Trump And The World

Post-Midterms: Washington Cocktails And Balkan Philosophy

Thumbs down, actually.
Thumbs down, actually.

WASHINGTON — On the night of the midterm elections, my wife and I organized an open house, inviting friends and people from all walks of life to watch the results. The TV was on, but instead of staring at the screen and following the constant predictions of electoral victories and losses, people were interacting and getting to know each other. There was practically no mention of politics during the party, as the people in the room were evidently oversaturated with political debate. Around midnight, I think, one person announced that the Democrats had won the House, but that — he opined — Trump had won the elections.

As Bret Stephens wrote in the New York Times, "The result of the midterms means, if nothing else, that the president survived his first major political test more than adequately. And unless Democrats change, he should be seen as the odds-on favorite to win in 2020." His rhetorical escalation is impressive, namely because it hasn't ruined him. How many in 2016 thought that Donald Trump would be a catalyst of change, that his reckless, out-of-the-box thinking might create a disruption that would force Democrats to look into the eyes of that beast of a world we live in?

Slavoj Žižek, in this interview, says that the problem of today's America is not Trump, but the facile opposition of the Democrats. The controversial Slovenian philosopher explains his placing the blame on the Democrats, as well as the world's center-left coalitions, by claiming they've lost contact with working people, leading to the disintegration of the welfare state. Here was the crack in a society that Trump took advantage of.

The size of Trump's ignorance and greed is incredible, monstrous.

Žižek says the point is not that Trump is a walking caricature: It's the inability of the center-left to ask and answer fundamental questions which should focus on how we cope with the global power of capital. In short, the incapacity of the center-left political class to articulate the issues that derive, yes, from the might of global capital, and consequently from the exponential growth and impact of technology on our lives, causing job loss, climate change and so many of our contemporary crises.

These questions remain unanswered and largely untackled or ignored, and they are looming in the darkness of our human existence. People like Trump and Steve Bannon are unconcerned with such long-term concerns, preferring to take the easy way out. They flee into the past, cutting ties with everything associative, global and challenging. The size of Trump's ignorance and greed is incredible, monstrous. If Trump and his attendants run into a simple, but not-so-remote past, how can the underlying problems of this world be resolved? I am afraid that the old dichotomy between left and right is no longer enough to explain the world, and the alternation of political parties in power no longer represents the business model that can manage this increasingly complex, intertwined world. Trump is not helping: He is not pushing the other side to think better as we secretly hoped he would, two years ago. Never mind thinking together. And as far as the American left is concerned, it is old and worn out, as corrupt and as promiscuous as the Republicans.

So what can the Democrats do? Remnick thinks, "a Democratic majority in the House will not only make it harder for Trump to achieve his legislative ambitions; it could also intensify the state of crisis and siege in Washington. The loss in the House of Representatives means that an array of committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, and others — will now be chaired by Democrats who can initiate, or accelerate, investigations into Trump's past, his presidency, and his associates. They replace Republican chairmen like Devin Nunes, who, as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, often seemed to act as like a detached lawmaker and more like the president's personal attorney."

The old dichotomy between left and right is no longer enough to explain the world.

At the end, though, The New Yorker"s editor-in-chief, David Remnick concedes that this might not be enough. "In order to defeat him," he writes, "defeat him decisively, the leadership of the Democratic Party will have to get better, become more focussed — and not merely on the travesty of its outrageous and dangerous opponent."

Most observers agree that Dems seizing the House represents an opportunity to exert some control over the roaring president, who only a day after the elections started reconfiguring his cabinet, accelerating his plan to reshape the federal judiciary. But we also saw something else. Pushed by an insistent reporter, the White House's CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, the president lost it, walking up and down the stage like a caged animal. When Trump is pushed into a corner, he fires back uncontrollably, becoming even more unpredictable and dangerous. Acosta was immediately punished after the incident, with the White House press secretary revoking the reporter's pass. It may seem a small and predictable injury to a network that has become the bête noire of the right, but a dangerous pattern emerges — one in which checks on the executive office are threatened. When the House begins to send subpoenas to the Oval Office, Trump may really go wild.

President Trump's argument with CNN's Jim Acosta on Nov. 7 — Photo: Christy Bowe/Globe Photos/ZUMA

There are, however, more radical ideas on how to stop Trump, save America, and the world with it. Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian writer transplanted from Sarajevo to Chicago, proposed the most extreme way. Hemon is a powerful writer and his piece, Fascism is Not an Idea to Be Debated, It's a Set of Actions to Fight, set in motion new thinking in many minds around the world.

Hemon describes how the war in former Yugoslavia changed the relationship he had with his high school friend, who was like a brother to him. Zoka and Aleksandar played soccer together, discussed movies, debated, fought and were inseparable until college. "But then, bit by bit, in ways so incremental as to be imperceptible to me, he became a passionate Serbian nationalist. Posters of rock bands were replaced with pictures of Serbian saints and stately World War I generals. He no longer quoted lines from movies but from Gorski vijenac ("The Mountain Wreath"), the 19th-century epic poem about the Serbs' righteous extermination of Muslims. I detested his turn to nationalist tradition, entirely alien to the urban spirit of Sarajevo, where we both grew up, and I frequently told him so. It got to the point where we were likely to spiral into an argument whenever we saw each other. I'd often insist, before getting wound up myself, that we avoid "politics' and stick instead to soccer and movies, but by the time the war started in Croatia, with news of atrocities committed by the Serb Army, it was hard to stay away from it."

In 1992, the war was ravaging in Sarajevo and Hemon moved to Chicago. There he received the last letter from Zoka. It was written not only by a stranger but by an enemy. Hemon never responded to Zoka directly, but wrote:

"My relationship with the war has always been marked by an intense sense that I failed to see what was coming, even though everything I needed to know was there, before my very eyes. While Zoka took an active part in enacting the ideas I'd argued against, my agency did not go beyond putting light pressure on his fascist views by way of screaming. I have felt guilty, in other words, for doing little, for extending my dialogue with him (and a few other Serb nationalist friends) for far too long, even while his positions — all of them easy to trace back to base Serbian propaganda — were being actualized in a criminal and bloody operation. I was blinded, I suppose, by our friendship which had ended, I know now, well before our dialogue did. For all that, I still feel guilty and ashamed of my cowardice and naïve belief that if we only kept talking something might bring him back. I retroactively recognized that his hate and racism were always present and that there was no purpose or benefit to our continued conversation. I had long been screaming into a human void."

When earlier this year The New Yorker announced that Steve Bannon was invited to a conversation with editor-in-chief David Remnick, Hemon recalled his memories of Zoka. "I was so upset that I rushed to a conclusion that Bannon's fascism was, for The New Yorker, merely a difference of opinion that could be publicly debated for the intellectual enjoyment of its paying audience," wrote Hemon, adding: "The public discussion prompted by the (dis)invitation confirmed to me that only those safe from fascism and its practices are likely to think that there might be a benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists. What for such a privileged group is a matter of a potentially productive difference in opinion is, for many of us, a matter of basic survival. The essential quality of fascism (and its attendant racism) is that it kills people and destroys their lives — and it does so because it openly aims so."

The time of conversations with fascists is over.

I was sitting in the bar near my house in the North West of Washington, D.C., when I heard something similar. A couple sitting next to me was talking about this and that. The young man, sharing his views with the woman who sounded more experienced, was leading the conversation. I don't remember exactly what led them to discuss Bannon and the New Yorker. Intrigued, I listened; then I decided to ask the couple why they thought Remnick had invited him. They were angry. Which made me even more curious, so I proceeded to offer possible explanations that had been churning around in my mind. After a few attempts to direct the debate toward reason, they cut me short and ridiculed me. The conversation ended with them saying, "We don't give a sh*t what might be the reason for the invitation of Bannon on the New Yorker stage. He is racist, and for us blacks, this is favoring someone who is doing us a lot of harm." I apologized, having never factored in the color of their skin. It was the reaction Hemon describes in his piece, "The catastrophic error would've been in allowing Bannon to divorce his ideas from the fascist practices in which they're actualized with brutality. If he is at all relevant, it is not as a thinker, but as a (former) executive who has worked to build the Trumpist edifice of power that cages children and is dismantling mechanisms of democracy."

Both the couple from the bar and Hemon, the Bosnian writer, used strong words and opinions to be respected. Their sharp, uncompromising thinking marks a red line, a kind of taboo that the human race established after WWII: We were brought up to believe that there would never be another war of this magnitude, that Nazism had gone forever, that the postwar realization injected enough antifascist cells in us to prevent a new epidemic. It did not. Look at the massacres that followed the secession of Yugoslavia, the reemerging racism around the world, the genocide of Rohingya in Myanmar. Look at what has been happening to the black American minority on the streets of this country for centuries.

Only Democrats can save America.

I get Hemon — Sarajevo is still torturing him — and his wife, so he writes, is African American. It is worth noting that two years ago, Hemon was giving everyone a lesson on democracy, whereas today, though less than halfway through the Trump era, he has lost faith in words and ballots, now calling for a struggle in which anti-fascist forces must clearly identify the enemy and commit to defeating them — whoever they are and whatever it takes. "The time of conversations with fascists is over, even if they might be your best friend from high school," he concludes.

The evolution of Hemon and other people who are seeing the ghosts of the past haunt them is the first significant damage of the Trump era. The lines are being drawn. In this case, only Democrats can save America from the easily digested, divisive rhetoric of Trump. Nobody outside of this country can do that but them. Once this is done — if it is done — then the world will begin its reckoning and resolution, aimed at addressing the pressing problems that have been left aside. Let's hope that all this can be done without any more bloodshed and violence. It will soon be too late.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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