Imagine Your Well Meaning Policy in the Tiny Hands of Donald Trump  

One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power.
An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).


Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t.

This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state.

Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole.

Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly.

But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state.

While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties.

So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws.

None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.

Boiling the Frog Yields Diminishing Returns

To make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home.

When a country enjoys relatively good protections for human rights, citing the most extreme examples of rights abuses elsewhere could inspire compancency, not vigilance. To make the defence of the Human Rights Act into a vote winner, we need to frame the debate closer to home.

Last week I made some notes on Yvette Cooper’s speech on the balance between liberty and security. I wrote this:

The Shadow Cabinet need to find the passion and the language to defend the Human Rights Act against a sustained Tory attack. If the entire Labour Party routinely cites liberty as a way of empowering ordinary people, then its support for human rights can become a vote winner.

I have been thinking more about what that ‘language’ shoud be… and what it should not be. Is the current approach to human rights advocacy effective in the British context?

A favourite tactic of human rights campaigners is to argue that a particular policy could send us down a ‘slippery slope’ to more widespread rights violations. We also use the ‘boiling frog‘ analogy, where tiny changes (to the law, or to the temperature in the pan) eventually leads to danger. The argument appears in three guises, depending on whether the end result is similar to an example from 1) fiction; 2) another country; or 3) some point in history.

Continue reading “Boiling the Frog Yields Diminishing Returns”