What does Trump’s victory mean for human rights?

The worry with President-elect Trump’s immediate Republican predecessor was that he was too committed to human rights, that President G W Bush and his team preached with neo-conservative zeal for the forced conversion of the planet to democracy in a way that was eventually to play its part in the ill-fated invasion of Iraq.  Every American president since Johnson has been similarly committed: Carter, Clinton and Obama are the obvious ones but Reagan too luxuriated in the moral exhibitionism human rights allowed him and even Nixon had been the first to set up a human rights team at the State Department.  If Trump’s language is to be believed, these decades of consistent policy-making are about to be set aside.

Trump and the gang of late middle-aged white men with whom he is surrounding himself reject the underlying assumption of human rights, that we are all entitled to equality of esteem in view of our being human.  Mexicans are crooks and rapists.  Women are sexual instruments to be grabbed at if circumstances allow. The families of suspected ‘terrorists’ may be killed for the supposed wrongdoings of their relatives. Muslims can be punished in various ways (put on lists; denied entry to the US; interned?) simply because they are Muslims. And so on.  Being reactive to events the list has the potential to grow and grow.

Protesters hold signs about Trump's beliefs and values at a rally in North Carolina in September. Source: J. Bicking/ Shutterstock.com.

Protesters hold signs about Trump’s beliefs and values at a rally in North Carolina in September. Source: J. Bicking/ Shutterstock.com.

There are four main worries about what Trump means for human rights.

One, when stuff happens the White House crowd will have no human rights controls on their behaviour but will have a vocabulary of othering that will make drastic action against weak groups both at home and abroad (disproportionate bombing; careless assassination; crazy movie-style military incursions; nuclear assault) much easier to envisage and execute. The UN system of international human rights protection will simply not figure as a concern when they are under even slight pressure.

Second, as the complexity of global capitalism defeats them and life does not deliver what Trump promised his electorate the temptation to scapegoat will be impossible to avoid – discussions have already begun about Jewish financiers and financial institutions being run by – as the British prime minister put it recently to her own Party – ‘citizens of nowhere.’

This last reminds us of a third danger, one similar to BREXIT but on a vast scale: the lift Trump has given to anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic white supremacism all around the world. France is next up and Germany later in the year.  We will know more by the end of 2017, but we could just be witnessing the end of the liberal/social democratic experiment, its replacement by – can we avoid the term? – national socialism – all building for prosperity and blaming others for our problems.

Fourthly and most immediately there is the war on women and non-whites both in the US and around the world that Trump’s win has already begun. The pressure for ‘political correctness’ is off. Finally we old white guys can call it like it is. The locker room these weird angry men inhabited has gone public.

There are reasons to be optimistic. The Guantanamo litigation in the US has made indefinite detention of people harder than it might otherwise have been. The corporations may decline the invitation to destroy the planet. The military have already begun to explain gently to their celebrity commander-in-chief-elect that fun though it might be, torture is not so great as a tool for achieving anything other than pleasure in the pain inflicted on others.  Hopefully somebody (President Obama?) will explain the same about nuclear holocaust. The Trump revolt may be the dying ember of an ageing entitled elite shouting into a growing darkness, to be replaced soon by a progressive coalition. Don’t bet on it.  Europe needs to hunker down, and work to retain its human rights personality while securing its borders. There needs to be some memory somewhere of what a human rights society looks like while the rest of the world plunges into capitalist crony-tyranny.


Conor Gearty is Professor of Human Rights Law LSE.  His book, On Fantasy Island. Britain, Strasbourg and Human Rights, will be launched at LSE on 8 December: the event (at 6:30pm) is open to all.

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