During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, which were effectively a 30 year civil war, one of the issues which generated a lot of dispute was prisoner status.
Many people on both sides of the conflict, but predominantly Republicans, were jailed for acts such as bombings, murders and kidnappings which would not be legal anywhere, and were not supported by most of the civilians these individuals claimed to represent. Yet Republicans so jailed insisted they were “political prisoners”, not in prison for committing crimes but for having the wrong opinions.
There was some justice in this view, in that it was an offence to belong to certain Republican organisations regarded as “terrorist” because of their activities but not to belong to certain equally “terrorist” groups on the loyalist side.
Similarly, Republicans argued that institutional discrimination left them with no choice but to resort to arms to further their cause of ending the partition of Ireland, a principle accepted elsewhere, as the political process neither gave them an opportunity to pursue their legitimate goals nor protected
them from violence in their daily lives. Therefore sympathetic governments sometimes did regard jailed Republicans as “political prisoners”, whilst continuing to jail people in their own countries for the same crimes, irrespective of their opinions.
There are many other conflicts going on today in which one side, or all sides, claim that they have no choice but to resort to criminality to further their cause, and that discrimination against them makes any convicted person on their side a “political prisoner”. This is an appeal for these individuals to be regarded in the same light as famous political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, thus affording a higher status to them and their cause regardless of what they have done, a sometimes successful tactic.
You might expect this in the Middle East, or amongst displaced peoples or defeated sides in ideological conflicts. The potential for such situations to arise is always there. If the Native Americans resorted to violence to reclaim their ancestral lands and rights they would be taking a logical next step, however wrong it is to abuse innocent people. They would likewise ask why the terrorists who ended British rule of the American colonies, and then destroyed the Native American peoples, are regarded as heroes if their own combatants are not.
There is on-going academic and legal discussion of what being a “political prisoner” precisely means and doesn’t mean. But there are certain acknowledged boundaries to the definition.
Firstly, you have to actually be in prison. Secondly, simply losing an election, without being subject to any discrimination or legal penalty, does not make you a political prisoner, even if those elections themselves were rigged – only when you are punished for being on the losing side might you transform to political prisoner status.
Yet Donald Trump, who has continuously redefined standards of civilized conduct to the detriment of the human race, now wants to redefine “political prisoner” as well. We all speculated about why he keeps bringing legal challenges to his election loss which dissolve into nothing when placed before an actual court. It is gradually becoming clear that his aim is to pretend that he and his supporters, over 70 million of them, are all “political prisoners” – regardless of the consequences for the country he pledged to serve in his oath of office.
Two Rules are No Rules
When 150 million people vote in an election, there are going to be a few anomalies. Not every vote will be legal or genuine, though the fault for this lies more often with election officials, or political organisations, keeping inadequate voter rolls than with the voters themselves.
However we are still waiting for hard evidence of voter fraud in the recent US presidential election which will stand up in court. The Trump campaign has brought so many cases, so determinedly, that if this evidence existed it would certainly have come out by now, and been exploited to the full. It isn’t there, large-scale organised fraud didn’t happen, Joe Biden won the election fairly.
No one seems to be asking Trump how he knows he would have won easily without the alleged fraud, as he keeps claiming. He could only know that if he knew the result before the vote was cast, invalidating the whole electoral process. As he is the sitting president, he is accusing himself of greater electoral fraud than he is accusing the Democrats of, or rather the election officials on both sides, some of whom are avowed Trump supporters.
But all of Trump’s claims are predicated on one idea. He has consistently maintained that he represents the real, legal America, which has been unfairly discriminated against by crooked politicians, illegal immigrants and everyone else he doesn’t like, working together in some grand conspiracy.
Even when Trump won in 2016 he ascribed his popular vote loss to millions of illegal immigrants being allowed to vote by corrupt political machines, as if no right thinking person could vote against him. This time one of his fraud allegations was that some military ballots had been cast for Biden – Trump wishes us to believe that no serviceman would, of his own free will, vote against him, so the ballot must have been tampered with in some way.
Therefore only what Trump wants is fair. Everything else is crooked. If the political system which he claims has discriminated against his supporters doesn’t give him what he wants, this makes all of these people “political prisoners” – deprived of their rights, and cast out of society, because of their beliefs.
Unfortunately this view is not entirely misplaced. It is clear that most of the US media has a very negative view of Trump, and has spent the last four years treating him the same way it once did Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. Outlets which give sympathetic platforms to Trump supporters, such a Fox News, are picked on by the others, even though the same journalists are quite happy to work either side of the fence for a pay cheque.
Similarly, the states furthest from the national centres of power, the rural ones in the south and west, are now predominantly Republican, having once been predominantly Democratic. The traditional have/have not voter split is now the opposite way round to the norm, with the haves being more progressive and the “have nots” seeing liberalism as a threat to their fundamentally conservative values – much as in Uruguay, where the Broad Left of today was founded by former rural conservatives rather than big city liberals.
Liberals tend to be open to new ideas, on the basis that a new or foreign perspective might be just as much right as the existing one. Conservatives feel that their way is the right way, and any deviation from it is bad.
If those same conservatives feel they are being punished for having such ideas, they can easily feel the victims of unjustified persecution. If they then feel the whole political process is rigged against them, and they are losing out materially and socially as a result, they will feel they are in a political prison, where their values and opinions, or even presence, are unacceptable.
Under Trump, these people felt they had gained the upper hand. Right would cleanse the country of wrong, despite the political order.
Now they feel the political order, rather than the people themselves, has struck back and cast them out again. So there must be something wrong with the whole political system, and it must be designed to persecute right thinking people.
Trump is trying to ensure that the US is not divided into “haves” and “have nots”, but a corrupt state and political prisoners who oppose it. His only hope is to disguise everything he does and wants as a moral crusade, and everything he doesn’t want as corrupt, aimed at persecuting his millions of supporters, and he will play this game to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences.
Star Spangled Anger
In many respects the US is a model of everything Trump has encouraged everyone to despise. It has been built by people from all over the world, of every conceivable race, colour and creed, banding together for what are undoubtedly high ideals.
This description holds despite the racism and other discriminatory practices the US is equally known for. There have always been problems bringing people together. But by reference to the US Constitution, the means have always been there.
Trump’s ambition now is to throw all this out of the window. He buys immunity for his supporters, and most of all for himself, by claiming everything everyone else does is a form of political persecution, and thus has no legal or moral basis. But he destroys his country in the process, simply because doing the right thing is too boring.
Any sort of extreme movement is bound together by hatred. As Cnanad Szegedi goes round the world saying, it is this hatred, rather than what they say, which is at the root of their appeal. Those who feel unable to love, often for sound socio-economic reasons, are thus given a weapon more powerful than the mundane good intentions of the mainstream, who have to deal with realities and complexities extreme movements wish to wash away.
Trump’s core supporters are just those individuals who can no longer love the US because they feel disadvantaged by the way it has developed. Yet they were brought up to love their country, for good reasons. So their anger is turned on the people in charge, whoever they are, just because they are “the system” – Democrats, traditional Republicans, you name it – and those they feel have gained unfair advantages because the corrupt “system” has given them to them.
We can all cite instances of the sort of behaviour which will now become the Trump supporter credo. The idea that black people must be automatically supposed guilty of a crime and white people innocent. That if the government wants you to fill in the census form it wants to use the information to take away your liberties. That every time you talk to a foreign leader you are doing a corrupt deal to flood the country with foreigners who will take everyone’s jobs.
Trump’s ambition now is to spread the net far wider. His rhetoric about voter fraud and illegal ballots, still not backed up by any hard evidence, is designed to create a situation where everything any state actor or agency does is inherently wrong, and aimed purely at Trump and his supporters. Everything will now be given the worst possible interpretation, to create divisions which go beyond “them and us” to a world of “murderers and martyrs”.
Whatever Joe Biden does to combat Covid-19 will be seen as having the motive of undermining America and benefitting Biden’s friends at the expense of Trump supporters. If a stimulus plan is developed, this will be seen as a means of keeping Trump supporters down rather than an opportunity for them to advance alongside others.
We would all like to think that everything bad which happens to us is an unjust imposition by a corrupt ruling class, thus making ourselves feel superior, and giving us no responsibility of our own. Can Trump supporters really claim that? Donald knows they can’t, but he himself thinks he can, and that is all that matters to this supreme narcissist.
Taking both Knees
Nobody wants to see a US in which millions of political prisoners are engaged in an eternal struggle with the authorities, with both sides thinking any step they take is justified by the rightness of their cause. It will be the end of rule of law, democracy and human rights.
The question is, and will remain, who will get the blame for creating this situation? Each side will blame the other, and cite swathes of evidence, all of it valid. But when you look at the intent behind those actions, only one side, and particularly one person, is to blame.
The Democrats are now talking about “healing”. However, their own track record is no better than that of the Republicans, even worse, Hillary Clinton and the DNC, which is how we got into this mess in the first place.
But they have no reason to continue stoking divisions. Trump has nothing else left, and it is ridiculous to think such a showman will just go away. He will claim to be the only source of truth and justice to his dying day, daring anyone to counter the force of his necessary self-belief with facts or logic.
Trump got into power by harnessing dissidence within the system, despite pledging to overthrow it. Now he wants to lead a guerrilla army of self-justifying acolytes with circular reasoning, who answer to no one but him. How far he gets will depend on which compromises his supporters make with “the system” to lead their daily lives.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.