Words Matter

Listening to Steve Bannon on stage at CPAC last week was a painful but necessary way to get in touch with what the Trump White House has on its collective mind.

Moderates are alarmed at the expressed hostility to a free press, but may entirely overlook the still more sinister sub-text. When Bannon railed against the “globalist and corporate media” he was drawing on language that the far, far right “Nazi” fringe understands is anti-semitic.

Under Bannon’s thumb, “America First” has become a favorite slogan of Trump accolades, a direct descendent of the same phrase used by Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh before the U.S. entered WWII.

Later at CPAC, Donald Trump doubled down on the dread in his own anti-media speech in which he ominously suggested that he is going to “do something” about media outlets that are at odds with his preferred narrative.

Excluding the New York Times, CNN, Politico and others from a press “gaggle” at the White House on Friday afternoon, may indeed represent the opening salvo in delivery on his threat.

Trump has repeatedly referred to the media as “the Enemy of the People.” When challenged, he says he is only referring to the “fake news” media; but then he lists among those who promulgate “fake news,” sources like the New York Times and Washington Post that have a sterling reputation for accountability and pointedly praises the most questionable outlets which justhappen to have a bias in his favor.

A great piece in the New York Times takes a closer look at this “Enemy of the People” phrase, tracing it to legendary Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Post-Stalin, even hardliners like Kruschev avoided the phrase, recognizing it as a bridge too far.

Russian scholar Mitchell A. Orenstein points out that Donald Trump seems to deliberately repeat this kind of Soviet era language because it inflames his supporters as it renders the words meaningless for opposition purposes:

“He is only alienating them, and they are the people he wants to alienate anyway,” Mr. Orenstein continued. “His base sees comparisons with Stalin as just more evidence of the liberal mainstream media going haywire.”

Moreover, by using such a loaded term in such a cavalier fashion, the president “is in the process of rendering it meaningless,” Mr. Orenstein said. “It becomes just na-na-na-na-na,” he added, because nobody really thinks Mr. Trump will bring back the guillotine.

Returning to Bannon’s CPAC speech, he used the term “economic nationalism,” and that, too, merits deconstruction for all it may portend. An excellent article in the Washington Post examines the practical economic consequences of pursuing a course of economic nationalism. When taken to it’s logical conclusion, with all the deregulation and protectionism Trump would like to impose, the policy favors sectors that can prosper in global isolation. Sectors like fossil fuel energy and housing become “winners,” while others like tech and higher education are the losers. The result would be a dumbed-down America, fed on “alternative facts” and ripe for the kind of third-world political chaos that Bannon would dearly love to see.

But for those like Donald Trump who have no patience with book learnin’ and studied history, “economic nationalism” sounds superficially like a good thing. The fact that “nationalism” has long been code for the racist/xenophobic view of “us over them,” lifted straight out of the Third Reich’s playbook, means nothing to them.

Focussing on the “economic” preface to Bannon’s nationalism pretty much misses the point.

Like “white nationalism,” “economic nationalism” seeks a new world order in which the interests of a single homogenous group are placed above the well-being of everyone else, eschewing any moral or ethical responsibility for the greater good. Efforts at shutting down immigration, deportation and suppressing the minority vote, which are also on the agenda of the Bannon/Trump world order, serve to further isolate and elevate the privileged population.

“Nationalism” of any kind is not to be confused with patriotism, which is love of country. Nationalism is an expression of contempt for the rights and interests of any people other than those who are recognized as belonging to the dominant population, whether it addresses exclusion as a cultural or a national matter.

It’s as if this administration is, through its choice of isolationist language, pulling up the drawbridge on diversity and intellectual growth. Mr. Trump perhaps forgets how much our economic prosperity was built on risk taking, immigrant ingenuity and a open-armed national persona.

If Trump has his way, America is about to get a lot smaller, colder and poorer.

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

6 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Sue:

    You’ve covered a lot of ground pretty quickly and facilely here.

    I’m going to take issue with just one particular point, but I suspect there’d be many more I’d have quibbles about: “Sectors like fossil fuel energy and housing become “winners” ….”

    I don’t think that’s what would happen at all; in fact, my guess would be just the opposite.

    If Trump could effectively seals off the borders (and it’s worth noting that’s a BIG “if”), then by hypothesis, the US stops exporting fossil fuels. US domestic demand is already in decline. Part of what is propping up the coal industry is foreign demand. No exports to China (and India?) means less production at home.

    Similarly, the oil and natural gas industries won a major victory when the export ban was lifted, because exports allow domestic prices to rise to the level of world prices. An economically isolated US would be restricted to US demand only.

    Moreover, in such a scenario, US aggregate demand in general would be likely to decline: trade actually boosts economic activity. I know a lot of folks are talking about how Trump’s going to spur economic growth, but in a word, it’s bull.

    The fossil fuel industries are likely to end up BIG losers in this scenario, all the more so as wind and solar become competitive without subsidies.

  2. I think your beef may be with the Washington Post’s assessment of economic nationalism.

    I agree that fossil fuel industries are likely to end up the big losers, but probably not before a whole lot more damage is done in the current deregulation environment.

    I also suspect that Trump’s policies will negatively impact our advancement of wind and solar innovation. Of course, other countries will continue that progress so that, ultimately, fossil fuels will become the ‘dinosaurs’ rather than the other way around.
    Sadly, unless Trump’s policies are quickly cancelled by a Democratic insurgency, the U.S. is unlikely to remain a leader in wind and solar.

    We’ll just continue to burn our way to oblivion.

  3. By the way, I do agree that our trade agreements have sacrificed some national interests for global corporate ones; but I do not believe we can do without them entirely.

    We need better protections for the American worker in our trade agreements, and better standards for labor in foreign markets. It is possible to craft a FAIR but free trade agreement if all parties recognize the greater wisdom in that approach.

  4. Sue,

    Let me clarify my previous remark this way: I have no “beef” with anyone. I am pursuing the hypothesis your article proposed, which I quoted above. Perhaps, I should have quoted a bit more of it earlier, but I thought I was clear enough.

    In any case, in my own words, the hypothesis is this: fossil fuel industries would benefit from the US pursuing a policy of economic isolationism.

    1) In my view, that hypothesis is counterfactual: that is, despite what Trump has said, the US will not isolate itself economically. But in my remarks above, I merely assumed the premise, and took issue with the results.

    2) My remarks had nothing to do with WHOSE hypothesis it is or whether it’s likely. As a thought experiment, I’m saying that such a policy would NOT benefit the fossil fuel sector; it would harm it. I stand by that, for the reasons stated.

    3) While it is correct to note, as you now do, that Trump is pursuing a variety of harmful environmental policies intended to benefit the fossil fuel sector as well, that is a DIFFERENT issue, having no relationship that I can see to economic isolationism hypothesis.

    For example, the modern Republican Party has been angling for regulatory changes like those Trump is making since Ronald Reagan (and perhaps before), BUT the majority of Republican politicians OPPOSE economic isolationism and support both globalization in general and free trade agreements in particular. So it is totally possible to do both.

    Any damage you assert in your reply to me (“…not before a whole lot more damage is done in the current deregulation environment”) would result from the regulatory changes, NOT from economic isolation. I am suggesting here that is a new and different issue from the one I previously discussed.

    4) Depending on how literally we take the notion of economic isolationism, your proposition that “Trump’s policies will negatively impact our advancement of wind and solar” is probably true, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. I specifically left off the word “innovation,” because much of the innovation in these industries comes from the US anyway. BUT, much of the production comes from abroad. If Trump really succeeded in cutting us off, we would lose access to cheap solar panels, Vestas wind turbines, etc. And yes, of course that WOULD be a setback to those industries.

    I want to return for a moment to point 3 outside of the context of the economic isolation hypothesis. As I noted, there are 2 policies at play, and Trump is already busily pursuing one of them\. He IS de-regulating fossil fuels wherever he can by executive order (and by his appointments). Since no economic isolation has kicked in so far anyway, both fossil fuel exports and aggregate domestic demand remain higher than they would be if the isolationist policies were to be implemented. So the damage IS being done and is real. It’s just not related to the isolationist hypothesis.

    Finally, I want to address your 2 additional remarks. Although this is not the place to do so in any detail, it’s incredibly important to distinguish between economic isolation and what would happen if the US stops making (or even withdrew from) various “free trade” agreements. Trade would not stop. Globalization would not stop. Despite what Trump says, businesses would still take production to wherever their costs were lowest overall. Free trade agreements cannot and do not make the difference between paying workers dollars per day abroad versus dollars per hour at home. To counter THAT differential, you need to construct real, enforceable legal barriers, not just eliminate “free trade” agreements. Doing so could also impoverish vast segments of the world’s population; hundreds of millions of Chinese are no longer living in poverty thanks to China’s export economy, which by definition depends on trade.

    I keep putting “free trade” in quotes because that’s how these agreements are sold, not what they actually do. To be blunt, the arguments we have in this country about trade are almost completely divorced from the reality of the world’s economic trading system.

    I agree with you that we will need agreements if we want to put a halt to the “natural” economic progression towards the lowest possible wages and least attention paid to the environment. Corporations won’t do either on their own; they will pursue the race to the bottom. But that’s a whole different issue than the one I raised initially.

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