When MP’s in the UK Parliament held an emergency meeting to debate the travel ban contained in Donald Trump’s Executive Order of 27 January, the language and tone of the ministers were unmistakable. They pounded Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with questions about what Prime Minister Theresa May knew about the Order and when, and Johnson fought back with his trademarked oafish eloquence insisting that the Labour party was trying to ‘demonize’ Mr. Trump. That the benches of Parliament were nearly united across party lines during the debate was glossed over by the Foreign Secretary, as he is wont to do when confronted with unpleasant realities. Indeed, he left the meeting smugly satisfied that allowing Donald Trump’s invitation to a state visit to stand was justified because, ‘we’ve invited worse.'
Throughout the course of those questions, Johnson ducked punches and repeated misleading statements (no, the travel ban is not the same as the 2011 Obama policy on Iraqi Special Immigrant Visas and refugees), and while MP’s were spirited and scathing, they could not back him into a corner. I watched from the comfort of my couch and waited for someone to finally ask:
“Mr. Right Honourable Secretary, can you be sure that this Order is not the start of something much bigger, and much more threatening to the rest of the world? Can you say with absolute confidence that this order affecting citizens of seven states is not the beginning of a much more nefarious worldview?”
Because that is what we all fear, isn’t it? We fear that we’re looking at the sun rising over a new Reich and we’re watching as heads of state stand idly by and allow it to happen. It’s not a coincidence that the UK Prime Minister is being labeled “Theresa the Appeaser” or that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn deftly announced, “I hold in my hand a piece of paper” while addressing May during the Prime Minister’s Questions. The allusions to Neville Chamberlain are rife, and they are provocative: if Donald Trump is treated like a conventional leader instead of an authoritarian menace, won’t it be us on the losing side of history, yet again? If we don’t put a stop to the actions of an ‘unstable’ president, aren’t we allowing him to flourish in the face of our often repeated choruses of ‘Never Again’?
Yes and No. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I grew up in an Italian and Irish immigrant family of labour union members and dyed in the wool Democrats- so much so that my father voted for John Anderson in 1980 rather than Ronald Reagan, when Jimmy Carter’s presidency was clearly destined to be one term. I also grew up in New York and watched as Donald Trump the real estate developer carved out swathes of the city in audacious projects that evicted low-income families not very different from my own and set the stage for a fetishistic revanchism that has made New York virtually unrecognizable to me. What MP’s in the United Kingdom are debating right now is nothing new to me or millions of others; if they worry about being on the wrong side of history, they can join the legions of the rest of us who are still struggling to believe how our local boogeyman has become a global force.
Having said that, the constant needling and fear that appeasement or normalization of the Trump/Bannon discourse (because let’s be frank, we all know from where this comes) will lead to a totalitarian regime is problematic at the state level. For state actors and representatives, evoking the fear of fascism onto the Trump administration will not succeed in overcoming their vision of a world order. Sounding the alarm bells of appeasement will not create the political climate that is necessary to bend the Trump doctrine into the acceptable parameters of liberal internationalism, because it will only affirm the Messiah Complex that drives the Trump administration to eschew the international norms of whose existence they are fully aware. Isolate them and force them to go it alone, and they will gladly do so, and go to the lengths of the earth to prove you wrong.
Indeed, normalization and appeasement as tactics in negotiation can be employed to some good ends, and may even create a positive outcome to reduce the threat perception by one party from another or others. Simply put and to use the example at hand, if Donald Trump is received as a political leader by other political leaders and treated as an equal, he will be forced to act like one. To some extent, political leaders must normalize the Trump presidency in order to allow him to join the conversation happening at the elite level. Because like it or not, he is now an elite decision maker, and he must be called to task as such. Marginalizing him in the global political order allows him to continue perpetuating the narrative that he is an outsider, and absolves him from having to engage in the complex processes of which he is now an integral part.
Now, if he decides to declare war or launch an invasion onto foreign soil, there should be no hesitation by world leaders to condemn and avoid this calamity. But that is precisely the point: if political leaders cannot manage to engage him now, how will they do so when it becomes an existential threat? This is not to minimize the impact of the Executive Order and ensuing travel bans, but it is to draw a very clear line between a deeply problematic policy shift and a step-level increase in international hostility. If we fail to see the difference, we fail to stop it from becoming an inevitability.
Moreover, the task of treating Donald Trump as a member of the international community with responsibilities to his allies is not insurmountable, nor is it tantamount to a Faustian deal with the devil. It is well worth bearing in mind the different responses to the Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”: Theresa May refused to answer questions about the ban, and when she finally did, a petition to revoke the invitation for a state visit had already surpassed one million signatures. Angela Merkel expressed her disagreement with the Order, and explained to the American president that the terms of the Geneva Refugee Convention oblige signatories to take in refugees from war on humanitarian grounds. One leader shied away from comment for fear of angering an ally, another reminded him of what his obligations as president meant. It is no coincidence that Angela Merkel is now being touted as the leader of the free world.
This does not, however, mean that civil society groups or individuals should shy away from expressing their anger, their frustration, and their fear at the Trump administration. Indeed, it is even more important that this culture becomes more organized, more targeted, and more cohesive. For a democracy to thrive, there must be an active civil society that expresses its frustration and demands change through the exertion of pressure on its representatives. And it’s working: Republican congresspeople admit to ‘being hammered’ by their constituencies in the wake of the Executive Order tsunami, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down from Trumps advisory board after a boycott of the ride-sharing service he operates went viral because of their perceived lack of support for airport protests to the Executive Order, Silicon Valley leaders have begun to organize PAC’s to fight for progressive policies and candidates, and the ACLU has raised six times as much money online than it usually gets in a year. The outrage against orders that are not only illegal but are demeaning, cruel and frankly ineffective is being expressed in tangible ways that will force governments and leaders to be held accountable for their decisions, and that is a stunning achievement.
But now, political actors must do the thing that they have been appointed to do: they must find a way to make Donald Trump into a politician, to decode his ego and take him to task in their arena. They must be better at their jobs, and force him to be better at his. Donald Trump wanted a seat at the table, and whether we like it or not, he’s got one. It is for us in civil society to channel our frustrations into coherent platforms for combatting the next order, the next ban, the next shock. It is for other politicians to be an example of what it means to be an effective leader. If they cannot manage that, appeasement will be the least of their problems.