Protest against what Donald Trump represents, not who he is | Owen Jones

The US president wants his theatrics to distract us. Instead, let’s focus on the hatred he epitomises

The mass protests must be as much about Trumpism as against the US president himself as he lands in Britain today. One of the dangers since Donald Trump became president is that it becomes all about him – his attention-seeking theatrics, his latest social media grenades thrown into cyberspace. Some of the establishment opposition has focused on Trump’s vulgarity, his manners, that he is somehow unpresidential, rather than his political substance and what he represents. As Naomi Klein explained in her book No Is Not Enough, the Trump performance becomes a distraction from scrutinising the dangerous political forces and economic interests he represents.

That Trump is somehow sullying an office previously held by respectable men of good character is a lie in any case. A succession of presidents have unleashed horror on the world in the last 50 years: backing or orchestrating bloody foreign coups; the slaughter in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; the US-backed death squads in Central America whose victims ranged from nuns to leftists; the killing fields of Iraq; the destruction of Libya; the indiscriminate drone strikes.

“Whataboutery” is often deployed at those protesting against Trump: why not Turkey’s tyrannical president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or the Saudi dictatorship? As someone who has protested against both, I agree, although those who pursue this line of argument are notably absent when it comes to marching against any foreign despot. But the actions and beliefs of arguably the most powerful man on Earth have the greatest impact on us all. And that also helps distinguish Trump from the warmongers and dubious moral characters who have preceded him.

Ever since the financial crash, movements and elite politicians across the western world have attempted to scapegoat migrants, refugees and Muslims for unemployment and job insecurity, stagnating living standards and decimated public services. Conveniently, their racist deflections have been accompanied by policies that favour the wealthy and big business. They have proved increasingly successful, and feel legitimised and emboldened by having one of their own in the White House. That’s why we must march: not simply against President Trump, but against the global movement of which he is de facto leader.

Donald Trump with the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at the Nato headquarters in Brussels.
Donald Trump with the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, at the Nato headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AP

Consider our political plight. The far right is in government in Austria. Polls suggest it is on the verge of becoming Germany’s main opposition party. Last year, the far-right Front National won its best ever showing in France’s presidential elections, and the Gaullist centre-right is shifting towards its politics. In Italy, the hard right, which wants to deport Roma and migrants, is in power. The Hungarian government is degenerating into a hard-right dictatorship dripping in anti-migrant hatred and antisemitic tropes. Poland’s authoritarian rightwing government menaces democracy. In Sweden, a party born from the white supremacist movement is scaling record highs in the polls.

Here in Britain, the official leave campaign spent the EU referendum stoking up fear and loathing towards migrants. A far-right movement that regards a convicted fraudster and thug as its spiritual leader is growing; the mainstream press denounces MPs and judges as “traitors”, “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people”; and hard Brexiters are preparing to whip up populist fury by claiming that Brexit has been betrayed.

The lights aren’t going out, not yet, but they are flickering. Trumpism is on the march everywhere: Donald Trump himself is simply its most striking manifestation. There is every chance it will further radicalise and shift to extremes, particularly if there is another economic downturn, for which we are overdue. History tells us that when the racist right is on the rise, we don’t sit back and hope for the best: we mobilise and fight back. And that’s why the mass protests against his visit will be a launchpad for a decisive pushback against increasingly triumphalist right and far-right movements.

There are many other reasons to protest, of course. With a Brexit deal looking unlikely to pass through parliament, the Tories will favour striking a trade deal with Trump that opens public services, including the NHS, to US multinationals, as well as slashing environmental regulations and workers’ rights in a race to the bottom. The US has retreated from the Iran nuclear deal, and John Bolton – one of Trump’s key advisers – advocates bombing the country. A message must be sent to the government that the public will not tolerate Britain joining another calamitous US-led military intervention. By walking away from the Paris agreement on climate change, the biggest carbon polluter in human history potentially poses an existential threat to humanity. Trump’s offensive against women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights is emboldening bigots across the world, and it must be answered.

Yes, Trump is a contemptible misogynist, an anti-Muslim bigot, a scapegoater of migrants, a man whose administration separates screaming children from their parents and locks them in cages. Yet the protests against him must not see him simply as a pantomime villain, but as the chief representative of an extremely dangerous global movement. That means joining the dots with what’s happening here: a Conservative party infested with anti-Muslim prejudice; the routine demonisation of migrants; and the deportation of gay refugees to countries where homosexuality is forbidden. Trump wants his theatrics to distract us. Instead, let’s focus on the hatred he epitomises – and which, unless we mobilise against it, threatens to overwhelm the western world.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist


Owen Jones

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