Privatism and Relentless Attacks on Democratic Values and Human Rights

Readers of a certain age can recall a Republican Party that featured Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, Senator John Warner of Virginia and Congressman Everett Dirksen of Illinois, among many others, whose character and devotion to the United States have long and rightly been extolled. Those readers could be forgiven a measure of amazement at the state of the GOP and its leadership today. As I write, the vast majority of that Party’s officials are supporting a President who lied more than 500 times on the public record alone during his first 100 days in office, who has routinely extolled dictators and autocrats of all stripes, including, among others, the Saudi monarchy, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines who has given his soldiers and police leave to rape and murder in the name of “law and order” and, most conspicuously, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, who has repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for democracy and democratic values. Remarkably, the President’s lies, including his unsubstantiated allegation that former President Barack Obama had wiretapped his telephone and the initial claim that he had fired former FBI Director James Comey for his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, occasioned almost no official reaction among Republican Congressional leaders and Vice President Mike Pence. Indeed, many of these officials have echoed Trump’s paranoiac nonsensical claims that “the media” are spreading “fake news” because they are “out to get him,” when journalists, in their quest for the truth, share the reality of Trump’s actions, rather than his preferred spin concerning them.

Beyond his hateful and divisive rhetoric and personal incapacity to serve, this President has repeatedly betrayed the trust of a major share of those citizens who elected him, as he has daily shifted from what he told his supporters during the campaign were principled positions. Moreover, those changes have not been subtle or benign. Instead, and directly contrary to his campaign promises, Trump has offered a national budget proposing draconian cuts in health care and in social safety net programs that are vital to his supporters and their families (and millions of other Americans).

The President also worked hard with House Speaker Paul Ryan to gain passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that would sharply reduce health care availability for millions while costing some 23 million Americans, many of them Trump devotees, their access to health insurance during the coming decade. Again, the President has adopted these stands while telling those who voted for him he would not do what he in fact did. The list of his shifting positions is virtually endless and suggests a chief executive and a political party who view their supporters with contempt. Trump appears to believe that he can visit any harm on those who voted for him and nevertheless maintain their support by blaming others. One recalls his comment during his Presidential campaign that he could stand on Fifth Avenue in New York and shoot somebody and not lose any political support.[1] His stance in these terms is both unprecedented and unconscionable.

And, through all of Trump’s daily and often-baffling absurdities and lies, today’s GOP leaders have stood by and said little as he sullies the central values for which the United States has long stood.  Surely among the most appalling examples of this tendency occurred during the President’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where he railed against Iran, which, however flawed, was ironically, holding a national election at the time. He identified that nation as the architect of world terrorism as he accepted the plaudits of one of the most repressive regimes on earth, 15 of whose citizens were responsible for the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. While hardly a democracy, Iran is a complex nation of 80 million, which just reelected a relative moderate as its President. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which received Trump’s unequivocal support, continues to support a radical version of Islam and to prosecute a horrific proxy war over religious tenets in Yemen, about which the President said nothing. Trump’s embrace of the Kingdom’s autocrats spoke volumes. Similarly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose the occasion of a news conference during the President’s visit to Riyadh to suggest, while standing next to Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, that Iran soon restore, “the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organization, so that Iranians can live the life that they deserve.”[2]  He did not answer when asked at that same event to comment on Saudi Arabia’s abysmal record on human rights.

Overall, while in Saudi Arabia, Trump and Tillerson demonstrated that money and trade were far more important than human or civil rights. As Trump argued in Riyadh,

We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.[3]

In fact, it was unclear what those “shared values” were except an unprecedented arms deal, since they obviously did not include a common devotion to freedom, democracy or human rights. As Peter Baker and Michael Shear, of the New York Times, have reported,

The latest human rights report produced by Mr. Tillerson’s own department mentions Saudi Arabia’s ‘restrictions on universal rights, such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and the freedoms of assembly, association, movement and religion,’ as well as the country’s ‘pervasive gender discrimination.’

Raif Badawi, a writer, has been in prison since 2012 after starting a blog called Free Saudi Liberals Network. Freedom House, an advocacy group based in Washington, ranks Saudi Arabia among the 11 least free nations in the world, giving the country a score of 10 out of 100 on its freedom index, below Iran’s 17. [4]

In short, Trump and his Secretary of State have declared economic interests to be more important than human rights and democratic principle. While all Presidents must manage this tension, none in recent memory have eschewed human rights so completely as Trump in favor of a straightforward calculus of economic advantage, even when that meant ignoring completely outrageous human rights infractions, as he surely did during his visit to Riyadh. But he and members of his administration went further, and not only declared money more important than principles and values, they embraced completely a regime that has worked assiduously to spread an especially extreme version of Islam, Wahhabism, which has played an animating role in the current murderous Islamic State movement.

In his stance in Saudi Arabia, at least, Trump’s position is consonant with his larger embrace of authoritarian regimes and his own persistent degradation of American institutions and values here at home, by means of continuing attacks on the rule of law, freedom of the press and freedom of religion as well as tolerance, among others. Indeed, one can view Trump’s single-minded embrace of the material, irrespective of its provenance, distribution and consequences, rather than freedom and human rights, as the central premise underpinning his administration (and the Republican Party, which he has come to dominate) today.

The Party appears increasingly united with Trump in its embrace of power and wealth for their own sake and irrespective of their implications for democratic principle or human or civil rights. This stance helps to explain, if hardly to justify, GOP Congressional and other Party leaders’ acceptance of Trump’s misogyny and alleged assaults on multiple women and his unfounded attacks on a wide variety of individuals and groups, including Hillary Clinton, former President Obama, immigrants, the courts and the press. The view among GOP officials seems to be that one can tolerate Trump as long as whatever he undertakes, however outlandish, “works” and allows them to grasp and maintain power and to attain and reward wealth.

Put plainly, Trump and his Congressional party members appear united in their embrace of wealth as the ultimate good. More, it is clear that, for these officials, if such requires sacrificing the interests of supporters, or lying in efforts to convince those voters to blame “others” for actions for which they are actually responsible, they are increasingly willing to rationalize such behavior as necessary to secure the perceived imperative of wealth and the support of society’s wealthiest citizens. In this view, widespread poverty, privation, hunger and systematic degradation of human and civil rights can all be rationalized as appropriate in the pursuit of material gain. All of this can be legitimized, too, by calling on Americans to embrace a public philosophy in which they owe nothing to one another and share nothing in common. Instead, following this line of thought, Americans should seek relentlessly to pursue their own self-interest in wealth and do so amorally, by whatever means, irrespective of the consequences for others. This perspective also urges citizens to loathe individuals and groups different from themselves and to view their lives as a zero-sum game, rather than imagine they are part of a larger community of shared democratic truths and material possibilities. In this view, if one is poor, it is because one wants to be poor, as poverty is a “state of mind,” according to Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in a recent interview.[5]

Seen in this light, President Trump’s recent trip to the Middle East revealed the bankruptcy of his mercantilistic and mean-spirited vision of the nation, in which he respects no one, including his supporters, and nothing other than power, wealth and his own aggrandizement. It also underscored the necessity once more for all Americans interested in the preservation of our country’s democratic principles and values to press for an alternative vision. That imaginary would see this nation as a diverse people united in an uneven, but enduring and very human quest for just and equal treatment and the assurance of opportunity for of all of its citizens, irrespective of their religion, gender, national origin or other characteristics.

Hate, fear and a continued single-minded focus on the individual and the material, to the exclusion of all other values and claims, can only degrade and undermine this country. These must be countered at every turn with reminders that Americans are one sovereign people with a common devotion to the pursuit of freedom and equality for all of our number, and not the amoral, self-absorbed, acquisitive denizens of fear, hatred and contemptuousness that Trump and his Congressional GOP allies and others now daily ask us to imagine ourselves to be.

 

Notes

[1] “Donald Trump: I could shoot Somebody and Not Lose Votes,“ The Guardian, January 24, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2016/jan/24/donald-trump-i-could-shoot-somebody-and-not-lose-votes-video Accessed, May 27, 2017.

[2] Baker, Peter and Michael Shear. “To Trump Human Rights Concerns are Often a Barrier to Trade,” The New York Times, May 20, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/middleeast/rex-w-tillerson-saudi-arabia-human-rights.html?hp=undefined&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1 Accessed may 27, 2017.

[3] Baker and Shear. “Trump Human Rights.”

[4] Baker and Shear. “Trump Human Rights.”

[5] DelReal, Jose. “Ben Carson calls Poverty ‘A State of Mind’ During Interview,” The Washington Post, May 24, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/24/ben-carson-calls-poverty-a-state-of-mind-during-interview/?utm_term=.9f180c33b232 Accessed May 27, 2017.