Underestimating Donald Trump is a bad idea. People have been doing that for nearly two years now, and nothing good has come of it. It’s time to start understanding the method in his madness.
That’s the gist of a recent article by Jake Fuentes, posted to the open platform news site Medium with the intriguing title “The Immigration Ban is a Headfake, and We’re Falling For It.” It’s well worth your time to read in full.
Fuentes contrasts two competing narratives of the fiasco that unfolded when the Trump Administration sprung the executive order restricting US entry from seven majority-Muslim countries late on a Friday afternoon just a week after Trump’s inauguration. Theory A is that the Trump team is inexperienced, and all the bungling that resulted in repeated “refinements” of the original order will diminish once they settle into their groove (and assuming the 9th Circuit Appeals Court decides in their favor). Theory B is much darker: that Steve Bannon & Co. knew exactly what they were doing, and deliberately created more chaos than was necessary as a smokescreen to cover their tracks. Focusing media and protester hysteria on a few outrageous cases of innocent travelers detained or barred from entering the country (and dropping the suggestion that Christian refugees would be prioritized), they knew would ultimately be corrected lets their larger agenda of systemic change sneak forward unscathed.
Fuentes goes on to argue that the eruption of protests is playing right into the administration’s hand. “The protests themselves,” he argues, “did exactly what they were intended to: dominate the news cycle and channel opposition anger towards a relatively insignificant piece of the puzzle.” He’s not against protests, but calls them “falsely cathartic,” admonishing that
Protestors get all kinds of feel-good that they’re among fellow believers and standing up for what’s right, and they go home feeling like they’ve done their part. Even if protestors gain mild, symbolic concessions, the fact that their anger has an outlet is useful to the other side. Do protest, but be very wary of going home feeling like you’ve done your job. You haven’t.
One tidbit he might have mentioned: when the first violent anti-Trump protests broke out in Portland shortly following the election, a quick check of the records showed that a large majority of those arrested had not bothered to vote.
What does Fuentes recommend doing in addition to protesting? Somewhat self-servingly, he suggests we should “pay journalists to watch for the head fake.” Journalists like himself, I presume. Not a terrible idea, but in the same self-serving mode I would propose that we invest our money and our time with organizations like the American Humanist Association. AHA has been at this game for a long while now, and has learned more than a little bit about how to distinguish a head fake from an existential threat to humanist values.
Sixty years ago civil rights activists reminded themselves in song to ignore distractions and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” What’s the prize to keep our eyes on today? Here are a few suggestions:
Church schools: President Trump proposes to divert billions of your tax dollars away from public schools and toward parochial schools, where they will be used to brainwash millions of children that nonbelievers are terrible people—doing us incalculable long-term damage. (And yes, the Blaine Amendments that that ban the expenditure of public money on religiously affiliated schools are under threat.) “Educational choice” is the smokescreen; a financial bailout of struggling churches is what’s really going on. Given the chance, Americans in even the most conservative states vote against tax subsidies for religion. What’s needed is not violent protest, but a steady drumbeat of reminders to the politicians that their constituents do not want this, and that we are watching their every move like a hawk.
Campaign finance: As Matt Bulger described last week, Team Trump wants to upend the entire campaign finance system, making big donors an offer they cannot refuse: lucrative new tax benefits plus airtight anonymity. All they’ll have to do is route their contributions through churches, rather than making them directly to candidates or PACs. This will shift enormous political power to the gatekeeper churches—which is exactly what Trump promised them during the campaign: “Christianity will have power … because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else.” Yet polls show that the American people overwhelmingly do not want to hear political ads from their pulpits—even most pastors are against the idea.
Free expression: Trump’s tweet threatening to strip federal funding from UC-Berkeley because of protests against a Breitbart speaker may be the tip of a terrifically dangerous iceberg. There’s no doubt that the decline of religious power in the Western world over the past twenty years, especially among younger people, is directly related to the explosion of the availability of information on the Internet. Already, though, Trump has nominated as FCC chair a vehement opponent of the “net neutrality” regulations that guarantee us the free-wheeling Internet we enjoy today. In fact, one of Ajit Pai’s first acts was to shut down a program to provide subsidized Internet for the poor. The end of net neutrality and the concentration of control in the hands of a few giant corporations would not immediately destroy the Internet’s vitality, but it would be a giant step in that direction. We know that large segments of organized religion hate the current Internet, and with good reason—it undermines their pretensions. We know that former CIA director David Petraeus, after failing to land the secretary of state position, has been urging a strengthening of techniques to crack down on Internet jihadist recruiting that could just as easily be applied to messages the Christian right disapproves of. When eight states are already considering new legislation against protesters, you know that free expression on the Internet and elsewhere is threatened.
Here’s a scenario to ponder: the administration grows more and more outrageous. Protests grow more raucous and violent. Counter-protests develop, with bloody clashes between extremists becoming routine news fodder. And then… if you know much about Italy in the 1920s, Germany and Spain in the 1930s, Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, or Iran in the 1980s, you know what comes next. What’s needed now is calmly calculated opposition strategy from pros who know what they’re doing, not the hysteria our so-called president is anxious to foment.