As the world watches with uncertainty regarding what a Donald Trump presidency will bring, the media has been buzzing about appointments to Trump’s transition team as well as potential cabinet appointments. Below are some figures who may already be familiar to humanists, as well as some information about what the humanist community might expect from them after January 20, 2017.
Perhaps Trump’s most controversial pick, Stephen Bannon is the founder of the extreme conservative Breitbart News, the most widely read conservative news website charged with fostering the alt-right. According to the New York Times, he has called for, “an insurgent, center-right populist movement that is virulently anti-establishment, and it’s going to continue to hammer this city, both the progressive left and the institutional Republican Party.” In emails obtained by the Daily Beast, he stated that the purpose of Breitbart would be to “let the grassroots turn on the hate” to upend the Republican Party establishment. Even conservatives, again according to the New York Times, have criticized Breitbart under Bannon’s leadership as “a hate site steeped in misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism.”
Bannon is now in the running for Trump’s chief strategist and senior counsel. Since last week’s election results, there’s been some talk both from Democrats and Republicans about healing the divides within our nation. How we can heal with someone who actively engenders hatred toward anyone who isn’t a straight, cisgender, white man so close to the helm? Hatred, racism, sexism, and insurgency are the opposite of humanist values, and the humanist community should be alarmed that there is talk of giving Bannon such an influential position.
Unfortunately, the other picks for high level positions don’t get much better…
According to the Huffington Post, Myron Ebell, Trump’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition, is a climate change denier. He has close ties to the fossil fuel industry, and is the director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization funded by ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Koch Industries, American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and Murray Energy Corporation. Ebell also opposes the Paris Agreement, an extensive series of talks among world leaders about mitigating climate change.
Humanists value science and scientific truth over falsehoods that conveniently contribute to profits. According to NASA, there is clear scientific consensus on the reality of climate change and that human beings are causing this change. As humanists, we also know that we have a responsibility to our planet because it is all we have. Thus, we need to prepare ourselves for the coming administration and our need to advocate for climate justice. Many animal species are going extinct as rising sea levels destroy their habitats, and the inhabitants of island nations are threatened with flooding and displacement. Climate change is a crisis that humanist have long been aware of, and the crisis is reaching a tipping point. We don’t have time to waffle about whether climate change is even happening—it is.
Humanists are likely already familiar with Republican Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama. According to Roll Call Sessions has accused civil liberties organizations of being “un-American,” never mind the United States’ unparalleled regard for civil liberties and freedoms. Roll Call also notes that even within the Republican Party, Sessions has been seen as “fringe” and difficult to work with. Now he may become the next secretary of defense. Roll Call also notes, “Sessions is a favorite of Stormfront, the white-nationalist web community founded by former Klansman Don Black. His confirmation would reinforce Trump’s appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon to the top strategist’s role at the White House.” Sessions is also known for his opposition to the Violence Against Women Act and to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Sessions is likely best-known to humanists for his staunch opposition to the separation of church and state. In her book Opposing Censorship in the Public Schools¸ June Edwards quotes him as calling church/state separation “an extra-constitutional doctrine” that is “unhistorical and unconstitutional.” Our constitutional lawyers at the Appignani Humanist Legal Center would disagree. American Humanist Association Executive Director Roy Speckhardt has already detailed the concerning campaign promises Donald Trump has made that would set back the many gains for church/state separation that the humanist movement has long fought to achieve. Jeff Sessions in any leadership position within a Trump administration would be just as concerning to humanists because of his disregard for Jefferson’s wall.
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, perhaps most infamous for funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the popular Gawker website, may also be a leader in Trump’s transition team. Several major news sources say this is unlikely, though Thiel has indicated an interest in informally advising Trump. Some have called Thiel’s funding of the lawsuit against Gawker an assault on freedom of the press.
According to the Huffington Post, Thiel is also well-known for an essay he published in 2009 that, among other controversial claims, described giving women the right to vote as a “blow to democracy.” His main gripe about it seemed to be that women, as a constituency, were “notoriously tough” for libertarians to win over. In the essay, he also criticized Social Security and other New Deal-era social safety net programs. He also claimed that “democracy and freedom are not compatible.”
Humanists may not agree on everything. (There’s a joke about putting three humanists in a room together and getting four opinions on an issue.) However, humanists derive our principles from the Enlightenment, and we see democracy as essential to fostering freedom and civil liberties, rather than tamping it down. The idea that a man who has criticized this very foundation of our government might have the president-elect’s ear should, if nothing else, be a wake-up call to humanists that this new administration will signal a significant shift in how our politics are conducted.
Some of these possible appointments may not come to pass. (The New York Times reports that the Trump transition team is currently undergoing something of a shake-up.) However, that some of these individuals would even be considered for such powerful positions in government should alarm the humanist community and spur us to stand with the wider progressive community to protect our values. We must demonstrate, no longer with just words but also with actions, that we truly are allies for people of color, the LGBTQ community, and women. We should remember our movement’s working class roots. We must be on guard and we must be vigilant. We must vocally, though peacefully, make our opposition known, and we must continue to advocate, now more strongly than ever, for the civil liberties, freedoms, and basic human rights that we cherish.