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The “grown-ups” in Trump's White House have been exposed as cowards

Their ongoing presence is complicity in the president's high crimes and misdemeanours. 

Do they have no shame? On 15 August, Donald Trump stood in the lobby of his eponymous tower in New York and heaped praise on racists, bigots and fascists. There were, Trump averred, “very fine people” among the group of neo-Nazi marchers who had spent the previous Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

The president’s remarks should have come as no surprise to anyone with even a passing familiarity with his life story. Trump has a long and well-documented history of racism, nativism and xenophobia: from refusing to rent his father’s apartments to black families in Queens, New York; to reportedly keeping a book of Hitler’s speeches in his bedside cabinet; to repeatedly questioning the citizenship of the first black president of the United States.

Yet what of his colleagues, who stood silently by as their boss went off the rails. What happened to their moral core? To their intolerance of bigotry or, more accurately, Nazi apologists? Lest we forget, at his Trump Tower press conference the president was flanked by three senior members of his administration: his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and transportation secretary Elaine Chao.

Mnuchin and Cohn are Jewish; Chao is an immigrant from Taiwan. Why did all three of them not tender their resignations that very evening? How can they justify staying on as employees of a president who gives aid and comfort to white nationalists and Hitler wannabes? Is it basic ethics that they lack? Or a backbone? Or both?

Consider some of the rather self-serving headlines that have appeared in the press since the president’s press conference: “Trump aides agonize over their futures in a reeling White House” (Bloomberg); “WH aides squirm at Trump’s words” (Politico); “Trump’s crisis spurs talk of White House departures” (Reuters).

Yet despite all this “talk” of “departures”, there haven’t actually been any. To be clear: the entire membership of the president’s committee on the arts and the humanities stood down en masse; a string of chief executives left the president’s business advisory council, forcing Trump to disband it; even a prominent member of the ultra-loyal evangelical advisory board quit over Trump’s remarks in New York. Not a single member of the Trump White House or Trump cabinet, however, has resigned.

Cohn briefed reporters that he was “disgusted” and “upset” with the president, but he didn’t quit. More than 300 of Mnuchin’s former Yale University peers published an open letter urging him “as our friend, our classmate” to resign “in protest of President Trump’s support of Nazism and white supremacy”.

Mnuchin’s response? To issue a statement defending the president, claiming Trump “in no way, shape or form” equates neo-Nazis with peaceful protesters. (He does.)

This is moral cowardice, plain and simple. You would expect the nationalists, aka Crazies, in the White House – the likes of Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka and, up until his sacking on 18 August, Steve Bannon – to be loud and loyal defenders of Trump’s belligerent bigotry. You would also expect White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (or “Javanka” as Bannon is said to have dismissively dubbed them) to stick with the president, no matter how much they may disagree with his rhetoric in private. They’re family, after all.

Yet what of the globalists, aka the Grown-Ups, around Trump? The finance guys such as Mnuchin, Cohn and former ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson at the state department? And the generals – national security adviser HR McMaster, defence secretary James Mattis and the new White House chief of staff John Kelly? What’s their excuse for staying on?

With the departure of Bannon, and rumours that Gorka is not long for the White House either, the Crazies may be losing influence over the president. But what does it matter if the Grown-Ups left behind are either unable or unwilling to blunt Trump’s worst instincts? The truth is it is near impossible to restrain or moderate him.

Where were Mattis or McMaster when Trump was tweeting that he would bar transgender people from serving openly in the military? Where was Kelly when the president approvingly tweeted a (fake) story about a US general who committed war crimes against Muslim prisoners? “Like all people who work for the president,” noted the Washington Post, “[Kelly] has since experienced the limits of the president’s promises to co-operate in order to ensure the success of the enterprise.”

Who would have guessed that the leaders of corporate America would have a better sense of morality, and a stronger conscience, than a trio of generals who claim to value honour, integrity and codes of conduct? That the boss of Walmart would be more disturbed by the president’s praise-filled remarks for modern-day Brownshirts than the two Jewish advisers who were standing right next to him as he spoke?

This terrible silence from the Grown-Ups in the Trump administration can only be described as acquiescence in Trump’s awfulness; their ongoing presence in the White House, at the Pentagon or the state department is complicity in Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanours.

The longer they stay at Trump’s side, however, the quicker their reputations will turn to mud. History will judge these alleged Grown-Ups as cowards, maybe as opportunists too; above all else, as enablers of a president who openly incited Islamophobia and transphobia and failed to denounce unequivocally anti-Semitism and neo-Nazis.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist