The Trump-Bannon Executive Order ‘Strategy’ And Its Rhetorical Value

The flurry of executive orders signed by Donald Trump since January 20th was designed to accomplish several objectives.

First, on attaining office, establish continuity between the ‘campaigning candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ by acting to ‘implement’ the most visible campaign trail promises–the ones packing the most rhetorical punch. This should be done without regard to the legality, constitutionality, or practicality of implementation of the orders. These orders should bear the distinct impress of dynamic, purposeful action; their signings should be staged in impressive settings reeking of power; the president’s pen should resemble a sword cutting through legislative red tape. Their failure, their rollback, their rewriting, will obviously proceed in far more subtle fashion, perhaps under cover of the night. In press parlance, the whopper makes it to the front page, the correction finds its way to page seventeen. Red meat, even if tainted, needs to be thrown to the ‘base;’ the resultant feeding frenzy will keep them busy and distracted for a while. Passing laws is boring and staid; it speaks of negotiation and compromise; executive orders execute. Or at least, they seem to, which in the present circumstances might amount to the same thing–at least as far as the spectators are concerned.

Second, when these orders encounter political resistance in the form of citizens’ protests, as they almost certainly will, emphasize the source and nature of the opposition, even if these demonstrations and protests appear to be large and organized: focus on the marches in ‘elite, out-of-touch’ cities like New York and San Francisco; emphasize that the protesters are opposing action and appear happy with the status quo, in direct opposition to the dynamism of the president. (Useful idiots in the media can be relied upon to offer commentary like “these protesters seem to have made up their mind to oppose the president no matter what he does” etc. A few close-ups of women yelling slogans–to emphasize the ‘hysterical’ nature of the protests, and some of black protesters to make the claim that ‘they have nothing better to do’ will certainly make the rounds.) This will also allow the deployment of the usual ‘anti-American’ tropes.

Third, when the orders encounter legal resistance in the form of pushback from legal advisers, civil liberties lawyers, and Federal judges, emphasize again, its ‘elite’ nature: meddling, lying, lawyers; unelected activist judges imposing their self-indulgent wills on the general will of the people; law will now become synonymous with ‘red tape,’ regulations,’ and ‘rules.’ The bureaucratic nature of the legal system will be emphasized.

This is all great grist for the Bannon propaganda mill. The executive orders might not ‘work’ in one sense; they certainly will in another.

These strategies are not new; they are old and honorable members of the Republican Party’s playbook. They will, however, be implemented with unapologetic ferocity by an ideologically determined crew, using all the available machinery–sophistical and sophisticated–of modern communications at hand. The only weakness in this strategy is that it might not have anticipated the resultant ferocity of the opposition to it, and the unintended consequence of uniting an opposition that before the elections appeared disparate and disunited.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.

A Mere Taste Of The Refugee’s Desperation

In 1990, my visa status in the US changed from ‘student’ to ‘skilled worker’; in the alphanumeric soup of visa designations, I went from being F-1 to H-1. This was occasion to celebrate; I could now legally work in the US, and earn more than the minimum hourly wage. There was a glitch though: the F-1 was a ‘multiple-entry’ visa; I could come and go from the US freely for its duration. The H-1 was a ‘single-entry’ visa; if I left the US, I would have to apply for a visa renewal to gain reentry. Such renewals were not guaranteed. Very soon, a tale of disaster made the rounds. A friend went home to Bombay to attend his sister’s wedding; when he applied for a renewal, his visa was denied. Despite repeated entreaties from his employer (and from my then graduate adviser who wrote in support of his personal qualities and work ethic) he was ‘stuck’ in Bombay. There he stayed.

Very soon, H-1 visa holders began to devise a ‘work-around’ to this problem: departures from the US to Canada or Mexico, which lasted less than a week, were counted as ‘non-significant departures.’ If so, you could leave the US, visit an American consulate in Canada or Mexico, and then apply for a new multiple-entry H-1 visa there. If you were successful, all was well; if not, well, you just went back to the US, and planned something else, perhaps a trip to another consulate somewhere else in Canada or Mexico. (On the grapevine, news spread of so-called ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ consulates; those who were lenient at granting renewals, and those who weren’t.) One reason given for asking for a renewal during a so-called ‘significant departure’ was that the applicant was soon going to be making a business trip overseas for his employer; the length of the trip would be too short to allow the time to apply for a renewal while traveling. This tall tale was supported by a letter from the employer (almost all of whom, quite naturally, supported their employees’ attempts to return to their jobs.)

In the spring of 1992, I desperately wanted to return home to visit my family; I had been away from ‘home’ for almost five years; in that period of time, I had only managed to make one trip home; it had lasted three weeks. Three weeks in five years seemed awfully slim pickings. But if I wanted to make a trip back to India, I’d have to go through the ‘traveling for a new H-1’ runaround. So I did.

In May 1992, armed with my visa application papers and a supporting letter from my employer, I drove to Montreal, to apply for a H-1 renewal. A Canadian friend offered crash space, which I gratefully accepted. I had managed to take a day off from work with some difficulty; I would drive up on a Thursday, apply for the visa on Friday, spend a day in Montreal on Saturday and then drive back on Sunday to resume work on Monday.

The best laid plans of man, etc.

On Friday morning, I submitted my application to the consular officer, and went to wait. A short while later, I was summoned by the consular officer and informed that I would have to return on Monday to find out the fate of my application. (Apparently, Montreal residents got priority, and would be served the same day.) I stared at him dumbfounded; consulates always processed visas on the same day; I could not possibly take another day off from work; this policy seemed exactly backwards for surely Montreal residents could easily return next week while out of town applicants could not. I asked for accommodation; I explained my case and said that I had to return to the US to go back to work; my employer would not let me take another day off; surely Montreal residents could come back on Monday to pick up their visas? And so on.

All to no avail. I was speaking to a bureaucrat, frozen, unblinking, uncaring. As our conversation stumbled into another zone of futility, my vision began to cloud. I wanted to see my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law; I wanted to see my infant nephew and hold him in my arms; I’d only been home for three weeks in five years and now this automaton was trampling callously on those barely expressible desires.

I snapped, and raged; I loudly proclaimed the stupidity of this policy. The consular officer had had enough and called security to remove me. I shook them off and walked out of my own accord, cursing as I went.  Back in my truck, I crumbled, sinking into a teary despondency. I was ‘stuck’ in the US; I would not be allowed to see my family after all.

Compared to the refugees now seeking entry to the US, I was a vastly, monumentally, privileged and fortunate person. I was able to apply again for a visa. (A month later, I made another road-trip; this time, to Quebec City. My visa application was successful and I traveled to India in August 1992 for four weeks.) I was able to visit my family and play with my little nephew, take long walks with my mother, share a drink with my brother, enjoy my sister-in-law’s cooking. The problem I faced at the US consulate in Montreal was a relatively minor one; I could have tried for an extension of my vacation, and after all, I was able to afford another trip to Canada relatively quickly. But that sensation, that sick feeling of being denied contact with one’s family, a kind of refuge–thanks to an impervious bureaucracy–has always stayed with me; it was a peculiar kind of nausea and fear and hopelessness. I can only imagine–very dimly–what those must be feeling who have been denied entry to the US over the past day or so because of Donald Trump’s racist executive order. This one cuts quite deep, quite personally. I’m united–through my differences–with all immigrants, all refugees.

Note: As a reminder: the stay order issued by the Federal Court only applies to those refugees who have already traveled to the US and were denied entry at US ports; those who had not started their journey yet remain in limbo, as so do those who now wait at detention centers at airports, waiting for their cases to be processed.

The Tethered Eagle And The Refugee Refused Entry

A little over fourteen years ago, in the fall of 2002, shortly after I returned to the US after finishing my post-doctoral fellowship in Australia, I went to see the Yankees play at the old Yankees Stadium. I had arrived in New York City just a couple of weeks earlier; the Yankees were in contention for the post-season; a date had suggested a baseball game might be a good way to get back to city life; I agreed. I paid no attention to the date of the game she chose to buy tickets for: September 11th.

That evening, I showed up in time for the first pitch. Or so I thought. Once seated, I realized the significance of the date; a memorial ceremony was planned. It included all you might expect: flags, salutes to the military, anthems and paeans to the nation, all backed up by fierce chants of ‘USA, USA, USA!’ The grand finale of the show–one I predicted to my date–was a flyover by a F-15 Eagle fighter jet, which lit its afterburners with a crowd-pleasing ‘whump’ right over the stadium. The cheers grew louder.

That military jet was not the only Eagle on display that night. A little earlier, an American bald eagle had been brought out to the middle of the stadium–an American icon, a national symbol, a beautiful, powerful, bird of prey, used to soaring and pouncing and floating. It came out tethered with a chain to its handler’s wrist, unable to fly, confined to being a prop, and a confined and restricted one at that.

Irony hung heavy in the air.

I’ve never forgotten that sight. 9/11 didn’t just bring down three buildings and kill thousands of people, it also dealt a crippling blow to American liberty. Since that benighted day, the assaults on American civil liberties have grown. Along the way, the US committed war crimes in Iraq (among other countries), tortured prisoners, suspended habeas corpus for Gitmo detainees; and that was just overseas. At home, electoral disenfranchisement and assaults on reproductive rights were but mere samplers of the wholesale assault that seemed to be directed at any and all disempowered groups. (Along the way, America elected a black man whose middle name was ‘Hussein,’ an electoral result that sent enough in this country into fits of apoplectic fury. That fury has never abated; the backlash still reverberates.)

Donald Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees entry to the US isn’t surprising in this context–indeed, it’s a logical terminus of sorts. The land of the brave and free was scared enough to shackle its icon of freedom (and preferred to grant wings instead to a military jet named after it)–that seemed to have said all that needed to be said already. Why wouldn’t this land turn its back on its other vital national principles, its supposedly defining moral foundations? This was a country built on the idea that it would offer shelter to the world’s benighted; that idea can’t fly any more either.

Note: The ACLU has obtained a stay order from the Federal Court in the Eastern District of New York against the executive order.  Stay tuned.

Flannery O’Connor On Free Will And Integrity

In the ‘Author’s Note to the Second Edition’ in Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor writes:

Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.

Unsurprisingly, here we find a provocative intervention in a philosophical debate by a novelist. We define integrity as “the state of being whole or undivided” or as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.” The latter definition related integrity to honesty and morality, and thus presumably to actions taken and choices made; we acted ‘appropriately,’ we chose ‘correctly.’ It is our integrity that makes us capable of doing so. (There is a relationship visible here between the two definitions of integrity in that the person with integrity can be seen as unitary in moral resolve, and not incoherently torn between conflicting moral impulses, unable to choose and act.) So how could integrity consist in not being able to do something? If you are unable to do something, then where is the choice, so crucial to moral action?

O’Connor suggests that this conundrum may be resolved in Nietzschean fashion: we imagine that we have one will, one moral drive of sorts, but this is a mistake. We have many drives, each rudderless, each competing with the other in some shape or fashion; the effect of a drive may be tempered, attenuated, or amplified by others. The net resultant effect, the vector sum of a kind, is the ‘personality,’ or the ‘character’ of the moral agent. We are this resultant sum. Those who think they have ‘free will’ say so not because they experience a unitary drive that directs their choices, but rather, because they experience themselves as a location for an ongoing conflict, an irreducible dissonance, on the occasions of decision-making. This psychic disturbance, this evidence of distant battles between our various drives, waged in various subterranean locations of our subconscious and unconscious is what we call ‘free will’: acting in the presence of conflict, or perceived choices.

Now we can understand what O’Connor means when she says that perhaps our integrity may lie in what we are not able to do. We–some of us perhaps, whose drives add up in particular, distinctive, idiosyncratic ways–do not strike the helpless, the old, the infirm, we do not refuse water to the thirsty, not because we want to do so, but because we cannot; the drive that would make us do so has been combated by another one–or by a combination of others, and it has been bested. The social hosannas heaped on us for our action–or inaction–may suggest to us the pleasing ‘fiction’ that we have ‘chosen correctly’ and that we have ‘acted rightly’; it perpetuates the notion of a unitary free will, which reaches into the various choices available to the agent and picks out one. And leads to further puzzles like those of self-destructive behavior.

O’Connor is not the first to suggest our selves are a dynamic multiplicity, of course, but the indication of morality as a kind of ‘inability’ is certainly noteworthy.

Fascism And The Problems With A ‘Glorious Past’

I grew up in India, a land of considerable antiquity with a long and rich history. All around me, there were monuments to this past; sometimes they were physical, tangible ones, like buildings built many years ago, or books that recounted tales of magnificent civilizations and fantastically accomplished cultures with their philosophy, art, music, sculpture. These tales of glory were disconcerting; I did not understand what my relationship to them was supposed to be. Should I be proud of them, even though I had done nothing to bring them about? Why was I, a spectator, and consumer of history, supposed to be ‘proud’ of this glorious past? Was there a causal relationship between past glory and present states of affairs? If there was, it hadn’t been demonstrated to me. Of course, as the implicit theory behind the recountings of the histories seemed to go, I was supposed to take ‘inspiration’ from these tales, and use them to sustain my imagination going forward; they would be the wind beneath my wings, raising me to further heights in my life, reassuring me I somehow had the right pedigree for any endeavor I chose to participate in. Somehow, mysteriously, that history was supposed to have suffused me with a sense of my self-worth, equipping me with the confidence I needed to venture forth.

The problem with this theory was that it didn’t quite work that way. Talk of a ‘glorious past’ seemed to produce instead, too much retrospective vision, and not enough attention to the here and now. It rendered the present ersatz and worthless; all that was good was already gone; the best we could do was look over our shoulders again and again, pining for times gone by. A magician who chanced upon us and sold us tickets on a time-machine would have found many eager buyers for his sales pitch. Away, away, from this cursed present; away to that land, whose contours, even if only partially visible, seemed so much more wondrous and beautiful than those to be found here. We have no time for present cares; our fates lie in the past.

These are symptoms of a disease no less pernicious than the one that Nietzsche diagnosed in religions that speak of deliverance in another world: they induce a nausea for this world, the one we have now. Religion enables priests who claim to offer us the keys to this magical realm; a glorious past enables fascists who promise they will take us back to that time, that place, stepping over all the bodies and principles that get in the way. We should not be surprised; nationalism has a great deal to answer for, and this endless nonsense about the provenance of the nation makes it especially dangerous.

Perhaps we should treat glorious pasts like we treat elapsed time. Gone, never to return, never to be revisited, lacking in any form of substantial reality when compared to the moment at present.

The Democratic Party Is Not Your Ally (Won’t Be; Never Has; Etc)

Here are some highlights of the stubborn, block-by-block, street-fighting resistance that the lionhearts in the Democratic Party are putting up in the face of an administration that these same worthies described as dangerous, a threat to American democracy, its values, and indeed, the very existence of this great republic: Senator Elizabeth Warren has voted for the utterly unqualified Ben Carson to be nominated Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; and fourteen Democrats have voted to support the nomination of pro-torture nominee Mike Pompeo to CIA Director. (We will soon see how other Democratic Senators vote during the Sessions confirmation hearings.)

I am baffled. Donald Trump is the most unpopular American president of all time–three million Americans ensured a little starting handicap in that race; the protests that greeted his inauguration were unprecedented; the activism directed against his presidency is visible and energetic. Why does the Democratic Party not take heed and devise a political strategy of maximum resistance too?

This question is made especially perplexing when we consider that a blueprint for success is staring the Democratic Party in the face: the Republican and Tea Party strategies used against the Obama administration over the past eight years. Now, that was some resistance, the kind that brawling partisans throughout history and all over the world could admire: relentless obstructionism, a refusal to give an inch of political ground, and a steadfast sticking to principles and values.  The scorched earth this tactic left behind ensured a derailing of most major Democratic Party initiatives, including the passage of a fatally compromised healthcare bill, which is now facing repealment. All the Democratic Party needs to do is run out the clock, using any and all parliamentary procedures possible, for the next two years. After that, the next election season will be upon us. (This sounds nihilistic and I’m afraid that on on revisiting this suggestion of mine, I’m inclined to agree. But unfortunately, this is the only strategy that will protect us, and our families, and our environment from the depredations of the Trump Administration. Knives, gun-fights, and all that.)

Of course, this will not happen. To see this, ask yourselves what political costs did Warren envisage incurring if she had voted ‘No’ on Carson’s hearing? The scorn of a political faction which considers her a dangerous enemy of finance and business, and which condones sneering references to her as ‘Pocahontas’? How did this match up–in her political calculus–versus the costs of voting ‘Yes’? (I ask these questions of Warren in particular because she appointed herself as the de-facto leader of a furious rhetorical assault on this incoming administration, and because so much progressive faith has been invested in her.) Perhaps not very substantially. And this is, of course, because of an important difference between the Republican and Democratic Parties: the former is committed to the ‘principles and values’ cited above, while the Democratic Party remains unsure, half-hearted, caught in constant vacillation, always sticking a wet finger in the wind to figure out a course of action. The barrage of phone calls, letters, emails, and social media campaigns that tell them their electorates have their back are simply not enough reassurance for this crew. They need dragging across the line, a burden that should not be taken on by those who have voted for them. They are not allies; they are a burden.