Donald Trump is engaged in a systematic effort to make the United States less powerful and less respected around the world. America is too great a country to be defeated and brought down by an outside power. Such damage can likely only be inflicted from within at the hands of a dangerous president, a feckless political party and their tens of millions of authoritarian followers.
President Barack Obama warned about this threat in his farewell address:
But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. … So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid. ISIL will try to kill innocent people. But they cannot defeat America unless we betray our Constitution and our principles in the fight. Rivals like Russia or China cannot match our influence around the world — unless we give up what we stand for and turn ourselves into just another big country that bullies smaller neighbors. Which brings me to my final point: Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.
Examples of the ways Trump is weakening America’s global position are numerous: He has threatened to withdraw the United States from NATO, nearly broke apart the G7 alliance at the recent Quebec summit, has effectively surrendered economic leadership across the Pacific region to China by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and has withdrawn from both the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Donald Trump’s administration has also shown a clear and obvious disdain for human rights. To that end, he has gone so far as to withdraw the United States from the UN Human Rights Council.
Donald Trump’s hostility to human rights and human dignity does not stop there. In an underreported but important story, several weeks ago the Trump administration launched an effort to remove any language from standard United Nations documents condemning racism as a threat to democracy.
Donald Trump’s white supremacist agenda is not limited to the United States. It is international.
Writing at CNN, Michelle Kosinski explains this extraordinary event, when a career foreign service officer named Andrew Veprek, who was rapidly promoted by the Trump administration to a senior State Department post, “disputed the idea that leaders have a ‘duty to condemn hate speech and incitement, and repeatedly rejected use of the words nationalism, populism, and xenophobia”:
“The drafters say ‘populism and nationalism’ as if these are dirty words,” wrote Andrew Veprek, the deputy assistant secretary for refugees and migration, in documents obtained exclusively by CNN. “There are millions of Americans who likely would describe themselves as adhering to these concepts. (Maybe even the President.). So are we looking to here condemn our fellow-citizens, those who pay our salaries?” …
Veprek also pushed to soften language about fighting racism and about racism in politics in his proposed amendments to a UN Human Rights Council resolution titled “The Incompatibility between Democracy and Racism” that is adopted without a vote, with much of the same language, every few years.
In response to one section that says national leaders have a responsibility to condemn hate speech, Veprek writes, “‘[d]uty to condemn’ goes too far. Our public figures can’t be obliged to police every intolerant thought out their [sic] at the risk of being condemned for intolerance themselves.”
Rob Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights under Obama, told CNN that Veprek’s changes seemed to reflect a feeling that “the UN language is targeted at the Trump administration, when it mentions racism in political circles. … Clearly, he is making these edits to reduce the power of the resolution, as relates to racism in politics.”
Veprek apparently also objected to language that said the UN remained “alarmed at the rise of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in political circles.”
“To refer to the ‘rise’ of racism resumes [sic] (1) there was some more innocent time when racism didn’t exist in the world; or (2) racism is increasing over some unspecified previous time,” Veprek wrote, as quoted by CNN. “Is there evidence for either of these assertions?”
There are several serious problems with the Trump administration’s effort to whitewash the UN language about racism and its relationship to human rights and healthy societies. First, as is common with Trump’s administration and the American right more generally, there is a deep disdain for empirical reality. This is especially true in discussions of the color line.
Contrary to Veprek’s claims, there is considerable evidence that racism is increasing in the US specifically and throughout the West more generally. Most notably, as evidenced by the election of openly racist candidates like Donald Trump to high office.
Structural violence persists and has expanded, with increasingly draconian and often punitive state-sponsored harassment directed against nonwhite immigrants and refugees throughout the Western world.
In the United States, police continue to kill assault, and harass innocent and unarmed black and brown people at disproportionate rates, as compared to whites. The racial wealth gap persists, and depending on how it is measured, is actually growing. It has been suggested that by 2053 the average net worth of African-American families will be zero.
There is also a coordinated effort by the Trump administration and the Republican Party in general to prevent black Americans and other nonwhites from voting, This is both part of a broader assault on civil rights and a means of locking down political power.
Trump and the Republican Party’s assault on the social safety will also disproportionately harm nonwhites. This too is a type of structural violence and racism.
Right-wing authoritarian movements based upon racism and nativism are threatening democracies around the world. In Europe and the United States this global movement has overtones of violence and views the Other — in particular, nonwhites and Muslims — as the enemy.
Public opinion and other research also shows a shift in mass opinion in Europe and America (especially among white conservatives and less educated people) toward more intolerant attitudes regarding nonwhites, immigrants and Muslims.
After the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust the United States assumed a global leadership role in advancing the cause of human rights. This was complicated by the harsh reality that the United States was a society where discrimination against African-Americans and other nonwhites remained commonplace. In the context of the Cold War and the global struggle against Soviet power and influence, Jim Crow American apartheid was a mark of shame which the Soviets exploited to their advantage to build alliances with revolutionary movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The foot soldiers and leaders in the black freedom struggle also highlighted this gross hypocrisy: How could a country that fought against Nazism and condemned the horrors of the Holocaust allow lynchings, racial violence and discrimination against its own citizens?
Mary Dudziak explores this theme in her book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy:
The lesson of this story was always that American democracy was a form of government that made the achievement of social justice possible, and that democratic change, however slow and gradual, was superior to dictatorial imposition. The story of race in America, used to compare democracy and communism, became an important Cold War narrative.
Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once observed that “the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. We are reminded over and over by some foreign newspapers and spokesmen, that our treatment of various minorities leaves much to be desired. … We will have better international relations when those reasons for suspicion and resentment have been removed.”
America’s more forward-thinking elites understood that if the United States was to defeat the Soviet Union and Communism abroad it would have to confront Jim and Jane Crow and other forms of white supremacy at home. Winning the Cold War, expanding and maintaining American hegemony required it.
Trump and his allies and supporters reject this legacy of American leadership. Their policies seek to undermine human rights both globally and within the United States. In all, the Trump presidency and Republican Party are overtly hostile to nonwhites around the world.
The United States (ostensibly) defended human and civil rights both abroad and at home as a means of defeating the Soviet Union. Now, some three decades after the Cold War ended, Donald Trump has embraced the Christian nationalism and racial authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It appears that Trump does not want the United States to be the world’s preeminent power but rather a country (and people) in the orbit of Russia. History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce — and in the case of Trump’s America, as tragedy once again.