Trump's Muslim ban is the first step in a great unravelling of America
Donald Trump has had a good week. The so-called Muslim travel ban has been “a massive success” , said a White House official. He was right.
The utter chaos of the past few days; the awful symbolism of banning Muslims from the United States on the same day as International Holocaust Remembrance Day; the astonishing vision of a country that explicitly styles itself as offering a “golden door” to those fleeing persecution shutting that door on every single one of those affected by the greatest humanitarian disaster of this century; the haunting photos of families being led away by officers obeying orders from above – all of this leaves the overwhelming impression that America has entered a new era.
For Mr Trump that is a significant success. This is where the voluminous criticism of Mr Trump’s executive orders misunderstands how it is perceived by his most committed supporters. Because Mr Trump is set on winning hearts and minds, but not of those who took to the streets and airports of America to protest.
Look at it from the perspective of those who voted for Mr Trump to shake up an unfair, sclerotic system. For them, the power of America has been restored: with the stroke of a pen, the man they believe governs in their image has created waves across the world.
Men and women, whether doctors or drivers, have been stopped from studying, working and travelling, simply because of their faith. This greatly suits the world view of those who feel that it is their birthright to have certain things – a job, a certain standard of living, a sense that the country belongs to them – and are pleased to see a ruling that distinguishes based on birth, not on effort or education.
Moreover, a new standard has been set. The establishment is outraged and many of those whom Mr Trump’s supporters consider liberals are protesting impotently; foreigners around the world are angry. His supporters will say: good.
Whatever comes next, Mr Trump will feel he has satisfied their desire for change, for the system to be torn down, for the undeserving to be pushed back into their places. The cost to the US, to its values, to its place in the world, to carefully built political edifices and the work of decades is irrelevant.
The anger of his supporters is not unusual. It is very much the story of our age. There is a thread that connects the dots between seemingly disparate events – between the uprisings of the Arab Spring, the rise of populism, both left- and right-wing across the West, the retrenchment of authoritarianism in many countries. There is an anger raging below the surface in many societies, seeking an outlet, waiting for a spark.
In the United States, many see that as the backdrop to Mr Trump’s election – the “whitelash”, as it has been dubbed. The more hopeful believed that Mr Trump merely rode to power on the coattails of this anger and once in power would temper his campaign rhetoric. That hope is now retreating.
I remain unconvinced that the anger will dissipate at all. On the contrary, we are just at the beginning. The anger that lies beneath the surface of America is pushing out through the country’s pores and onto its streets. It was there in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is there in the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism that now carries an official imprimatur. It is there in the attitudes towards women, African-Americans and Latinos.
Sometimes that anger is crushed, as with the Occupy movement. Sometimes it simply fizzles out, as with those who supported Bernie Sanders. But sometimes it is succoured, supported and finds its way into policy.
This is where politicians get confused, carried away by their own self-belief. There is always a dance between politicians and the public. Once in power, politicians seek to stem the tide, to control it. But too often it influences them. Sometimes it overwhelms them.
This ban, then, is just the start of things to come. There is a great unravelling taking place across the world. Around the world, systems, rules and norms that have held sway for decades are collapsing. Individuals, countries and groups are simply ignoring them or actively challenging them.
In merely the past few years, powerful countries and groups have challenged rules on territorial integrity (Russia), on spying (the US), on industrial espionage (China), on religious rulings (ISIL). In each case, these groups refuse to be bound by the rules of a system they are part of.
In every case, those violations have come with popular support, whether couched in support for national security, patriotism or faith.
And it is that support that lies at the heart of this great unravelling. Because there is an exhilaration to bringing down the system, a euphoria attached to breaking the rules. There is a human instinct that seeks out the shadows, simply to see what lives there.
But the fabric of civilisation, of laws and rules, of norms and words and facts is just that: a fabric. It is thin. As long as it covers us all, it works, but once tears appear in it, the whole edifice can rapidly collapse.
We are living through one of the most dramatic periods of the past decades. And we are nowhere near the peak.
“We are the people of England and we have not spoken yet,” wrote the English poet G K Chesterton. The “secret peoples” of his poem are speaking now, across the world, and the people in power are being swept along by their words.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: January 30, 2017 04:00 AM