The election of Donald Trump as the next US President has shaken our faith in democracy and is a serious blow to the cause of human rights in the US and around the world. President-elect Trump’s campaign was a repudiation of the political and social progress made under his predecessor. It was an explicit threat to those who are vulnerable – whether because of their religion, race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, or physical abilities. Trump’s election, an ‘American tragedy’, comes at the end of a year in which the values that are said to underpin civic society in the US and Europe have come under significant threat.
When President-elect Trump’s inauguration takes place early next year he will seek to set the tone in the Western hemisphere, and across the globe, for the rest of this decade. It is clear, even before we address specific policies or world-views, that we will miss the grace and poise of President Obama. These are qualities that President-elect Trump revels to reject. We are unlikely to hear an affirmation of rights such as that President Obama made with the alliterative triad of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall.
What then, for human rights, in the time of Trump? Last week’s remarks from President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton were reminiscent of those of Edward Kennedy over thirty years ago. Kennedy spoke to the Democratic Convention after an unsuccessful campaign. In closing he said that “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die”. At the core of this philosophy was the idea which lies at the heart of human rights: a commitment to the equality of esteem of human beings.
The commitment is under threat today. To those who are vulnerable in America – and around the world – this has been perhaps the darkest moment in a dark year. It is a year in which it is difficult, as Yeats wrote, to hold in a single thought reality and justice. The temptation is to fire off a hundred-and-forty-character riposte, to turn inwards, to close off. But such reflexes do not exercise our intellectual and emotional muscles – they cause them to atrophy. And such muscles are essential to the necessary response to the Trump presidency.
For, vital to the work of human rights in the next decade will be the cultivation of political emotions. In 2008 Barack Obama made hope the watchword of his presidential campaign. In 2016, it is fear and anger, even rage, that is to the fore. There has been the fear and anger of Trump supporters. In the face of twenty-first century uncertainty they have held culpable the political system itself – but also those who, under that political system, suffer the greatest disempowerment.
And now, in response, there is the fear and anger of those for whom four years under President Trump could be four years of the loss of hard-won rights, of the evisceration of public welfare, even of their incarceration, deportation, or execution. This fear and anger arises in a country wherein progressive Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in four of the last five presidential elections but have seen only one of four nominees win the office (albeit he did so twice). In a country whose leadership swings – from George W. Bush to Barack Obama and then to Donald Trump – the fear and anger of progressives is understandable and even necessary.
Such fear and anger does have its uses. It can drive both demonstrations and litigation. But it is unlikely to be enough. It stokes further fears and further anger. And it consumes the fearful and the angry. What the cause of human rights needs most of all in this moment is not just the furious energy of angry activism – but the ferocious power of political love. Political love, as Martha Nussbaum has written, was important to both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. It is also to be found, I venture, in the words of Harvey Milk and President Obama.
Political love, and its public expression in empathy and compassion, is what is necessary today. A call for empathy and compassion is not a call to accept abuse, bigotry, callousness, or discrimination. Any language or behaviour, and of course any policies, to such effect should be subject to vociferous opposition. The marches across America last week are such opposition. The ACLU’s bold website banner, See You In Court, is the promise of more. But the response to President-elect Trump’s dehumanisation of the vulnerable cannot only be in claims for the protection of human rights as a matter of law.
Because the fight for human rights is a good one not just because of what is fought for but because of why we fight – and how. It is vital to remember the commitment to equality of esteem that lies at the core of the ideal. It is a struggle to do so, a struggle that cannot be overcome in its entirety, but it is in the struggle itself that the victory lies. The struggle tempers our ferocity not with timidity but with a certainty that there is no ‘Us v Them’. Rather there are infinite varieties, as Milk put it, of ‘Uses’.
We need to embrace that certainty today. The twenty-first century has been, thus far, a century of uncertainty. The uncertainty has shocked national institutions and coincides with an erosion of international institutions. Those institutions, and their commitment to multi-lateralism, are necessary for the work of human rights. They are key forums for the response to the challenges we all face. They are spaces in which the ‘Uses’ can come together. And they are in trouble.
The solutions are not obvious or easy. And yet there is much we can all do. Human rights begin, as another New Yorker put it, in small places. They begin in homes and neighbourhoods, in schools and workplaces, in clubs and communities. This is where, Eleanor Roosevelt said, we can all act. She was right. The most resolute rejection of Trumpish divisiveness is a commitment to solidarity – a mentality of empathy and compassion – in short: a declaration of political love.