"I was standing there at the mercy of a drone."
Farea al-Muslimi's story was one that could have been told by many. Though moving and startling, his account — articulated during a Senate hearing in 2013 — revealed nothing new to those who, for years, have lived in constant fear of the American drones hovering overhead, emitting "a flat, gnawing buzz" that serves as a perpetual reminder of loved ones executed for reasons that will likely never be revealed.
"The candidacy of Donald Trump has, in many ways, given Democrats an easy way out."
Farea was just 22 years old when he spoke before Congress; more importantly, he was the first Yemeni to deliver such a speech. Along with being the poorest country in the region, Yemen has in recent years been beset by internal fighting in conjunction with murderous bombardments from the outside, largely by Saudi Arabia, whose military is bolstered by material and tactical support from the United States.
"In Abyan and other places in Yemen, I visited many locations where local residents were suffering from the consequences of targeted killing operations," Farea said. "I have met with relatives of people who were killed by drone strikes as well as numerous eyewitnesses. They have told me how these air strikes have changed their lives for the worse."
His pleas for justice — and his call for a complete end to "targeted killing strikes" — were met with the usual applause and praise, but nothing changed.
Stories like those Farea encountered in his attempts to provide a voice to the victims of America's drone operations have continued to emerge. In February of 2015, Mohammed Tuaiman, a 13-year-old Yemeni, was killed in a drone strike — the same way his father and teenage brother were killed years earlier.
"A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them and some now have mental problems," Mohammed said shortly before he was executed. "They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep."
Since assuming the presidency, Barack Obama has massively expanded American drone operations, and despite his soaring promises, there has been little transparency to speak of; the administration's recent attempt to be forthcoming about its deadly operations in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere fall in the far too little, far too late category.
"In particular, the administration has not explained who it has killed, the basis for the decision to kill, or the actual result of specific drone strikes," writes David Cole. "Secret executions cannot be squared with the rule of law. They are the stuff of death squads, not democracies."
"Democrats and self-proclaimed "real conservatives" can scream about Trump all they want, but doing so will not erase the crises that exist not in some future dystopia with Trump at the helm, but right now."
Drones are an uncomfortable topic for Democrats eager to paint their party as the party of sanity, the party of basic human decency, the party of so-called American values.
But the candidacy of Donald Trump has, in many ways, given Democrats an easy way out: His racism and sexism, his shameless ignorance, and his constant bluster provide Democrats — and opportunistic Republicans — with endless fodder, along with endless opportunities to ignore present realities in favor of apocalyptic visions of things to come.
A Trump presidency, we are told, would be an unprecedented disaster; his proposals and his proclamations, we are frequently reminded, are the most dangerous ever uttered by the nominee of a major party. We are urged to listen to the respectable voices of the American foreign policy establishment, who recently declared that Trump represents a unique threat to American security interests.
But this is largely a farce — and a dangerous one. They are correct, of course, that Trump is a menace; they are wrong, however, in their self-interested assumption that representatives of the status quo are somehow humane, respectable, or in any way worthy of the reverence they are so often granted.
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For instance, while simultaneously denouncing Donald Trump's dangerous proposals, Hillary Clinton is reportedly seeking the endorsement of Henry Kissinger, whose heinous record is all too familiar. She has also received — and touted — the endorsement of former CIA director Michael Morell, who recently recommended that the United States begin "covertly" killing Russians and Iranians to make them "pay a price in Syria." And he, like Trump, has defended the use of torture.
These examples (and there are many more) underline a crucial point: Business as usual is often just as horrifying as vulgar demagoguery — far more so, in this case, because it is actually happening.
It wasn't, after all, a Trump-like character who produced the framework for the invasion of Iraq, and it wasn't a Trump-like character who implemented the torture and detention regime; it was the "responsible men" now feigning outrage at Trump's proposals. But far from decrying these violations of both international law and the values they claim to cherish, Democrats have often been quite willing to go along — even willing, in some cases, to be more aggressive.
For his part, President Obama, after running as the antithesis of the Bush administration, went on to expand some of the more contemptible elements of the war on terror. The drone operations have already been mentioned. Then there is the mass surveillance regime.
Then, of course, there is the war on whistleblowers. Considering the long-brewing scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server — and her careless handling of classified information — during her tenure as secretary of state, and considering the outrage Trump has sparked by showing disdain for press freedom, this is particularly relevant.
"For the nearly eight years of President Obama's presidency, national security officials and the president himself have insisted that unauthorized leaks of classified information are an unambiguous threat to national security and leakers must be hunted down, prosecuted and discouraged," writes Branko Marcetic. "Through this reasoning, the Obama administration has instituted a government program to weed out potential leakers; thrown an accused whistleblower into 11 months of solitary confinement before she was found guilty of any crime; charged more than twice the number of people as all other administrations combined with violating the 99-year old Espionage Act; and even briefly threatened to criminalize journalism itself."
On such topics, Democrats, and the pundits who claim to be so profoundly worried about a Trump presidency, have been less vocal. Because, as with much of what Democratic Party leaders say and do, style is more important than substance.
It is remarkable how quickly such figures as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have, with the emergence of Trump, become icons of a once respectable and serious Republican Party in the eyes of many liberal commentators. And Democratic politicians, including the president himself, have participated in this historical amnesia by portraying Trump as anomalous, rather than as a louder embodiment of the mainstream conservative movement.
"In making Trump sui generis, by insisting that he is an utter novelty, you allow the rest of the party to distance themselves from him, to make him extreme and themselves respectable, and to regroup after November," writes Corey Robin. "Not only is this bad for down-ballot Democrats. It lets the entire Republican Party—all the decades of its rotten, racist, revanchist formations—off the hook. Clinton gets to say she has the support of mainstream, respectable Republicans; they get to say, if not I’m with her, then at least I’m not with him. And with that, a ticket to legitimacy."
But as Nathan Robinson has noted, this posture is not particularly surprising: Democrats seem content to uphold and perpetuate the status quo, and to defend it from encroachments by demagogues like Trump and genuine progressives like Bernie Sanders.
There can be no doubt that Donald Trump is a contemptible and dangerous character. But these facts don't make business as usual — that is, the realities we currently face — any less contemptible. Chelsea Manning is still in prison, along with Jeffrey Sterling and other whistleblowers; drones are still killing and maiming innocents; Palestinians are still suffering under an illegal and brutal occupation; immigrants are still being detained in private detention facilities; black and Latino communities are still being exploited and brutalized; corporate America still has a tight grip on the political process; climate change is still wreaking havoc; inequality is still soaring.
"This is what your country is. This is what your country always has been. Donald Trump doesn't make America ugly; Donald Trump reveals its ugliness to people who are too comfortable to want to hear it," summarizes Fredrik deBoer. "The day after Trump is defeated, they'll go back to numb apathy. Many of the people who cry today for undocumented immigrants won't say a word as a Democratic president enforces our already-horrific immigration law. They won't lift a finger against our already-existing war on Muslims. The status quo will stay the status quo and the rot that the ugly Trump campaign has revealed will go right on rotting."
Democrats and self-proclaimed "real conservatives" can scream about Trump all they want, but doing so will not erase the crises that exist not in some future dystopia with Trump at the helm, but right now.
As George Orwell observed, it is quite easy to miss "what is in front of one's nose." But as Orwell also understood, facts are even easier to miss when one's material interests depend on one's willingness to speak them out of existence.