A time like this, with the eyes of the world on Russia and the World Cup, is a traditional one for doing things you don´t want too many people noticing. The Soviet Bloc moved into Hungary in 1956 just as the Olympics were starting, and Mikheil Saakashvili did the same in his own country in 2008.
As the world knows, Americans don´t pay much attention to soccer. Maybe they missed this opportunity to bury negative news. But the recent horror stories about refugee children being separated from their families have gained prominence far beyond the US, because they should not be happening there. In a Third World dictatorship which sponsors terrorism, yes, in the guardian of democracy founded by immigrants, no.
As Trump´s lackeys keep pointing out, he is only enforcing the law, and other presidents have done the same. It is true that his predecessors also separated some refugee children from their families, in specific cases, under the same laws. It is also true that it is up to Congress, as the legislative body, to change the law if it doesn´t agree with it, and that all presidents have been constitutionally obliged to uphold laws they personally opposed.
But what is rousing everyone´s anger is not just the scope and severity of the enforcement of this law but the hypocrisy of it. Trump will probably be impeached as a result of the many laws he has broken whilst in office (such as the emoluments clause), and before it (Robert Mueller´s probe has resulted in his aides being jailed, pleading guilty and facing over a hundred criminal charges, a record far worse than those of the notoriously corrupt Richard M. Nixon and Warren G. Harding administrations.
Trump has a long history of criminal behaviour, such as not paying his contractors and breaking employment and housing laws; there are multiple tax and fraud cases pending against him. If he suddenly cares about this immigration law, why not all the others?
It is typical of Trump not to be able to see this. But words and ego won´t make this problem go away. Trump can´t cope with being honest about himself, and now he has accidentally been honest about his country. Does he have the resources to dig it out of the hole he has dug for it? That is now the question which will dominate international affairs, not US domestic policy, for many years to come.
Putting the mirror on your own wall
During the Hundred Years War the French conducted a brief raid on Southern England, slashing and burning the countryside and sacking villages. The English were outraged, but it was primarily a propaganda stunt.
The English had been using exactly the same tactics in France for a long time, and getting away with it because the English public did not realise what was going on. Now they did, they began to questionwhether their Kings had a just cause. Eventually the English lost that war, and the claims on which it was based were discredited and remain so. Sound familiar?
Americans are now seeing at home how their country behaves elsewhere, and don´t like it. There are those who defend Trump´s actions by citing the Bible, in the same selective way, as the did to justify slavery based on the Curse of Ham.
These are the same people who want to protect the US from the spectre of Muslim terrorism, which is justified in exactly the same way. That too is beginning to sink in to a population which has been too complacent, for too long, about how its governments actually reflect the values they have as individuals – which most people in the rest of the world also have, and want to see defended, not denied, by the same US.
Welcome to Foreign Policy, American Style
Now Americans can see what other countries have long had to endure in the name of justice, democracy and rule of law. They can see it is their own people doing them, not a bunch of foreign psychos who must reluctantly be supported to save us from Commies or terrorists. They can see that all the same justifications are being used, by people they ought to be able to trust, for actions which used to sound acceptable but are a different proposition in your own neighbourhood.
This story is not about the Trump administration, but where the rest of the world goes from here. If Americans don´t believe in their own self-image any more, this will open up a void other powers will scramble to fill. None of those powers are offering to be all the positive things the US once embodied internationally. What values can we as individuals aspire to have when there is no country on earth which professes them?
Divide and misrule
Trump´s whole campaign was built on the concept of “them and us”. THEY are the liberal establishment who have abandoned you, WE are the common people (or billionaire conmen, in his case) who are trying to take back control. THEY are all Muslims and Atheists, WE are good Christians like the serial liar and womaniser with the wife who poses for porn pictures.
If someone who is the opposite of what he claims to be can exploit America´s social divisions in this way, those divisions must be very deep and very real. The Democrats largely created this situation by failing to reflect the aspirations of Trump´s support base, who no longer share the traditional US desire for “self-improvement”. No longer is everyone racing the rest to the top and longing for a comfortable middle-class existence. Those left behind, and some of those who´ve made it, want to protect what they have and be valued in their present situation, not for what someone else wants them to become.
In this, they share the aspirations of the majority of people in developing countries allied to the US. No one wants to have to apologise for being foreign if they live in richer countries, or to suffer at home because they are outside the political elite. But increasingly the foreign relations answer favoured by the US is not to include people in something which might work, but remove one set of politicians they don´t like and replace them with a different bunch, supported by a different part of the population.
In practice, the new crowd will never be allowed to do things much differently. But as long as they can say they are not the previous lot, it will be inferred that they represent the previously dispossessed, and therefore have some sort of right to keep them dispossessed, like all the countries wanting “liberation” who have ended up in deeper dependency.
Those who are quoting scripture to defend Trump probably don´t wish to be reminded of Matthew 12:25 – “And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every Kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”. If pressed to do so, they might argue that this means everyone should rally round President Trump. But it was he who insisted on dividing the house for his own gain, and whose survival depends on continuing to exploit that division. If people were divided because they couldn´t rally round the old ideas any more, the product of those divisions will not be able to unite them now.
The longer Trump stays in office the more the US will have to resort to promoting a “them and us” mentality everywhere. Due to its relative immaturity as a nation, low level of education, it believes it is obliged to make whatever it thinks a global standard, to justify itself. Once it did this through the Peace Corps, Soft Poweer, then through invasions, and it has long done it through its version of the English language. Now that standard will be to exploit divisions all over the world, and blasphemously claim a non-existent divine authority for doing so.
It wasn´t me. It was my ego
Trump and his team have consistently maintained that he is only implementing the law, and that only Congress, as the legislative body, can keep immigrant families together by passing relevant laws. Having seen how Trump interprets these longstanding laws, the Republican-controlled Congress is trying to do just that.
But Trump has now reversed his previous position, and signed an executive order which prevents immigrant families being separated at the border, as he could have done long before. His justification is that the law was wrong, and that he is the only person in sixty years with the courage to fix it. However no one is fooled by this Superman act, because it is obvious why he picked this particular law to implement to begin with.
Everyone feels threatened by immigration because “immigrants” are seen in generic terms. Few are concerned by individual immigrants, with personalities and case histories of their own, which is what the vast majority of Americans are, or their ancestors were. But by lumping them together it is easy to project negative images onto them, which make the idea of “immigrant”, rather than the reality, an ongoing threat.
Trump has campaigned loudly on the issue of cutting immigration, rather like former British Home Secretary Michael Howard, whose family were immigrants from Romania. He has consistently portrayed all immigrants as potential or actual criminals, regardless of their personal histories and the taxes they pay to keep the government running, and thus keep all politicians in jobs. He has gone out of his way to convince his supporters that all their problems are the fault of immigrants and those who support immigration, by which he means Democrats and non-Trump Republicans.
There are many other laws Trump could have insisted on implementing. Demonstrating public cruelty to immigrant families gladdens his supporters and offends everyone else. Every day he continues doing it, his supporters can think that they are the masters now, and the people who dispossessed them are powerless to change the situation
As ever, Trump´s policies are all about Trump. He spotted a business opportunity and took it by imprisoning immigrant children. Now he has spotted another by claiming to be a hero and reuniting those children with their families, before cissy Congress and its privileged members can do anything for them.
Trump the neighbourhood bully has now become Trump the humanitarian, by resolving a crisis he created himself by interpreting the law the way he did. He can now do whatever else he likes to gratify his supporters whilst also claiming to be humanitarian. Just like USAID uses its alleged “humanitarian support” to fund terrorism and regime change, and “public health institutions” run biological weapons labs. Only now all this is happening at home, and Americans can see what their friends in other countries have long experienced, and told them about, and expected them to do something about.
The genie is out of the bottle, and only the American people, not Trump, can put it back in. Until that happens, how long will US foreign policy become a bigger swamp than before to justify its domestic stance?
One minus one equals zero
Georgia is one of many countries which knows the consequences of taking a “them and us” attitude, or having it imposed upon them by others. It has had a succession of governments whose sole virtue was that they were not like the ones which came before. Gamsakhurdia was virulently anti-Communist, Shevardnadze was virulently anti-Gamsakhurdia, Saakashvili anti-Shevardnadze and Ivanishvili and his descendants anti-Saakashvili.
Each Georgian government has discovered that this is not, in itself, enough to cover its mistakes, in the first and last cases, or the outright criminality of the other two. But Georgia and other countries can never break this cycle and develop a vision the majority of their populations can share, which has always been the driver of prosperity, as long as a “them and us” president runs the world´s only superpower.
Nor is this merely a Third World problem. In 1979 the UK tried to arrest its own relative decline by electing Margaret Thatcher, who rejected the postwar consensus which had dominated political thinking until then. She decreed that everyone who claimed welfare, or worked in a subsidised industry, or made any other sort of claim on their neighbour, was morally bad and must be punished for it, a stance which went down well with those who thought they were self-reliant, or wanted to be.
Thatcher’s policies were long credited with generating economic revival, and she only left office because her own party kicked her out, not the electorate. But eventually they had the opposite effect. According to some calculations, nine out of ten of the poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK. Most of their residents never supported Thatcher, but had to live with the consequences of policies which saw jobs and communities destroyed. Not surprisingly they also voted to leave the EU, even though they now live off its grants, having seen her successors do nothing meaningful to arrest their decline or change the thinking which caused it.
Trump being on the road to nowhere may delight many. Americans being forced to face what they do to other countries is also beneficial in the longer term. But as long as he gets away with it at home, he will have to do more of the same internationally to justify himself. Who steps in when the US loses everything as a result, and what they will do, is anyone´s guess and probably everyone´s nightmare.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.