The Trump administration is governing with a tactic often used by authoritarian regimes and now employed in new and extreme forms with the help of social media—the tactic of chaos. Banning travelers from seven (later six) Muslim majority countries, accusing the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the election, denying reports of Russian contacts, building a wall, rounding up “illegal” immigrants, collecting the names of staff known to champion environmentalism and gender equality in the Department of Energy and the Department of State—these and many other stories, statements, and tweets are frequently reported in the media as examples of the “ineptness” of the Trump administration. There is another way to think about what we are witnessing: chaos as a mechanism of governance.
The use of chaos is not always accidental but can be a means of rule and control that presents a grave danger to democracy. It is not a new tactic. It has been used by fascist, authoritarian regimes, military and nonmilitary dictators, union-busting employers and reality-TV show hosts. Although chaos is not alien to American politics, what is new, perhaps, is the unabashed promotion of it as a daily means of governance by elected government leaders. It is so brazen as to defy belief. Yet it is a form of governance—a form of governance that conceals or makes acceptable arbitrary, exploitative, and repressive measures that install new forms of “order.” Such order allows new forms of surveillance while pointing the fake finger of surveillance at others, intensifying tax inequality while bathing in inflated market euphoria, derailing voter rights while claiming voter fraud, undoing environmental protections while boasting of “new jobs,” firing up Islamophobia (with such tactics as the Muslim ban) while cutting business deals with selected Muslim majority countries—and the like.
Chaos, as a tactic of rule, works by assertions/actions, denials, restatements, reassertions/actions, clarifications, third-generation assertions/actions . . . and the cycle continues until there is almost an out-of-body experience of disreality. What is real and what is fabricated? The tendency, under the daily assault of confusion, is to distance, disavow, disbelieve—even diminish. The dangerous by-product of a political culture organized by chaos is disconnection. One can take only so much chaos before retreating someplace where there is a semblance of order. What would the nature of that order be? That is the deep danger. The danger includes repressing those who would be “saved” from chaos and targeting those who come to be defined as the evil causes of the “chaos.”
The explicit targeting of Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples adds isolation to the danger they experience. The demonization of Muslim peoples and of Islam itself as the evil producers of terror goes hand in hand with tactics of chaos leading to authoritarian governance. “Islam hates us,” President Trump declared on the campaign circuit—as if Islam were a person, one person, and could act in a uniform manner. It is not an accident that hate crimes against Muslims and Arab Americans and against those who may look like Muslims (Sikhs, for example) have increased in the United States since 2015. Hate crimes feed the urgency that chaos stimulates and increase the sense of chaos/disorder. The victims (Muslims, Arabs, and those who resemble them) then also become villains, blamed for the chaos and attacked for it. Hate crimes against Jews have also increased, though political leaders, especially in the White House, have made concerted statements condemning anti-Semitism. They overlook the responsibility that inciting hate affects all of us. Attacks on Mexicans, immigrants, African American youth—these pilloried targets of white nationalism can all be glossed as a danger to US (white) national culture. The increased numbers of “enemies”—a term now in currency—further the sense of chaos and danger. Chaos, underwritten by emergency, historically has supported calls for “order,” stability, and the rise of the Right.
The ban on travel to the United States covers only Muslim-majority countries. The most reviled Muslims are young Muslim males. Yet it is the representation of Muslim women that often justifies the representation of what is “evil,” antimodern, and even anticivilizational in Islam.
The (mis)representation of Muslim women as a rationale for intervening in the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries is historic in the United States and Europe. Muslim women are overwhelmingly represented as oppressed, voiceless, nonagential, and subject to the whims of fathers, brothers, and husbands, who see them only as objects of labor and sexual service. That Muslim men would treat their own mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives so badly supports the notion that Muslim men are by nature violent and therefore dangerous. My own research on major American print news media (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other outlets) reveals a constant pattern of representing Muslim women as “needing saving” (Joseph and D’Harlingue 2012; Joseph, D’Harlingue, and Wong 2008). Lila Abu-Lughod’s (2013) critique, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, brilliantly puts a lie to that representation.
As Jon Finer and Robert Malley (2017) observe, however, since 9/11 fewer than nine Americans per year have been victims of terror attacks in the United States, as compared with an annual death rate of twelve thousand from gunfire. They note that in the United States we are 1,333 times likelier to be killed by criminals than by terrorists. Finer and Malley blame both Democrats and Republicans for the hyperfocus on global terrorism and particularly on Islamic terrorism, which became an efficient, sufficient, and successful campaign platform for the Trump organization.
What countertactics might be adopted? Recognizing chaos as a tactic of repressive rule that uses targeting and isolation is a start. Fear and retreat are the successful outcomes of rule by chaos. Connection, engagement, coalitions, calling out fake news for what it is, speaking truth, and standing for the rule of law, equality, and social justice are steps in defense of democracy. And democracy needs defenders at this dizzying moment of rule by chaos.