“The way a government treats its refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.” Tony Benn
Populism and the Performance of Power
In week one of his new presidency, Donald Trump has embarked upon a shock and awe campaign on his country, as well as the rest of the world. His presidency has begun with a rapid fire of decisions and executive orders that make it clear that he intends to rule by decree, and without broad consultation – whether amongst his own party, government, the state, or allies across the world – in order to assert his leadership as a strongman who isn’t afraid to use the full might of the power vested in him.
To many observers, it appears as though the new president of the United States is unhinged, inexperienced, erratic and impulsive; that he is ruling from his gut, so to speak, firing in all directions hoping to hit a target somewhere. None of the series of ‘decrees’ issued by Donald Trump appear to have been thought out in any detail, especially with respect to; (1) their implementation by the state, (2) their impact on the citizenry, and (3) the impressions they convey to the international community regarding the competence of the new leadership of the US. In the rush to appear decisive and assertive, the new Trump administration has instead left many with the impression that that they are building the plane while flying at the same time; hardly an ideal image to convey as the leadership of the free world (okay; ‘free’ world).
Yet there may be some method in the madness that has escaped those concerned with adherence to due process, and the conventions of diplomacy and governance. It may be that this is simply a strategy to overwhelm critics of the new leadership and keep them off balance, reeling; unable to recover from the last hit well enough to deal with the next. It is typically how bullies proceed to dominate a conversation or interaction. In this case it is the popular political discourse that the Trump administration may be attempting to hijack. Simply put, it is a “catch me if you can” strategy; one that moves so fast that nobody can sufficiently interrogate each action that is taken, before the next descends upon them. Over time, this strategy it seeks to:
Polarise: First; that each new action receives a polarised reception where no middle ground can be achieved between supporters and detractors of the leadership in question. Simply put, there is insufficient time to adequately absorb and process the action, so it remains undecidable in the public imagination. It is not deeply interrogated. Rather it is subjected to a superficial analysis at best; one that does not get to the root of the matters that it claims to address i.e. by either side. In this vacuum, members of the public are able to choose the interpretation they prefer; without having to deal with any of the facts – or critical issues – that typically require lengthier engagements and thought processes. Keeping things blurry works in favour of those in power in this case; all they have to do is create uncertainty over their detractor’s views (or indeed, their characters). Even if uncertainty is created through propagating lies and half-truths, it remains effective enough to keep the supporters of the leadership on-side. When facts cease to matter, there is much to benefit those who have no use for them.
Overwhelm and distract: Second, it ensures that the public and media are so preoccupied with current events that they are in reality distracted from the more subtle actions that the leadership may be pushing through. When the public and media are lurching from crisis to crisis, there is scant attention paid to what may appear to be minor, more procedural decisions. For example, large infrastructure deals, that usually garner lots of attention and scrutiny, may be pushed through under the radar – so to speak – without adequate interrogation of the finer details that characterise these deals. This in turn may open up the space for nepotism and corruption on a large scale; especially on deals that are very difficult to roll back once they break ground or have progressed far enough.
Purge and assert control: Third, it ensures that the bureaucracies that rely on cooperation with the leadership in question are hit hard and fast enough to rid them of the bureaucrats and administrators that may tie the intended actions of the leadership into knots further down the line. Massive power resides within bureaucracies – i.e. whether the state, government or private sector – as they are the key avenues through which implementation occurs. By hitting them hard, and in rapid succession, they are quickly rid of their most principled and competent officials and agencies, who would enforce constitutional prerogatives and resist instructions that are ill-advised and insufficiently formulated. Bureaucracies need to be made compliant to authoritarian leaders and their leadership, and the best way to achieve this is to force a purge within them. Typically, the message that is conveyed to officials and bureaucrats – whether overtly or tacitly – is to “get with the program, or leave!” Indeed, the white house spokesperson has already clearly stated as much to the officials that took issue with the travel ban imposed on seven majority Muslim countries late last week.
All three of the abovementioned factors ensure that society and the public political discourse remains polarised and confused in the initial phases of the new leadership’s transfer of power. Unity is undesirable. Leaders may proclaim their desire for unity, but the reality is that they are acutely aware that they are facing large scale opposition and that those that are on their side are more important than their detractors. They are highly partisan, and resistant to yielding an inch of territory. They will not admit failure or error. When they do, it is merely a performance, and is often accompanied by a suitable caveat.
The key to obtaining cooperation from society at large, however, lies in capturing the bureaucracy and wielding far-reaching influence through it. When the cogs and wheels that society turns on is made sufficiently subservient and pliable to the new leadership, then it is only a matter of course before the new leadership gains control over society as a whole. It is for this reason that the assault on the bureaucracy will be more comprehensive and complete than all other measures that are taken by the new leadership. It understands that real power resides within the boring, procedural realm of the bureaucracy.
Yet when it comes to the public and ensuring popular support, the methods employed by leadership are more cynical. In this new political realm it is the performance of power that is more important than its effectiveness. Leadership needs to be seen to be taking action over critical issues more than it needs to be effective in resolving them. It need only make declarations, take token actions that appeal to the basest fears or prejudices of their electorate, and ameliorate their concerns superficially. Whether their concerns are actually dealt with accurately and effectively, is of little concern or consequence. It is the performance that is vastly more important than reality.
The Travel Ban
The Trump administration’s new travel ban is a case in point. Instead of bringing Americans together and unifying them by reassuring them that their shared values and concerns would be prioritised, it polarised supporters and detractors of the Trump leadership even more than before by subjecting them to a harsh attack that forced them to take sides and declare their positions early on. Once declared, they fumble around searching for arguments in favour of, or against it. There is no need for the facts to be on the table; merely having an opinion is regarded as sufficient. Moreover, polarisation itself soon becomes the basis for the formulation of individual and group opinion.
Whereas Donald Trump espoused nothing but derision towards the Obama presidency, he now conveniently invokes the Obama presidency's diagnosis of the seven potentially problematic countries – in terms of Islamist terrorism – as support for the travel ban. The facts, however, are clear. Since 1975, no immigrant (to the US) from any of these countries has committed a murderous act of terror that resulted in the death of any American on US soil. Rather, perpetrators from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Afghanistan have committed terrorist acts that resulted in American deaths. Strangely, these countries have not been subjected to the travel ban, or the “extreme vetting” that is purported to improve protection from terrorist attacks.
To date, no clear rationale or evidence has been presented for this executive order. Rather, the public and media are assured that the Trump administration are acting on intelligence that only they are privy to, and are taking drastic action exclusively in the public interest. This is a step further than the Bush administration went when claiming that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But it makes sense from this perspective; instead of presenting intelligence that can be subjected to broader scrutiny, it is much easier to say “trust us, we know what we’re doing!”
This also sends a clear message to the bureaucracy about how the Trump administration intends to govern. State bureaucracies are to be mere, unquestioning functionaries of implementation, and not active participants in policy formulation and planning. Officials who find the tone of the new leadership untenable had better start making other plans for their careers. Those within the bureaucracy, who are either ideologically aligned, or are opportunistic enough, will be emboldened to seek power within the bureaucracies. As was the case with Gauntanomo Bay, the emphasis will be on getting around constitutional restrictions and global conventions. Rather, the purging of institutions will ensure that if required, they will be willing to violate the very human rights principles that Western society claims as its foundation.
Indeed, if the intention is indeed to improve vetting procedures and ensure greater security, then why hasn’t this executive order been implemented in a calm, systematic manner where both society and its institutions are well-informed and equipped to take the necessary actions for improved vetting? Why the rush and compounded confusion? The answer is simple. Trump’s travel ban is designed to send a brash message out to US institutions, society and the rest of the world. It is the first push into the chest of all those who may oppose him. It is the action of a school yard bully. He wants to assert his authority, redefine the boundaries of his power and stun his opposition – and the undecided – into acquiescence. The subtext is, “I’m in power and you’d better get used to it!”
It matters little whether these direct, assertive actions are indeed effective or not, or whether they address the root causes of the problems that they are concerned with – rather, what matters most is their bluster. It is more a matter of making loud noises than solving problems. And it is precisely the furore that his bluster raises that has allowed the long list of other decrees, statements and actions – for example; repealing Obamacare, instating an abortion funding ban, escalating tensions with China, reactivating the Dakota Access Pipeline deal, establishing an inquiry into non-existent voter fraud, withdrawing critical UN Funding, moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, pushing out senior State Department officials, declaring that “torture absolutely works”, and issuing sweeping immigration policy that targets sanctuary cities, etc.[i] – to slip under the radar in week one.
Overwhelmed and distracted by a series of pivots, no matter how contradictory and inexplicable, the public debate over any single issue remains unresolved, and the media soon moves on the next act of the circus leaving the issue to simmer and dissolve away in the public memory. The trail of destruction left in the wake of this kind of leadership hence remains insufficiently challenged, in its brief moments of action, to be forced to back down or capitulate. It is left to the long, drawn out processes of the courts to hold power to account, by which time the damage has already been done.
Ultimately, embracing the performance of power over effective, directed policy and implementation may be good for entertainment and increasing the Trump administration's grip on power, but little else. Aside from an enormous waste of resources, it threatens to further entrench and reproduce the problem itself; as it serves as fodder for increased radicalisation. It may also create the conditions for unscrupulous actors to slip their agenda’s under the radar while the focus of the public and media are concentrated on the unfolding spectacle of performative power that daily reduces their lives as citizens to mere spectators of power. It is under these conditions that oligarchies take root, and elites entrench their interests. It is under these conditions that corrupt practices become normalised, even banal. It is also under these conditions that the seeds of new wars can be sown.
With great power comes great responsibility. Real power is not for show, it is for wise and considered leadership to guide society into the future. The task of leadership is to navigate uncertainty, not to create it. Abdication from this simple truth inevitably leads to decline. Power needs to be taken seriously by those who observe it and are subjected to it, as well as those who wield it. At the extreme end of this kind of power, one only needs to reflect on the nature of authoritarian leadership that has strangled regimes (such as North Korea, Zimbabwe, Libya under Gaddafi, etc.) to acknowledge the dangers of ruling through the performance of power, and the folly of conducting foreign policy through bluster. The kind of society that results from this kind of leadership becomes its own enemy; it undermines its own freedoms, rids itself of its best actors and ruins its capacity to embrace change and evolve towards what it most desires i.e. a society in which freedom co-exists comfortably with the responsibility for wielding it; one where power is held to account.
[i] For more comprehensive accounts of Trump week one, please see the following links: (1) http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/donald-trump-first-week, and (2) http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-first-week-as-president-2017-1.