In yet another of his notorious tweets, Donald Trump threatened to send the “feds” into Chicago if the city leaders did not fix what he called the “carnage” (now one of his favorite words) going on in the city due to the rampant gun violence.
The same day, Trump declared in an interview with ABC News, that torture “absolutely works” and insisted the U.S. must “fight fire with fire” when it comes to dealing with ISIS and other terrorists.
Trump has also now signed a an executive order banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, from entering the U.S., creating scenes of chaos at international airports in New York and elsewhere and a strong reaction from Iran.
What pattern or tendency of governing behavior can we identify in these three events? Simply put, what each of these events evidences, particularly when seen as a series, is Trump’s reflexive penchant to address challenging situations with repressive measures more characteristic of authoritarian rule than a democratic polity—and more characteristic of a simplistic and thoughtless approach to problem-solving than one grounded in detailed study and research, expert advice, careful and complex reasoning and thought rooted firmly in evidence.
In what has come to be called a post-fact era, in which Trump has been exposed repeatedly insisting to the American people that black is white and up is down on smaller matters such as the size of the crowd at his inauguration, it is important to recognize that his presidency, with its emphasis on law and order, is trying to sell us the idea that a repressive society is a free society. Effectively, making America great again means translating the ideal of freedom into one of repression. We cannot expose and underline the reality of this dynamic enough.
To add insult to the severe injury to democracy, these repressive measures designed to address the problem have been, for the most part, demonstrably proven to be ineffective. So, not only does Trump promise to make America a more repressive society, but his tendency to address social problems through repression promises to exacerbate and multiply the tears and convulsions in our social fabric and also in our global relationships.
Take the issue of torture. Trump’s own nomination for Secretary of Defense James Mattis, an experienced military veteran, has famously asserted that he can do better with “pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers” than with waterboarding when it comes to interrogating and extracting information from terror suspects. The issue has been roundly litigated and settled not just in the court of public opinion but in the court of expert opinion. Trump’s arrogance, of course, leads him to ignore experts and give credence to the inventions of his own ungrounded and self-adulating “intellect.”
Moreover, Trump’s absurd position on torture, at odds with international law and conventions, has threatened an important intelligence partnership with the United Kingdom, as Prime Minister Theresa May might now withhold intelligence because of Trump’s endorsement of torture.
When it comes to the banning of refugees from Syria and six other largely Muslim nations, with the aim of stopping terrorism, we can also find strong evidence that such a measure will do more to inflame and energize terrorist organizations such as ISIS rather than combat or weaken them, giving them grounds to paint the United States as anti-Muslim and thus fuel to recruit more members and grow their organizations.
Conversely, French journalist and author Nicolas Henin, who spent ten months as an ISIS hostage, has declared that the best way to take on terrorism is to be open to Muslim refugees rather than acting repressively to bar them. He explained in an interview with Democracy Now,
“Welcoming refugees is not a terror threat to our countries; it’s like a vaccine to protect us from terrorism, because the more interactions we have between societies, between communities, the less there will be tensions.”
“The Islamic State believes in a global confrontation. What they want eventually is civil war in our countries, or at least large unrest, and in the Middle East, a large-scale war. This is what they look for. This is what they struggle for. So we have to kill their narrative and actually to welcome refugees, totally destroy their narrative.”
Choosing such a strategy would require that Trump actually want to address the problem and improve people’s lives at home and abroad as opposed to simply wanting to inflame people’s baser impulses by appealing to their fears and prejudices. And he would have to stop and think as opposed to reacting impulsively and arrogantly.
In the case of the real and serious gun violence in Chicago, Trump has simply repeated the mantras of gun lobbyists and politicians like Chris Christie who like to use the example of Chicago, a city with strict gun control laws, to argue that gun control laws breed rather than reduce crime. One doesn’t have to be a genius, though, to understand that gun control laws enacted regionally are generally meaningless. It doesn’t take but a few minutes to leave Chicago for another municipality or state, such as Indiana, to acquire a gun. Again, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know common-sense gun regulations need to be federal in scope, not simply local.
Trump, of course, just wants to meet violence with violence. The United Nations has undertaken studies of human security that forward an evidenced perspective that securing a world requires providing economic justice and respecting human rights, in addition to other measures. Repression is not among those measures.
On the same day of this series of events, Finn Heinrich of the group Transparency International published an analysis of how populist politicians mislead people, promising an end to corruption but typically then installing an even more corrupt regime that exacerbates inequality. He largely focuses on Trump.
We have to look at his other promises to realize American ideals similarly, understanding that when he says “freedom,” he means repression.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.