Fewer Lives Matter

Trump sent a clear message in his first week

Andrew Jackson's portrait is on every twenty-dollar bill, for now. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman is scheduled to replace him on the front of the bill in 2020, moving the seventh United States president to the reverse side. It is an insult that Tubman, a formerly enslaved woman who freed hundreds of others, has to share the bill at all with "Old Hickory," a slaveholding president who helped white men confiscate tribal lands for settlement and exploitation. He was someone who didn't consider all Americans to be American.

During Donald Trump's first week in the White House, he decided to hang Jackson's portrait in the Oval Office. The two men share more than 19th-century-style racism, inhumanity, and, now, the presidency. Both ran as populists in the sense that they claimed to represent ordinary people, and both really cared only about the people they felt mattered. Both dressed up their bigotries in appeals to the "common man." Trump's first remarks as president were a thinly coded message to a certain set of folks — that is, the largely white base who elected him: "We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people," he said, becoming the first president to echo a Batman adversary in an inaugural address. He added, "The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer." White House chief adviser Steve Bannon later deemed the speech "Jacksonian."

The new president's brutal first week in office was proof that he plans to put that narrow idea of who and what is American to the test. Trump has already begun rolling back the Affordable Care Act, removed the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, announced he'll soon make his Supreme Court pick (after Republicans refused for nearly a year to confirm President Obama's nominee), and frozen all federal hiring outside of the military. He casually threatened to "send in the feds" to Chicago to address shootings. Information and knowledge have long been Trump's enemies, so the president also barred a few government agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services — from communicating with the public via press releases or social media. (And it didn't even work.) To top it off, the Washington Post reported that on his first day on the job, Trump ordered one of the Interior's agencies, the National Park Service, to back up his lie about his inauguration audience on the National Mall. It didn't take long — not even a day — before his pettiness and authoritarian nature shone through. But none of that was the worst of it.

On Monday morning, the first business day after millions of Women's Marchers dwarfed the crowd who'd watched his inauguration in Washington, Trump responded the only way he knows how: escalation. He didn't just revive the anti-abortion "global gag rule," as every Republican president has done since Ronald Reagan — he appears to have expanded it dramatically. The new rule reportedly won't just exclude global health organizations from U.S. funding for family planning if they present abortion as a option to their patients. Now it appears that every dollar of our global health resources, the largest such chunk of funding in the world, will be affected. Trump's move expands the rule's influence more than tenfold over organizations doing work to address and prevent health crises such as malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and AIDS. (Therein lies a racial element to this, given how much work non-governmental organizations do in Haiti and Africa. How many outbreaks will we see now? How will this affect the economies of those nations, given that many of them depend heavily on U.S. foreign aid for health services?)

Whereas Reagan's original 1984 policy wasn't about saving lives, Trump's gag-rule expansion really drives the point home. It is the cruelest version yet.

It isn't too dramatic or hyperbolic to note that the original gag rule has proven lethal to women worldwide, pushing them to dangerous lengths to receive medical care. And for what, really? What's accomplished by withholding U.S. funds that can't be used to pay for abortions abroad as it is, unless in the cases of rape or incest? Like most of the so-called "pro-life" movement, the gag rule isn't about saving fetuses so much as it is about policing women's sexual behavior and stigmatizing reproductive choice, reinforcing patriarchal norms at the expense of women's lives. But Trump's version of the rule has an added air of reckless spite around it. Scott Evertz, the former head of the White House National Office of AIDS Policy under George W. Bush, told Slate that "I would not necessarily be surprised if it were a reaction to the women’s marches." After all, this is a president who didn't get militant about abortion until 2016 and has repeatedly struck back at those who've slighted him.

Getty Images

Nothing seems to bother Trump as much as losing the popular vote, and the effect that fact has on his perceived legitimacy as president. Trump repeated lies all week about the "illegal" votes that he says gave Hillary Clinton her 2.8 million vote advantage. While his comments certainly hint at a forthcoming attack on voting rights, they also scapegoat undocumented immigrants to assuage his voters' anxieties. To that end, Trump jump-started efforts to fund his ridiculous border wall this week, ordered sanctuary cities not to shield undocumented immigrants from removal, and blocked all refugees for 120 days and citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days. Trump also dropped something fresh and especially despicable: an executive order calling for the Department of Homeland Security to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The Nazis did something similar, keeping files on "crimes committed by Jews" to stoke people's prejudice and fear. That Trump would risk those parallels to reinforce white exceptionalism indicates how much he plans to rely upon it as president.

What does that mean? Well, it's something Jackson, Trump's apparent role model, embodied in his own actions. In his 1830 remarks to Congress justifying his policy of "Indian removal" — which would lead to the Trail of Tears eight years later, killing thousands — Jackson argued that the Cherokee and other tribes should be thankful that they were being removed from their home to make room for the white settlers who looted their possessions and killed their tribesmen. "And is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian?" he said, adding, "Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous." It's very clear whose lives mattered in 1830, and, still, today.

In this sense, Trump most emulated Jackson when he attempted to reboot efforts to construct both the Keystone and the Dakota Access pipelines — two environmentally reckless projects that Obama either stalled or outright blocked after sustained citizen protests. There are few more imperial actions the U.S. government can take than the seizure of Native American tribal land, and Dakota Access, in whose parent company Trump was once invested, specifically threatens the Standing Rock Sioux's water supply and burial grounds. They have every right to be concerned. Trump signed his executive order a day after a pipeline in Canada spilled more than 52,000 gallons of oil onto aboriginal lands.

The pipeline news may have been a bit lost amid Trump's varied insanities last week, but it sent a clear message: You don't own this land, even if you and your ancestors hold it. Our new president will decide whether you have a birthright to equal American citizenship, or even rights to your own body. Louder than it has in decades, the White House is telling us to make even more room for the white man. After all, he thinks he is the one who has been forgotten.