchants and bankers in Haiti paid armed groups known as cacos to overthrow standing presidents and empower leaders who would give them preferential terms of trade.
It also fueled emigration. New research shows that in the first decades of the 20th century, some 200,000 rural Haitians left to work as guest laborers for American sugar companies in Cuba. They were among more than 1 million Caribbeans who traveled across the Americas between 1840 and 1940. Some of them eventually landed in the United States.
A series of military interventions
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The occupation, which lasted until 1934, was the first in a series of U.S. military actions on the island.
The Haitian-American population is also growing, more than tripling between 1990 and 2015. Within this group are the nearly 60,000 people granted Temporary Protected Status after the 2010 earthquake, who have now lived in the U.S. for an average of 13 years.
A week after the release of a book depicting him as not intelligent enough and not mentally fit to be trusted as commander-in-chief, Donald Trump has done it again. On the same day he cancelled a visit to London to open the new US embassy there, a move many interpreted as an attempt to avoid embarrassing protests, he embarrassed himself further by demanding to know why the US deigns to accept immigrants from “shithole countries”.
Before this latest outburst, the White House had spent a week trying in vain to rise above the account of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, which uses the words of people in Trump’s White House and inner circle to argue that Trump, in the alleged private words of secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is a “fucking moron”. Having failed to block the book’s publication and instead hastened it, the White House pivoted instead to denigrating Wolff and one of his primary sources, the former White House chief strategist and Trump ally Steve Bannon.
Trump pursued the mission with both anger and enthusiasm via his favourite medium, Twitter, slamming the book as “really boring and untruthful” and dismissing Bannon as “Sloppy Steve”.
Besides reinforcing his image as a temperamental, ill-informed man-child, Trump’s counter-attack misses the point. Even if Wolff is a huckster peddling dubious quotes, as more than a few journalists claim, others have been spreading the message publicly and privately since the day Trump took office.
Chief among them, via his own actions and words, is Trump himself. But there’s also Democratic senator Jack Reed, who in July 2017 told his Republican counterpart Susan Collins, “I think – I think he’s crazy. I mean, I don’t say that lightly and as a kind of a goofy guy.” Collins responded: “I’m worried.” Republican senator Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, first said that Trump “has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful” and later called the White House “an adult day care centre”.
The cabinet, too, are more than worried. Besides Tillerson’s reported contempt, Trump’s secretary of defence, James Mattis, and his chief of staff, John Kelly have reportedly made a pact that one of them will be in the US at all times.
But in Wolff’s account, the foremost figure to question Trump’s faculties is Steve Bannon, the hard-right ideologue who arguably propelled Trump to victory.
Treasonous and unpatriotic
Wolff depicts a Bannon out for himself and his agenda, even at the cost of tearing down Trump and his family. “Javanka”, the husband-wife team of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, meet with Bannon’s unbridled derision: Kushner is financially compromised, including by Russians, and Ivanka is “dumb as a brick”. The elder Trump himself, meanwhile, is a pliable simpleton.
But far more importantly, Wolff’s Bannon inserts the Trumps into the middle of the alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort are “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” for a June 2016 meeting with three Kremlin-linked envoys in Trump Tower in New York City, arranged by Trump Jr. to discuss Russia’s provision of material damaging to Hillary Clinton.
In Wolff’s rendering, Bannon thinks the ultimate downfall of Trump and Co. will be revelations of Russian financial input into the campaign: “It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They [Mueller’s team] are going to go right through that.”
After the book dropped, Bannon did not deny any of his statements. Under pressure from his billionaire backers the Mercer family, he clarified that the words “treasonous” and “unpatriotic” refer only to Manafort, who is already under indictment on financial, tax and lobbying charges related to the Trump-Russia investigation.
Bannon has become the most conspicuous casualty of the Fire and Fury fallout, not only dismissed as “sloppy” by Trump but now ousted from his position at far-right soapbox Breitbart. But even with Bannon mostly stripped of his influence, the complaints against Trump raise a disturbing question: why are so many people who think Trump is mentally unfit still willing for him to remain in office?
The answer is that no matter how unstable and vacuous he may be, Trump is a very useful vehicle for other people’s ambitions.
The useful idiot
Even after his supremely unedifying first year, Trump still serves as a conveniently empty vessel for all manner of enablers. Having resuscitated his career after six bankruptcies by playing a businessman on reality TV, he now plays the role of chief executive so industries can get pesky regulations rolled back.
As he keeps up his stream of offensive, irresponsible pronouncements, GOP legislators put up with it so they can finally secure their $1.5 trillion tax giveaway. And as white supremacists proclaim their moment has come: as David Duke, former KKK Grand Wizard, explained at the violent Charlottesville march in August 2017: “We are going to fulfil the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in.”
As long as Trump serves that purpose, it does not matter how many conflicts of interest he has, how many women accuse him of sexually harassing or assaulting them. It does not matter how many memoranda or constitutional clauses he does not read or understand. And it does not matter how many Russians he and his inner circle might have met and assisted.
But Trump’s usefulness might well expire when Robert Mueller completes his work. That could be sooner than many people would like – with Manafort indicted and former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleading guilty to lying to the FBI, the next probable target is Kushner – and from there, it’s only one rung up the ladder to Trump himself. Then again, Mueller’s probings could take months or years more to get there. Until then, this emperor’s new clothes nightmare continues with no end in sight.
George Orwell warns us in his dystopian novel 1984 that authoritarianism begins with language. In the novel, “newspeak” is language twisted to deceive, seduce and undermine the ability of people to think critically and freely.
Donald Trump’s unapologetic bigoted language made headlines again Thursday when it was reported he told lawmakers working on a new immigration policy that the United States shouldn’t accept people from “shithole countries” like Haiti. Given his support for white nationalism and his coded call to “Make America Great (White) Again,” Trump’s overt racist remarks reinforce echoes of white supremacy reminiscent of fascist dictators in the 1930s.
His remarks about accepting people from Norway smack of an appeal to the sordid discourse of racial purity. There is much more at work here than a politics of incivility. Behind Trump’s use of vulgarity and his disparagement of countries that are poor and non-white lies the terrifying discourse of white supremacy, ethnic cleansing and the politics of disposability. This is a vocabulary that considers some individuals and groups not only faceless and voiceless, but excess, redundant and subject to expulsion. The endpoint of the language of disposability is a form of social death, or even worse.
As authoritarianism gains strength, the formative cultures that give rise to dissent become more embattled, along with the public spaces and institutions that make conscious critical thought possible.
Words that speak to the truth to reveal injustices and provide informed critical analysis begin to disappear, making it all the more difficult, if not dangerous, to judge, think critically and hold dominant power accountable. Notions of virtue, honour, respect and compassion are policed, and those who advocate them are punished.
I think it’s fair to argue that Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future is no longer fiction in the United States. Under Trump, language is undergoing a shift: It now treats dissent, critical media coverage and scientific evidence as a species of “fake news.”
The Trump administration, in fact, views the critical media as the “enemy of the American people.” Trump has repeated this view of the media so often that almost a third of Americans now believe it and support government-imposed restrictions on the media, according to a Poynter survey.
Thought crimes and fake news
Trump’s cries of “fake news” work incessantly to set limits on what is thinkable. Reason, standards of evidence, consistency and logic no longer serve the truth, according to Trump, because the latter are crooked ideological devices used by enemies of the state. Orwell’s “thought crimes” are Trump’s “fake news.” Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” is Trump’s “Ministry of Fake News.”
The notion of truth is viewed by this president as a corrupt tool used by the critical media to question his dismissal of legal checks on his power, particularly his attacks on judges, courts and any other governing institutions that will not promise him complete and unchecked loyalty.
Under Trump, the language of civic literacy and democracy has become unmoored from critical reason, informed debate and the weight of scientific evidence, and is now being reconfigured and tied to pageantry, political theatre and a deep-seated anti-intellectualism.
One consequence, as language begins to function as a tool of state repression, is that matters of moral and political responsibility disappear and injustices proliferate.
Fascism starts with words
What is crucial to remember here, as authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes, is that fascism starts with words. Trump’s use of language and his manipulative use of the media as political spectacle are disturbingly similar to earlier periods of propaganda, censorship and repression.
Under fascist regimes, the language of brutality and culture of cruelty was normalized through the proliferation of strident metaphors of war, battle, expulsion, racial purity and demonization.
As German historians such as Richard J. Evans and Victor Klemperer have made clear, dictators like Adolf Hitler did more than simply corrupt the language of a civilized society, they also banned words.
Soon afterwards, the Nazis banned books and the critical intellectuals who wrote them. They then imprisoned those individuals who challenged Nazi ideology and the state’s systemic violations of civil rights.
The end point was an all-embracing discourse of disposability — the emergence of concentration camps and genocide fuelled by a politics of racial purity and social cleansing.
Echoes of the formative stages of such actions are upon us now. An American-style neo-fascism appears to be engulfing the United States after simmering in the dark for years.
More than any other president, Trump has normalized the notion that the meaning of words no longer matters, nor do traditional sources of facts and evidence. In doing so, he has undermined the relationship between engaged citizenship and the truth, and has relegated matters of debate and critical assessment to a spectacle of bombast, threats, intimidation and sheer fakery.
This language of fascism does more than normalize falsehoods and ignorance. It also promotes a larger culture of short-term attention spans, immediacy and sensationalism. At the same time, it makes fear and anxiety the normalized currency of exchange and communication.
In a throwback to the language of fascism, Trump has repeatedly positioned himself as the only one who can save the masses — reproducing the tired script of the model of the saviour endemic to authoritarianism.
Trump is also the master of manufactured illiteracy, and his obsessive tweeting and public relations machine aggressively engages in the theatre of self-promotion and distractions. Both of these are designed to whitewash any version of a history that might expose the close alignment between his own language and policies and the dark elements of a fascist past.
Trump also revels in an unchecked mode of self-congratulation bolstered by a limited vocabulary filled with words like “historic,” “best,” “the greatest,” “tremendous” and “beautiful.”
Those exaggerations suggest more than hyperbole or the self-indulgent use of language. When he claims he “knows more about ISIS than the generals,” “knows more about renewables than any human being on Earth” or that nobody knows the U.S. system of government better than he does, he’s using the rhetoric of fascism.
As the aforementioned historian Richard J. Evans writes in The Third Reich in Power:
“The German language became a language of superlatives, so that everything the regime did became the best and the greatest, its achievements unprecedented, unique, historic and incomparable …. The language used about Hitler … was shot through and through with religious metaphors; people ‘believed in him,’ he was the redeemer, the savior, the instrument of Providence, his spirit lived in and through the German nation…. Nazi institutions domesticated themselves [through the use of a language] that became an unthinking part of everyday life.”
Under the Trump regime, memories inconvenient to his authoritarianism are now demolished in the domesticated language of superlatives so the future can be shaped to become indifferent to the crimes of the past.
Trump’s endless daily tweets, his recklessness, his adolescent disdain for a measured response, his unfaltering anti-intellectualism and his utter ignorance of history work in the United States. Why? Because they not only cater to what historian Brian Klass refers to as “the tens of millions of Americans who have authoritarian or fascist leanings,” they also enable what he calls Trump’s attempt at “mainstreaming fascism.”
The language of fascism revels in forms of theatre that mobilize fear, hatred and violence. Author Sasha Abramsky is on target in claiming that Trump’s words amount to more than empty slogans.
Instead, his language comes “with consequences, and they legitimize bigotries and hatreds long harbored by many but, for the most part, kept under wraps by the broader society.”
Surely, the increase in hate crimes during Trump’s first year of his presidency testifies to the truth of Abramsky’s argument.
Fighting Trump’s fascist language
The history of fascism teaches us that language operates in the service of violence, desperation and troubling landscapes of hatred, and carries the potential for inhabiting the darkest moments of history.
It erodes our humanity, and makes too many people numb and silent in the face of ideologies and practices that are hideous acts of ethical atrocity.
Trump’s language, like that of older fascist regimes, mutilates contemporary politics, empathy and serious moral and political criticism, and makes it more difficult to criticize dominant relations of power.
His fascistic language also fuels the rhetoric of war, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism and racism. But it’s not his alone.
It is the language of a nascent fascism that has been brewing in the United States for some time. It is a language that is comfortable viewing the world as a combat zone, a world that exists to be plundered and a view of those deemed different as a threat to be feared, if not eliminated.
A new language aimed at fighting Trump’s romance with fascism must make power visible, uncover the truth, contest falsehoods and create a formative and critical culture that can nurture and sustain collective resistance to the oppression that has overtaken the United States, and increasingly many other countries.
No form of oppression can be overlooked. And with that critical gaze must emerge a critical language, a new narrative and a different story about what a socialist democracy will look like in the United States.
Reclaiming language as a force for good
There is also a need to strengthen and expand the reach and power of established public spheres, such as higher education and the critical media, as sites of critical learning.
We must encourage artists, intellectuals, academics and other cultural workers to talk, educate, make oppression visible and challenge the common-sense vocabulary of casino capitalism, white supremacy and fascism.
Language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence and intimidation; it is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage and resistance.
A critical language can guide us in our thinking about the relationship between older elements of fascism and how such practices are emerging in new forms.
Without a faith in intelligence, critical education and the power to resist, humanity will be powerless to challenge the threat that fascism and right-wing populism pose to the world.
Those of us willing to fight for a just political and economic society need to formulate a new language and fresh narratives about freedom, the power of collective struggle, empathy, solidarity and the promise of a real socialist democracy.
We would do well to heed the words of the great Nobel Prize-winning novelist, J.M. Coetzee, who states in a work of fiction that “there will come a day when you and I will need to be told the truth, the real truth ….no matter how hard it may be.”
Democracy, indeed, can only survive with a critically informed and engaged public attentive to a language in which truth, rather than lies, become the currency of citizenship.
Soft power is the ability of a country to shape other countries’ views, attitudes, perceptions and actions without force or coercion. Its importance has been acknowledged for centuries, though the term was only coined by American political scientist and author Joseph Nye in the late 1980s.
A country’s soft power depends on many factors, including its performance, global image and international reputation. A state can use soft power to attract supporters and partners towards its policies, views and actions.
Take, for instance, the case of China’s giant pandas.
In 685 AD Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang Dynasty presented two giant pandas to the Japanese emperor. More than a millennium later, in 1941, Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek gifted another pair to the Bronx Zoo in appreciation of the US’s wartime help. Pandas remain a hallmark of Chinese soft power even today.
These animals have become symbols of China’s efforts in wildlife preservation and environmental protection. They are a way for China to communicate a caring and genial approach and culture.
And soft power will remain a key strategy for China into the coming decades. In October 2017, at the governing party’s national congress, President Xi Jinping outlined steps to enhance China’s soft power and make its culture more globally appealing:
We will improve our capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well, present a true, multi-dimensional and panoramic view of China, and enhance our country’s soft power.
China is stepping into a soft power vacuum created by the US’s new administration. Since Donald Trump was elected president, the US has eschewed soft power. It’s withdrawn from a global climate change agreement; renegotiating a number of bilateral treaties and taken an openly “America first”, and somewhat isolationist stance. Its cordial relations with many traditional allies have become strained.
China has spotted the gap and is attempting to woo many countries whose US relations are wavering. One of China’s key weapons is the “One Belt, One Road” programme, a USD$900 billion initiative that aims to strengthen land and sea transportation links through major investments in transport infrastructure in Asia, Europe and Africa.
This is the equivalent of the US’s Marshall plan, which significantly improved West European countries’ economies after World War II. This help was not altruistic; nor is China’s “One Belt, One Road” programme. Assisting other nations through economic growth is a way of wielding soft power and advancing a country’s global standing. This will be important for China, which needs to counter its reputation as a one party state with hegemonic intentions.
Culture and tourism are always important aspects of soft power. Some 138 million tourists visited China in 2016, a growth of 3.5% over 2015
Similarly, 122 million Chinese visitors went abroad in 2016, a growth of 4.3% over 2015. This increasing interchange of the visitors will give foreigners an insight into Chinese culture, history and its economic might – all of which will further enhance China’s soft power.
China is also emerging as a global leader in terms of academic and research progress. High income countries’ share of global research and development (R&D) expenditure fell from 88% to 69.3% between 1996 and 2013.
China alone filled this gap. It increased its share from a paltry 2.5% to 19.6% in 17 years. Recently, China’s average annual R&D expenditure growth has been 18.3%, compared to an anaemic growth rate in upper and middle income countries of 1.4%.
Increased educational and research activities have ensured that the number of foreign students in China is increasing rapidly. China now ranks third in attracting foreign students, after the US and UK. Its universities are climbing the global rankings. This, along with rapid internationalisation, policies that support foreign students, and affordability of study and living costs compared to the West, means China could soon become the top destination for international students.
And the reverse is also true. Of some 5 million international students pursuing higher education outside their countries, nearly 25% are Chinese. It’s another form of cultural interchange that will contribute to China’s soft power, as are the many Confucius Institutes set up around the world to showcase China’s culture, history, language, economic and social development. The idea is somewhat similar to the UK’s British Councils, Germany’s Goethe Institutes and France’s Alliance Francaise.
China fills gap left by US
American soft power, on the other hand, is now in retreat.
The asymmetry of views between leaders of the world’s two soft powers has made Xi the poster child for globalisation, free trade and international cooperation.
During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in November 2017, in Vietnam, Trump reconfirmed his “America first” policy. This approach will further decrease America’s soft power.
Meanwhile, Xi is singing from a different hymn sheet. Also in Vietnam, he noted in his speech that globalisation is an “irreversible historical trend” and championed multilateral trading regimes.
He presented a vision of the future that is interconnected and invited “more countries to ride the fast train of Chinese development.”
China’s rise as the world’s leading soft power will not be without hurdles. It must tackle border issues with its neighbours; navigate the current South China Sea disputes and find solutions to its extensive environmental pollution problems, among other things.
Despite these challenges, the US’s many missteps and China’s demonstrated social and economic success – as well as its increasing use of soft power – mean that the Asian giant is on the rise.