In what Amnesty International described as “another way to punish parents and children for seeking protection,” United States President Donald Trump retreated in the face of huge outcry over his administration’s policy of ripping apart families at the US-Mexico border — signing an executive order on June 20 that will instead lead to families seeking safety being jailed together.
The mindboggling cruelty of a policy involving state-sanctioned mass kidnappings of children, and the fact the outcry forced a partial retreat has posed broader questions about Trump’s cruel and pro-rich agenda as a whole: what will it take to defeat him?
The US Socialist Worker editorial printed below notes that the mainstream political system has no answer to Trump’s outrages, but the protests against the administration’s cruel border policies can show a different way.
Outrage over Donald Trump’s policy of seizing migrating children from their parents spread even on the right end of the political spectrum — and Trump’s by now familiar mix of snivelling lies and sickening smears in response only fuelled the fire.
The sudden creation of desert tent cities and Walmart concentration camps for children was a deliberate spectacle of sadism. It is a moral and humanitarian crisis knowingly orchestrated by Trump and Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to inflict suffering on migrant parents and children, many of whom are seeking refugee status as a result of trauma they already experienced in their countries of origin.
But the anger at this horror boiled over. In the days before Trump signed his executive order, thousands of people mobilised to the remote Texas border town of Tornillo, south-east of El Paso, to send a message of resistance outside a tent city where federal authorities want to house up to 4000 children.
On June 19, members of National Nurses Organizing Committee-Texas, which represents 1700 nurses at four El Paso hospitals, called for members to join a protest march to the ICE field office in El Paso.
A coalition of civil rights organisations, including the ACLU, MoveOn, the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and others, called a day of mass mobilisations on June 30.
Like similar moments in the past, this upsurge of protest could turn the political mood at a time when Trump has been riding an increase in popularity among his right-wing base, thanks to the still growing economy. This fed the perception that he can get away with anything, no matter how cruel.
The goal of the Trump administration’s state-sponsored kidnapping was to scare potential future migrants and refugees from making the journey. It also sought to create leverage on congressional Democrats to concede to White House demands for draconian policies against future immigration, legal and illegal.
But the cruelty of the family separation policy wasn’t just as a means to these ends. Cruelty itself was the goal — another lurch in the Trumpist project of shifting the mainstream political spectrum so far to the right that fascism, or something close to it, defines one end, while the other is the tepid liberalism put forward by the Democratic Party and MSNBC.
Trump’s child prisons are rooted in the horrible border policies begun by his predecessors, including Barack Obama. But by expanding on those atrocities — and, even more, by proudly proclaiming them — Trump is throwing down a gauntlet to all those who would challenge his barbarism.
In this respect, Trump is following the example of Dick Cheney after the September 11 attacks, when Cheney boasted that the US was turning to “the dark side” of torture. This was a policy the CIA had used frequently in previous decades, but in secret.
Who will stop Trump?
The open embrace of torture sent a message to anyone who opposed the Bush administration’s more aggressive assertion of imperial power: Who’s going to stop us?
That is a question that looms today — and the leaders of the Democratic Party make it obvious every day that they aren’t the answer.
Actually, at various points in the past year-and-a-half, it has seemed more likely that some “responsible” faction of the Republican Party would try to curb Trump’s worst excesses. But any such faction is running scared now, with another reactionary Republican who dared to criticise Trump defeated by a primary challenge earlier this month.
The lesson for Republicans: Keep your head down and be satisfied with the pro-corporate, pro-rich, anti-everybody-else agenda that Trump is delivering.
As for the Democrats, it’s been some talk, some of the time — but little action.
The party leadership’s instinct is always to move rightwards — even when that means criticising Trump, of all people, for not being tough enough on China or threatening enough against North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
That is true of the most left reaches of the party: Bernie Sanders has reserved some of his harshest criticisms of the administration for the occasions when Trump looked like he may relent from an all-out trade war against China.
On the immigration issue, the Democrats will talk much tougher against Trump, and some candidates and officeholders joined the recent protests. But anyone wondering where this will lead should remember the Democrats’ pathetic retreat this January from pressuring Trump to extend the DACA program for undocumented youth.
The honest hope of millions of people has been dashed many times: No part of the ruling elite in America — not the main political parties, nor some section of the ruling class, nor the “deep state”, nor the media — is waiting to rise up and rein in Trump, much less bring him down.
There is a simple reason why: Too many of them have too much to gain in Trump’s America.
What is needed is to mobilise the majority opposition to Trump’s hateful policies into an effective resistance — not in future elections, but now.
The new heights of popular outrage at the heartbreaking images of imprisoned migrant children are a start. But as we have learned from the start of the Trump presidency, outrage that isn’t organised into an active force isn’t enough.
The protests against the latest cruelty to immigrants are heartening, but they have some distance to go to reach the scale of the Women’s Marches this year and last, or the recent protests against gun violence.
Likewise, rallies are being planned against the Supreme Court’s anticipated decision to uphold the latest version of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, but few expect these protests to reach the intensity of the “uprising at the airports” that pressured the courts to halt the first version of the ban a year ago.
The mismatch between the huge disgust and anger people feel about Trump and the actual scale of active resistance can be corrosive to the spirit. But this is the situation the left must confront.
The first thing to remember — because it can be easy to forget in the face of the onslaught — is that Trump, despite an uptick in his approval rating, remains the most unpopular president at each point in his reign since opinion polling began after World War II.
Not only that, but he has faced historic active opposition. The Women’s Marches in 2016 and 2017 were among the largest single days of protest in US history. The huge protests against gun violence were at least as much a cry of outrage at Trump and the right wing as a mobilisation for gun control.
The uprising at the airports did halt the Muslim ban for a time. The Republican Party’s top priority at the start of Trump’s reign — repealing Obamacare and wrecking the Medicaid public health care system for the poor — was also defeated after pressure from a grassroots mobilisation fractured the Republican majority in Congress.
On the issue of immigration — where the power of the state, taking its orders from Trump, is at its most overwhelming — the brave defiance of immigrants and their supporters has gone beyond anything during the previous era of the Obama administration’s record-setting deportations.
There are also the uprisings of educators this winter. These strikes and protests erupted, seemingly out of nowhere, in West Virginia and spread to other “red states” across the US. They not only protested Trump-like regimes in Republican-dominated states, but showed victory is possible.
Even when they didn’t get everything they fought for, teachers won salary hikes and funding increases for public schools that were unimaginable just months before. Moreover, they achieved these victories through the power of strikes and protest, not “working through the system”.
The war continues
The hard realities of the Trump nightmare weigh heavily every day. Even when the administration faces setbacks, the wider war goes on.
For example, the Republicans’ maximum program for wrecking health care was defeated last year, but the Trump administration continues to undermine and dismantle any positive part of the Obamacare system, even without congressional approval.
Latest case in point: The Justice Department is joining a right-wing legal attempt to unravel legal protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
Still, for all that, the challenges during the past year-and-a-half, even when they weren’t successful, contributed to the opportunities for building a stronger left and a broader resistance. The lessons each holds can teach the next.
In the end, that ongoing project — building the left while fighting the right — will be as decisive as any single battle.
[Slightly abridged from Socialist Worker.]