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Laith Saud

Trump's media strategy is exploiting the Left's weaknesses

Trump signs three orders on withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 January, 2017

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Comment: Trump is using his policies to break a fragile alliance on the Left, forcing them to prioritise certain issues at the expense of others, writes Laith Saud.

Donald Trump's first week as President has proven to be tumultuous, dizzying and strangely shocking. 

Yes, Trump promised to do the things he has ordered; he promised to ban Muslims, build a wall, cut funding for women's care centers - but the speed and arrogance by which he executed these orders raises questions.

Let's answer the questions by working backwards: We are no longer discussing the Women's March, an impressive display of organizing. We are no longer discussing Russia's possible interference in Trump's election (i.e. his legitimacy) and we have not even begun to discuss his commitment to deregulate the economy. 

Yes, Trump's Executive Order Assault is doing exactly what it is intended to do, overwhelm media and activists, while burdening the nascent unity on the Left.

Amplifying the tone of the campaign (and putting it on repeat)

Trump's election victory was predicated on structures that were developed under the presidencies of Bush and Obama. During those presidencies, certain constituencies on the Right were closed off from the mainstream media loop. 

They came to see the media as partisan, liberal and elite; no longer 'in touch' with middle class America. These constituencies plugged into subaltern media circles that shaped and, in turn, spoke to their 'fears'. These fears - again produced under the Bush administration and exploited (by conservatives) during the Obama years - were fears of Muslims and the supposed decline of "White-Christian" values. 

But the media has certain structures that Trump is far better at exploiting than most

Whereas most Republicans flirted with these fears, Trump embraced them and rode them to the White House. Before even taking office, he designated Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist to the President; Bannon is a master of white nationalist media and his expertise is on full display in the first weeks of Trump's presidency.

I initially thought that Trump would back off some of his more ridiculous promises as soon as he took office. I figured he would hold on to his more bigoted promises for later use, say for reelection, or to occupy the media during an inevitable scandal. 

  Read More: Obama hands Trump a toolkit for eroding civil liberties

It turns out, Trump's entire presidency is a scandal and in order to execute his goals he, along the lines of Bannon's strategic thinking, is dividing the American population against itself. This strategy worked during the election and now, rather than toning it down, he is amplifying it and putting it on repeat. 

As I mentioned before, the disastrous circumstances accompanying Trump's inauguration have been all but forgotten in a matter of a few days. The Women's March, notwithstanding certain valid critiques, was a robust display of organising, but now seems a distant memory. 

As one colleague told me, "Trump has been in office a week and it feels like a year." Indeed. Now, if we project forward what we have seen backward, we can assume Trump's political strategy is constantly a media strategy. 

Trump promised a "Muslim Ban" and ordered one. The media has responded predictably (and appropriately?), fixating on a ban that is controversial, involving race, religion and discrimination.

Trump seems to understand the Left better than the Left understands itself

But the media has certain structures that Trump is far better at exploiting than most. Journalism requires debate and investigation. If something is newsworthy than it must be debated and dissected. So now we debate whether the order is "really" a "Muslim ban" or a "sensible ban" to "protect Americans".

Are the "correct" countries on the list or should we ban "other" countries? And of course, the tried and true talking point Trump wishes to push is "who's against vetting anyway?" Because who can argue with that?

In the meanwhile, many other orders and memoranda are not being discussed that include de-regulation, the Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines and the Mexico City Policy. He has the media wrapped around his little finger, no pun intended.

Breaking the Left

Another impressive feature of Trump's political acumen is he seems to understand the Left better than the Left understands itself. 

The Left's heart is in the correct place, but it still lacks a head

Yes, comradery amongst folks on the Left has been pretty high lately, but the Left still lacks institutional integration.  The base of the Republican Party, as I have argued before, is institutionally integrated.

The people who make up this base go to Church together, play golf together and send their kids to soccer practice together; they re-enforce in one another a world-view and certain values. No such integration exists on the Left, regardless of the sloganeering of its most prominent activists. 

  Read More: Trump's #MuslimBan only possible thanks to Bush and Obama

The Left's heart is in the correct place, but it still lacks a head. Disparate groups of marginalised peoples have collectively shouted "no!" to inadequate democracy, but beyond that, these alliances, recognised by shared wounds, are still congealing. A philosophical movement, rooted in the underlying principles of democratisation is not there.

Rather, the Left has assembled a list of grievances, abuses and injustices that activists are still trying to prioritise, involving: Native-Americans, African-Americans, Muslims in America and abroad, women's rights and the environment. 

I can already feel some leftists cringing at my list, wishing it went from women to Native Americans or from Muslims to African Americans. Still others will criticise listing African-Americans and Muslims separately, because 30 percent of Muslims in America are of African descent. 

Everyone is too polite to admit that the Left cannot even agree to an identity

But of course women can be black and Muslim, so this critique comes into play. And of course, we should all care about the environment. Yes, I get it. But do you see the problem? Trust me, Trump does.    

Everyone is too polite to admit that the Left cannot even agree to an identity by which to liberate the various identities that folks on the Left swear are the keys to liberation. Trump is using his policies to break this fragile alliance, forcing the opposition to prioritise certain issues at the expense of others. 

If efforts are mobilised to defeat the Muslim ban, we risk ignoring Trump's deregulation. If we focus on deregulation, we risk normalising racism and discrimination in American politics even further. This is the strategy at play and in the coming weeks and months, activists and intellectuals must keep it in mind if they wish to succeed against the challenges currently being assailed against them.


Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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