Tag Archives: Trump

Contagion–Trump’s Harmful Blame Game

Plague doctor wearing protective clothing, including face mask, during the outbreak of the plague in Rome in 1656.

Pandemics have been around since creation–whether you think that this was 5,780 or 4.5 billion years ago. They all have two things in common. First, as Black Swan events, they evoke a tremendous amount of fear as they are not understood and cannot be controlled, which leads to mass panic and hysteria. This prompts humans to take some form of personal protective action. But it also sets in motion the second, more consequential effect: a race to the bottom in search of a culprit. The two are intertwined as scapegoating is invariably linked to fear and loss of control. The current Coronavirus, or Covid-19 pandemic is no exception.

There are many historical examples to make these points. Let’s first look at the names we choose to attach to pandemics. The Spanish flu of 1918-20 is a great example. It had little to do with Spain. At the tail end of the World War I, neither of the warring parties were interested in disclosing that their soldiers were dropping dead like flies. Neutral Spain had less at stake and reported on the progress of the pandemic more honestly. Subsequently, the world started to believe that this really was a Spanish problem. The Spaniards, incidentally, started to call it the French flu, with little success. By the way: where did the Spanish flu take its origin? Donald Trump, take note: the United States of America is a leading contender. US soldiers likely carried it across the Atlantic. So let’s call it the American flu.

The grandest of all known pandemics, perhaps with the exception of Covid-19, was the bubonic plague, also referred to as Black Death. It arrived in Europe in 1347 and spread over the continent like wildfire over the next four years. As there was no understanding of bacterial infections, a range of explanations mushroomed, from adverse celestial constellations to toxic vapors emanating from the earth to divine punishment for an immoral and godless society. By far the most virulent explanation was that Jews had poisoned the wells and thus were responsible for the death of the masses all over Europe.

In this woodcut from 1475, Jews are tortured to confess that they had poisoned the well, are woven onto wagon wheels, and burned. The inquisitor (left) points to a bag containing the poison as evidence.

By 1351, sixty major and 150 smaller Jewish communities had been destroyed, Jewish residents evicted from cities and towns, and many killed. More than 350 separate massacres occurred between 1347 and 1351. In Strasbourg, almost 200 Jews were burned in a single massacre in 1349. Most of these pogroms were not officially sanctioned, rather they were triggered by a firebrand preacher or civic leader. The plague thus unleashed hatred and aggression against a group that already had been marginalized and discriminated for centuries. Subsequent waves of the plague had a similar impact, such as the Lisbon massacre of 1506. The takeaway is that pandemics not only are mass killers but that they also shatter the political, social, and moral order.

The burning of Jews (Hartmann Schedel: Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493).

This brings us to our current predicament. The moment the Corona-virus started to spread person to person in the United States, people started to engage in panicky protective action. Understandably, people hoarded hand-sanitizer and a range of cleaning products, including soap. But there also was a run on bottled water, which makes sense when a hurricane is approaching. However, a virus is extremely unlikely to disrupt our water supply. Almost comical is the run on toilet paper. It speaks to a deep-seated need to engage in some protective behavior. Hoarding toilet paper can be comforting, even though it does not objectively enhance the preparedness for a virus infection.

We also have seen an uptick in finger-pointing and scapegoating. There is the almost comical attempt by Oppah Muchinguri, Zimbabwe’s defense minister, to frame the virus as God’s punishment for sanctions against her country. More seriously, China started to blame the US for planting the virus in China. US President Donald Trump spent many weeks downplaying the threat and framing it as a hoax promoted by the Democrats and by the media intended to harm his reelection bid. When the size of the upcoming pandemic no longer could be concealed, he switched to a vicious blame game.

In an abrupt shift in rhetoric, Trump now consistently refers to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” thus not just designating a point of origin but also implicating an entire ethnicity. Trump added this justification: “‘Cause it comes from China. It’s not racist at all, no, not at all. It comes from China, that’s why. I want to be accurate.” Others in his echo chamber, notably Fox News, have picked up on the blame game as well, using the phrase “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Host Sean Hannity stated, “Their months-long coverup is now causing death and destruction and carnage all over the world.” Laura Ingraham added, “China has blood on its hands.” Trump himself accused Beijing of harming the United States by suppressing early information about the spread of the virus in Wuhan, while simultaneously accusing the media of corruption: “They’re siding with China. It’s more than fake news; it’s corrupt news.”

Trump’s irresponsible blame game may have dire consequences. The social fabric of our society already shows signs of tearing. Almost over night, a health crisis unmasked the glaring shortcomings of our public health system and more generally of our social safety net. Millions who do not have health insurance or do not have any paid sick leave have no incentive to get tested and to stay home. Almost over night, tens of millions of Americans have become threatened by unemployment and existential ruin. This is a time when we need steady leadership, not a narcissist in charge with a pathological urge to always fault others. The incompetence and immaturity of the President and the unpredictability of a pandemic may turn out to be an explosive mix.

The concern is that the razor-thin veneer of civilization in the United States may be wearing off, and that Trump’s rhetoric acts like coarse sandpaper rather than another protective layer. One worrisome indicator is that gun sales are skyrocketing. Guns can be used to protect one’s home, but also to rob a pharmacy, a grocery store, or a neighbor’s food pantry. Frustrated people confined to their homes for weeks may use their guns to act out on their aggression. This is how a President who is pandering to his mindless supporters rather than showing calm leadership during a generational crisis endangers us all. The plague pandemic should serve as a warning for what social collapse could look like.





How a Displaced Sense of Humiliation Drives Trump’s Iran Policy

After the Iranian attack of 8 January 2020 on two air bases in Iraq that housed American troops, President Trump made a public statement, surrounded by his entire national security team. While the media parsed Trump’s statement to understand what further actions he might take, one revealing sentence received little attention: “For far too long, all the way back to 1979 to be exact, nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive, destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.” A few days before that, he declared that he had identified fifty-two potential targets for retaliation, including cultural sites.

Donald Trump addressing the nation on 8 January 2020, surrounded by his national security team.

Fundamentalist thinkers and political leaders lack a tolerance for ambiguity. There is only one truth, theirs, and this truth is true across history. In the United States, exceptionalist thinkers legitimize all actions as long as they are rooted in what they see as the foundational principles established by the Founding Fathers. If people saw things differently at different times they must have been wrong because otherwise there would have to be more than one truth. In the view of American nationalists, Trump is the messianic leader who reclaims and realizes these principles in an authentic way, which is why all his moral failings are forgiven and forgotten. And this is why Trump and his Apostles reject history in all its differentiations and ambiguities. Trump’s statement about Iran is exhibit A.

For American nationalists, 1979 serves as a template for national humiliation that needs to be erased by toppling the Islamic regime in Iran. On 4 November 1979, a group of Iranian college students who supported the Iranian Revolution took over the US embassy in Teheran and held fifty-two Americans hostage for a total of 444 days. Ever since, American nationalists have sought revenge to expunge this national humiliation. Trump’s language and actions entirely embrace this viewpoint–hence his reference to 1979 and the fifty-two targets, one for each hostage, that included cultural sites, that is sites of national memory.

For Iranians, 1953 is a corresponding year of humiliation. This is the year when the US government destroyed Iranian democracy by toppling the democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeg. Mosaddeg had plans to nationalize the oil industry, much to the chagrin of large British and American oil companies. The Truman administration turned them down, but the incoming Eisenhower administration was more open to their cause. In August 1953, the CIA engineered a bloody coup d’état in Iran. Mosaddeg was arrested and many of his associates killed. The Americans installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as authoritarian ruler of Iran. Pahlavi “modernized” Iran and implemented pro-Western policies that were pleasing to the oil companies. It is this regime that was toppled by the Islamists in 1979.

The important connection is that the 1953 coup d’état was planned and executed by the CIA in the US embassy in Teheran. To this day, Iranians see this as a moment of national humiliation. The Islamist student groups occupied the US embassy in 1979 in order to preempt another attempt at intervention by the United States. So the humiliation felt by the United States was motivated by the humiliation Iranians had experienced in 1953.

This intricate web of mutual humiliations makes it impossible for two nationalist regimes, the Islamic nationalists in Teheran and the White nationalists in Washington, to ever come to terms with each other. It took an enlightened leader like President Obama to help implement the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, more commonly known as Iran nuclear deal. Trump had to undo the deal so hysterically because it defied the false nationalist narrative of humiliation.

*FAKE* image from 2015 showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama shaking hands.

Obama’s biggest sin is that he is not part of the nationalist narrative, and could never be because he is not White. This is why Trump instrumentalized the birther narrative–the false claim that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim–long before he ran for president. This also is the origin of the fake and debunked 2015 image showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Preisident Obama shaking hands. Yet, a Republican congressman from Arizona just retweeted it a couple of days ago to reinforce the nationalist narrative, with the caption “The world is a better place without these guys in power.”

Both in Teheran and in Washington, tired nationalist legends are retold to a gullible public. Both are steeped in narratives of national humiliation and in the righteousness of their own viewpoints. Both share an intolerance for ambiguity and a disdain for history. And both make it utterly impossible to resolve this conflict.

Switzerland: Pioneer of Right-Wing Populism

The ascent of a narcissistic autocrat with a white nationalist platform to the presidency of the United States has shocked the world. While the nationalist right played a relatively marginal role in US politics until quite recently, there are other countries with a long history of successful populist politics. Perhaps the best example is Switzerland where nationalist right-wing politics have been practiced successfully for two generations. Their rise has been incremental, gradually normalizing xenophobic and exclusionary discourses.


Poster against “mass-naturalization” (2004)

On February 12, Swiss voters will decide whether to facilitate the naturalization of third-generation immigrants. These are legal residents of Switzerland who were born and raised in Switzerland and whose parents were also born and raised in Switzerland. Under the current arbitrary and discriminatory naturalization laws, which are entirely based on the ius sanguinis, residents whose grandparents immigrated have to meet the same requirements as recent immigrants who were born abroad. Facilitated naturalization is only granted to spouses and children of a Swiss national. Similar measures were rejected by Swiss voters in 1983, 1994, and 2004. The 2004 poster shows dark hands greedily grabbing Swiss passports. Recent polls indicate that there is a slim margin of support of the measure, but it may still fail because a majority of cantons is also required.


Controversial poster at Zurich main station (Jan. 2017) with the text: “Uncontrolled naturalization? No.”

The political right, particularly the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in Switzerland, has campaigned vigorously against the measure, using very controversial campaign tactics. Their main poster shows a woman wearing a burqa with the caption “Uncontrolled naturalization? No to facilitated naturalization.” Andreas Glarner, a leader of the populist right, justified the poster: “The wearer of a burqa is a symbol for lacking integration.” The intended effect is to create a visual link between a sinister, fully veiled Muslim woman and well-integrated third-generation immigrants. A look at the facts shows how baseless and manipulative this statement is. According to federal authorities, a total of 24,656 individuals would benefit from this measure. Of these, only 334 have roots outside of Europe, while 14,331 individuals, or 58%, have roots in Italy. Furthermore, research shows that naturalization enhances integration, indicating the absurdity of Glarner’s arguments.

Switzerland has a unique system of direct democracy that allows any group to launch an initiative to add an amendment to the constitution or to challenge a federal law in a referendum. A national vote has to be held if a sufficient number of voters demand it with their signatures. This system has enabled fringe groups to take their pet issues directly to voters, bypassing the parliamentary process. It also has forced parliament to work out balanced compromise legislation that can withstand a referendum.

The first initiatives against Überfremdung (overforeignization) were launched by a right-wing fringe party called Nationale Aktion gegen die Überfremdung von Volk und Heimat (National Action Against Overforeignization of People and Home). Even though there was no mainstream support for the initiative, 46 percent of the electorate supported it in the first vote of 1970. If adapted, it would have limited non-citizens to 10% of the resident population, down from the actual rate of 17.2%. (The current rate is 24.6% which in part is due to the fact that naturalization in Switzerland is exceedingly restrictive.) In the following years, similar initiatives followed, all of them narrowly defeated, until 2014.


Swiss fascist election poster (1933): “We clean up”

The term Überfremdung was used even though it was discredited because of its use in Nazi Germany. The term was coined in 1900 in a Swiss publication that was part of an older Swiss polemic against immigration in the years leading up to WW I. Populist discourses against immigration in Switzerland thus go back over a century. The Swiss fascist movement created an anti-immigration visual language that has informed election posters until today. In the 1970s, the fringe right linked “overforeignization” with relevant issues of the day, such as overpopulation, environmental degradation, the selling out of the homeland, and excessive real estate speculation leading to usurious rents. A pseudo-environmentalist approach to limiting immigration was also attempted in the 2014 Ecopop initiative.


Swiss poster against “overforeignization,” c. 1970.

Since the 1960s, seven different right-wing populist parties have won seats in the national parliament. While these parties remained on the fringe until the early 1990s, they used the tools of direct democracy very effectively to enact an anti-foreigner agenda. While the early initiatives were not successful, they framed the discussion and allowed the fringe right to set the tone for the immigration debate. Just the threat of a new initiative or of a referendum forced the mainstream to make serious concessions to the fringe right, thus establishing a tyranny of the minority that also is an emerging trademark of Trump’s America.

Over the past three decades, the populist right prevented facilitated naturalization of children and grandchildren of immigrants, forced a tightening of asylum laws, and in 1992 engineered the ballot box defeat of Swiss participation in the European Economic Area (EEA), which many saw as a stepping stone towards EU membership. And in February 2014, the political right for the first time managed to pass a measure that would limit immigration. As this new limitation is in violation of existing treaties with the EU, the Swiss government has stalled on its implementation so far.

In the early 1990s, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) established itself as the main right-wing party and managed to transform popular support of anti-immigration issues into success in parliamentary elections; it has been the most successful Swiss party since 1999 and currently has the support of about 30% of Swiss voters. The party became a model for other European right-wing populist parties and recently has been consulted by similar parties in Europe, like Germany’s AfD. Their controversial 2007 election poster, showing a black sheep being kicked out, became such a branding success that they recycled it for a number anti-foreigner campaigns. Furthermore, right-wing parties in Europe used the motif for their own purposes.


Infamous 2007 Swiss People’s Party (SVP) election poster (left) and imitations from Belgium, Germany, and Spain.

One of the more spectacular successes of the hard right was the passage of a constitutional amendment outlawing minarets in Switzerland in 2009–of which there were exactly four in the entire country. Their campaign posters showed a Swiss flag pierced by minarets that had the appearance of missiles. Anti-Islamic prejudices were further pushed by the same sinister-looking Muslim woman in a burqa seen in the current campaign. And again, this illustration was imitated by right-wing parties across Europe, like France’s Front National and the British National Party, who used it in their own polemics against Islam.


Minarets piercing the Swiss flag like missiles, Muslim woman in burqa (2009). Imitations from France and Britain.

While the mass appeal of right-wing populism still is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe and the United States, the roots of contemporary right-wing populism in Switzerland go back to the 1960s. It has been a powerful driver of anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Islamic policies in Switzerland that defied the political elites even though the populist right has never received more than 30% of votes in parliamentary elections. It has developed a polemical and manipulative rhetoric and misleading graphics over the past half century that has become the model for right-wing political parties across Europe.

Addendum February 12, 2017: Hearing on NPR this morning that Swiss voters approved the facilitated naturalization of third-generation immigrants felt a bit surreal. This certainly is a step in the right direction, but the Swiss government set the bar very low with its proposal. While the vote (60.4% of voters and 17 out of 23 cantons in favor) is a setback for the populist right, we have to remember that naturalization for third-generation immigrants still is not automatic and that second-generation immigrants–who were born and raised in Switzerland–still have to go through the exceedingly tough and arbitrary naturalization process. The government’s proposal
set the bar very low, much lower than So the populist right still drives the immigration and naturalization agenda.