We can’t say he didn’t warn us. In November, shortly after Donald Trump won the election, and amid fears (well-founded, it turns out) that the new President would lead an assault on much that is good about America, Barack Obama signalled that he would not be observing the omerta expected of former occupants of the White House. If there were issues that went “to core questions about our values and ideals, and if I think that it’s necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, I’ll examine it when it comes,” he said.
This was a bad idea when he first said it, and it is a bad idea now that he has kept his word. In a statement just issued 10 days after he’d changed homes, Obama said he was “heartened by the level of engagement taking place in communities around the country,” adding that this “is exactly what we expect to see when American values are at stake.” The most charitable thing to say about this departure from the norm is that Obama was responding to a growing clamour in some quarters of the US for him to speak out on the many outrages perpetrated by the man who now occupies his former address.
But while there can be no doubt that American ideals desperately need defending from the relentless attacks by the Trump administration, Obama should have stayed out of the fight. This is not merely a matter of decorum or courtesy, although those are important considerations: Obama’s own predecessor, George W Bush, displayed both by refraining from second-guessing or criticising him, not even when provoked by criticism of his policies. Just as important, Obama should have keep his counsel because his speaking up will have opposite effect from the one intended by his admirers. It will inevitably politicise the debate, and thus reduce its importance.
After all, it is hard to ignore the fact that the former President chose to issue his statement only after Trump had claimed that his new Muslim ban on Muslims from seven countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen) is similar to restrictions Obama had introduced in 2011: “With regard to comparisons to President Obama’s foreign policy decisions, as we’ve heard before, [Obama] fundamentally disagrees with the notion of discriminating against individuals because of their faith or religion.” This suggests the statement was aimed at defending, not American values, but something Obama values more dearly — his record.
Yet another reason to have kept mum is that his expression of concern now exposes the former President to the charge of hypocrisy, especially on the matter of the travel ban. Critics would point out, correctly, that if Obama had, while still President, done more than merely speak up — on Syria and Yemen, for instance — matters might not have come to this sorry pass.
For Obama, silence would have been both polite and politic. But for many other American politicians who have not been heard from — most of them of the Republican persuasion — playing dumb is dangerous to their country, and (perhaps they will care more about this) damaging to their careers. As I write this, over 250 of the nearly 300 Republicans in the US Congress have taken no official position on the travel ban. This is rank cowardice. To be sure, some Republicans, such as Speaker Paul Ryan, have welcomed the ban, on the dubious grounds that it will keep the US safe. Only a handful, like the veteran Senators John McCain and Linsey Graham, have criticised it, only to be accused by the President of “looking to start World War III.”
The Democrats, as you might expect, have been more vociferous, with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issuing the most telling broadside, on Twitter: “As a New Yorker, I am a Muslim. I am a Jew. I am Black. I am gay. I am a woman seeking to control her body.” Something of a surprise is the fact that so many American corporations, which usually try to play it politically safe, have come out strongly against Trump’s policies. This is not only true of the many companies, especially in the technology sector, whose rosters are full of foreigners. From Starbucks (which has pledged to hire 10,000 refugees) to AirBnB (which has offered free housing), companies that have nothing obvious to gain from taking a position against Trump have done so.
More reassuring still were the voices of the judges of four federal courts — in New York, Boston, Seattle and Alexandria, Virginia — who have ordered stays on Trump’s executive order. More are expected in the coming days.
But it is those, especially those elected to lead, who have said nothing at all who merit the closest attention. This is no time for reticence: The Trump administration has already moved against Muslims, and its stated goals also menace women (on reproductive rights), African-Americans (on voting rights), and gays (on marriage rights). Its attitude toward Jews is amply summed by the fact that the White House left them out of a statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day — and then defended itself by claiming, disingenuously, that this was because the Nazis killed other people, too.
To remain mute in the face of such bare-faced bigotry is reprehensible, and it will carry a high political cost. Americans, individuals as well as organisations, are keeping tabs of who’s saying what at this critical moment in their nation’s history. The politicians who fail to lead now will not be able to dissimulate later. Remember how, in 2008, Hillary Clinton was unable to talk her way out of the fact that she had voted for Bush’s war on Iraq — and how Obama, who had opposed the war, was able to use this to his advantage? In the not-too-distant future, Republicans will win or lose elections based on what they are saying (or not saying) now.
Bobby Ghosh is editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times