The Normalization of Violence: Week One in the Trump Era

It has been a week, only a week, since President Donald Trump took office. As I look back at the previous week, I cannot believe it has only been one week. Constant tweeting and talk about crowd sizes is dangerous misdirection – the overwhelming theme of the week, in my opinion, was violence.

The World Health Association defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” This is what we are seeing.

Last Friday, I sat and watched the inauguration online during my office hours. I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is now my president. As someone who takes the idea of Faithful Citizenship very seriously, I felt a responsibility to watch. And so I listened to a nationalist speech laying out a vision I cannot support. Using the phrase “American carnage,” he reiterated racially charged stereotypes about inner cities and maligned all of public education.  But the most violent part of the speech was the claim that the United States is somehow a global victim.   “America will start winning again and winning like never before.” What does that even mean? There is no interpretation of that line which leads to greater peace and justice.

Almost a billion people live at less than $1.25 a day, and Donald Trump is painting the United States as a victim being harmed. Developing countries have spent decades searching for the right development strategies—building infrastructure, investing in education, and developing manufacturing—after a long legacy of colonialism, and Trump would have you believe America is the victim? America’s wealth stolen by foreign countries? Someone should give Trump a basic history lesson on colonialism and American slavery. For centuries, people and raw materials were stolen from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, helping to build European and American wealth—and yet America is the victim? On day one of the Trump Administration, a violent articulation of American exceptionalism is laid out before the American people.

Yet, as is often the case, violent nationalism does not have the last word, nor does it in this case have the largest crowds. The sun rose on day two of the Trump administration and millions of women stood up to say no. As a pro-life feminist and Democrat, there are many who view my participation in the march as controversial. Despite all of the “my body, my choice” signs, it is incorrect to dismiss this march as just another pro-abortion thing. It was about violence and democracy.

In Washington and around the world, women, children, and men came together to march for justice.  On Saturday, I marched with 400,000 other New Yorkers chanting for women’s human rights, Black Lives Matter, Environmental Justice, Respect for LGBTQ persons, against Islamophobia, and for Welcoming Immigrants—all issues belittled or threatened by Donald Trump and his supporters during the campaign. My favorite was a little girl holding a sign that read: “NO BULLIES.”

With a president who bragged and joked about sexually assaulting women, as if it was his right, 3.2-4.5 million people standing up in resistance is a powerful stand against violence. There were more than 600 peaceful protests; as the sun set on day two, the resistance made some noise.

Controlling the message and information is of particular importance to this administration. Thou shall not question Trump’s estimation of his inaugural crowd size. Day three was Sunday and Trump’s special advisor Kellyanne Conway announced that this administration was presenting “alternative facts.” This may not seem related to violence, but it is. The first step in normalizing and legitimizing state sanctioned violence is to control the narrative.  When outright lies can be transformed into “alternative facts,” it is much easier for injustice to advance unchecked. And so the sun set on day three and justifying violence against those declared the enemy became easier.

The quest for control continued as government agencies’ twitter privileges were revoked. The USDA, EPA, and various government scientists were told not to speak about their research without permission, and leaks emerged indicating that much of the EPA’s work is on the chopping block.

On day four, Trump made it clear that the construction of both the Keystone Pipeline and the North Dakota Access Pipeline will go forward in contravention of both environmental analysis and the rights of indigenous peoples.  Reiterating his “America First” motto and including provisions for American-made materials, American jobs are the priority claimed to justify this decision. International law and treaties do not impress this president. In a world of alternative facts, they do not seem to matter at all to him. Therefore treaties with American Indian tribes are not recognized as binding. Pope Francis reminds us that concerns for people and the planet are intimately linked – this is abundantly clear in the fight to protect the Sioux people and land and the water supply. Environmentally unsound policies are a form of violence against the planet, and we saw the potential consequences this week with two massive oil pipeline breaks in Canada and Northern Iowa. Since native peoples and the environment do not seem to be constituents within the President’s sphere of concern and with the advent of “alternative facts,” violence against them is rendered even more invisible.

Days five and six have been the most worrying of all. Over these two days, President Trump signed executive orders initializing a wall along the Mexican border, banning refugees and migrants from certain countries, and threatening “sanctuary cities.”  Lies and misrepresentations of the refugee resettlement program over the course of the campaign and this week all further victimize the most vulnerable.

Having fled for their lives and waited years for resettlement through an extensive vetting program, hundreds of Syrian refugees promised a chance at a new, safer life are thrown back into limbo.  As I was writing this piece, Trump signed an executive order banning all visas from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. He halted the US Refugee program and cut the targets more than in half. He did this despite the fact that the United States refugee program is the most extensive vetting and intensive process operative. Without any evidence or truth, he declared Syrian refugees “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” This is an unequivocally immoral and violent act.

Stoking fears about terrorism and immigration, Trump peddled a number of lies this week and used them to justify his approach to unauthorized immigrants.  While he went on and on about “criminal aliens,” the executive order established a protocol that does not require individuals to have been charged with a crime to fall under this category. However, the most striking of all is Trump’s pledge to release a weekly report of crimes committed by immigrants. Even the use of language like “aliens” over and over again itself does violence to the dignity of all immigrants in our midst.

Under the pretense of “protecting Americans,” immigrant communities and others will be rendered more vulnerable, subjected to greater observation, and increasingly marginalized.  As with much this week, one cannot escape the question of crowd size and the lost popular vote. Fueling anti-immigrant sentiment, Trump reiterated his belief in a voter fraud conspiracy. It has been studied and the United States does not have a significant voter fraud problem. Yet, suspicion of non-white voters in urban settings continues to drive the President’s public messaging.  In a nation of immigrants, how does one “look” like they should not vote? The racism inherent in the voter fraud obsession is undeniable.

The president will not be deterred and in an era of “alternative facts,” he seems content to redefine voter fraud itself. Repeatedly, Trump referenced people listed on rolls in two states or deceased persons still listed on registration rolls. While these are errors in the voting rolls, they only become “voter fraud” when there is evidence of someone actually voting in two states. Again, there is no evidence of significant instances of this occurring, but it gives license to greater racial profiling and violence against our immigrant neighbors.

It is difficult to separate the president’s official executive actions, press statements, and his tweets. In the oval office, he targeted refugees and unauthorized immigrants. On Twitter, he showed concern for gun violence in Chicago by threatening to “send in the feds.”  When ABC’s David Muir asked the president to clarify what exactly he meant by that tweet, Trump gave a rather incoherent, meandering answer, which did not seem to rule out militarized action by the National Guard.

Responding to violence with threats of retaliatory violence is a continuous theme for this President—both during the campaign and in his first week. In calling for less discriminate military action, Trump favors a ‘fight fire with fire’ mentality, seeming to insist that ISIS and global terrorism nullifies existing international law and military convention. Obama’s executive orders prohibiting CIA black sites and curtailing the use of Guantanamo Bay are under review and may be reversed. Another example of this is his offhand comment that the USA should have taken Iraq’s oil and his flippant quip that maybe they’ll get another chance. The fact is that taking Iraq’s oil would have been legally considered a war crime, but in an age of alternative facts, the president seems to simply brand anyone who points to international law as a ‘fool.’  A clear example of this is his discussion with David Muir about torture. Donald Trump clearly stated that he was not opposed to torture but that, to his surprise, General Mattis was and therefore the General would guide policy.

After a week of maligning immigrants, trying to bully Mexico, silencing public scientists charged with protecting the public and environment, it seems fitting that week one of the Trump administration ended with a vague hint at stealing oil and in favor of torturing our enemies.  As a result, the Economist has downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy.”

And so as I take stock after just one week, the importance of resistance and of standing tall together as a community are even more apparent.  Democracy means that Donald Trump is my president, even though I find virtually all of his presidential actions this week morally objectionable and the tenor inherently violent.  I do not support nor will I ever endorse a vision of America First that places American wealth and economic interests above the dignity of human persons.  I reject this type of American exceptionalism, which is and always has been inherently violent. And yet, as I stood among 400,000 of my fellow New Yorkers last Saturday, I was strengthened in my resolve to resist for we are the people. Marching in the streets, we are what democracy looks like. And, we demand peace and justice for all.