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“Texas Taliban”: Why Things Can Be Bad Without Being Foreign
American media loves nothing more than likening uniquely American far-right political currents with those baddie, poor, non-white countries.
Since the draconian Texas abortion ban was denied hearing by the Supreme Court two days ago and effectively became law, #TexasTaliban has been trending on Twitter. Author Stephen King insisted, “The Taliban would love the Texas abortion law.” Cable news pundit Cheri Jacobus said, “We need an airlift out of Taliban Texas. Women and girls first.” The Arizona Republic’s E.J. Montini wrote, “Texas goes Taliban on abortion rights. Is Arizona next?” Actor Harry Shearer joked (?), “Remarkable that, in the same week, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan AND the Texas legislature.” Syndicated columnist Aisha Sultan tweeted, “A young girl who is brutally raped is forced to carry her pregnancy to term. Is this life for women under the Taliban in Afghanistan? Or is this life for women under the GOP in Texas?”
The trauma and stakes of the Texas law are immeasurable, and the need to reach for an evocative frame to express the stakes is understandable. But the habit of Expressing How Bad Republican Bad Thing Is By Making It Foreign is a pernicious trope that’s worth examining in its own right.
Some on social media did push back. Senior Editor of Law and Policy for Rewire News Group Imani Gandy tweeted, “This is right wing Christian evangelicalism. Homegrown. Stop invoking a racist bogeyman.” Author and lawyer Qasim Rashid patiently gave a detailed breakdown about why glibly throwing around “Sharia law” to describe the Texas law was incorrect and offensive. This isn’t a recent phenomenon, either: Since the U.S. began its 20-year war against the Taliban—and subsequent half-dozen wars against majority Muslim populations—the comparisons between white evangelical Americans and whatever Muslim groups needed to be pejorative shorthand at that very movement have been frequent. As the excellent Twitter account GW-era Leftism reminds us, these jokes by supposed enlightened liberals were common from the jump:
And it’s part of a much larger trend. American pundits, politicians, and columnists have long held a chauvinistic pathology of criticizing things the American rightwing does by likening them to icky and bad things from those poor, nonwhite countries. It’s a beat I’ve been on for a while, including a February 2017 Op-Ed in The Los Angeles Times, “Stop comparing Trump to foreign leaders. He’s a distinctly American phenomenon” where I detailed the nonstop torrent of articles using “the Third World” or'' Latin America” or “Asian communists” to convey the horribleness of Trump.
This tic was particularly popular after the January 6 mob attacks on the Capitol, as well. That day, an endless stream of pundits and politicians insisted the fascist power grab was bad insofar that it reminded them of what those countries over there do:
NPR’s Mara Liasson: “This is what happens in Banana Republics”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger: “I’m a former intelligence officer and what we are seeing today is what happens in third world countries.”
Sen. Marco Rubio: “There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy.”
Former President George W. Bush: "This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic—not our democratic republic."
Rep. Mike Gallagher: “We are witnessing absolute banana republic crap in the United States Capitol right now.”
Former Sen. Claire McCaskill: “Trump has made us into a third world banana republic. The shining democracy on the hill is sustaining real damage today.”
Rep. Seth Moulton: “I expected violent assault on democracy as a US Marine in Iraq. I never imagined it as a United States congressman in America.”
Washington Post’s Greg Sargent: “A Banana Republic, paralyzed by street violence that we all saw coming.”
Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur: “Trump turned this country into a Banana Republic and GOP encouraged him every step of the way.”
Rep. Steve Cohen: "This is now a third world country led by a tin-pot dictator.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper: “It’s surreal, I feel like I’m talking to a correspondent reporting from, you know, Bogota.”
In the spring and summer of 2016, when American media was trying to make sense of the increasingly likely prospect of a Trump Republican nomination, this cliche was everywhere. There basically wasn’t a corner of the non-white globe the U.S. media didn’t liken Trump to:
MSNBC’s Joy AnnReid: ”The GOP has developed an almost third world attitude toward the presidency: if they can't have it, they will seek to destroy whoever does.”
Economist Justin Wolfers: “Threatening your political opponent with prison is third-world dictatorial stuff. Undemocratic. Un-American.”
Politico: “Donald Trump Tweets Like a Latin American Strongman”
Trevor Noah: Donald Trump Is “Basically an African Dictator”
Washington Post: “America Would be Trump’s Banana Republic”
Washington Post: “‘Lock Her Up’ Is the Chant of a Banana Republic.”
Foreign Policy: “Who Said It, Donald Trump or a Chinese Communist?”
Reuters: “What Hugo Chávez and Donald Trump Have in Common”
Business Insider: “Donald Trump has the home-decorating taste of a Third-World dictator.”
The Diplomat: “Trumpmenbashi: What Central Asia’s Spectacular States Can Tell Us”
Elizabeth Warren: “[Trump] sounded like some two-bit dictator of some country that you couldn’t find on a map.”
The shocking rise of Trump in 2016, rather than leading to a nationwide self-examination of what brought him to this point of securing the Republican Party nomination, led instead to the media and political classes attempting to outdo each other by reducing his fascistic tendencies to increasingly goofy and obscure references to supposedly bad people in the Global South. Rather than a widespread, existential critique of how NBCUniversal propped up Trump’s career for over a decade by giving him a popular reality TV program––even after he went full-blown birther against Obama––we got dozens of Hugo Chavez Comparisons. Rather than discussing the way Trump’s campaign was a continuation of Pat Buchanan’s “America first” 2000 campaign and the way Buchanan found a cushy home at MSNBC alongside Rachel Maddow, we got photoshopped images of Trump as an “African dictator.” Instead of pinning Trump to a long line of right-wing demagogues appealing to white resentment––from George Wallace’s segregationist campaigns to Ronald Regan’s “States Rights speech” in 1976 Philadelphia, Mississippi to George W.H. Bush’s Willie Horton ad to Bill Clinton’s execution of Ricky Ray Rector and 1993 campaign speech in front of Georgia’s notorious Stone Mountain Correctional Institution––we got the 8000th joke about how Trump is just like a “tin pot” dictator from a small, obscure, and presumably ugly country.
My February 2017 tally in the Los Angeles Times “found that Trump had been compared by U.S. media to Chinese leaders eight times, Iranian leaders nine times, and Venezuelan leaders 30 times.” By contrast, Trump had only been compared to contemporary Western white, rightwingers like Pat Buchanan and the United Kingdom’s Nigel Farage “four and six times, respectively.” Our pundits only gave passing mention to the conservative and evangelical currents, the corporate media that profited from Trump by overlooking decades of racist incitement decided the best way to indemnify itself and the broader Republican party was to make Trump a one-off foreign import.
So, maybe next time the American right—with its own antecedents and racist, long-held political currents—does something awful, we can think of another way of conveying the stakes and horribleness of the policy without implying that their cruelty and anti-woman hatred is bad because it’s reduced our once civilized and enlightened society to the level of the Global South.