California Forum

On the art of the hostage taking

Last year, President Trump ordered the United States Border Patrol to take child hostages by the thousands as a way to deter would-be immigrants and asylum seekers from entering our country. Last month, he decided to close down the government, taking as his hostages the families of 800,000 federal employees who would go without pay during the shutdown.

Nearly a month later, unpaid Transportation Security Administration officials are being fed by sympathetic travelers, food safety inspections have largely stopped, immigration hearings have slowed to a crawl and national parks are closed. Food stamp money is on the verge of running out and people who rely on subsidies for rent may face eviction.

Amidst all of this heartache, Trump offered up a hostage-swap deal. Our child president has offered temporary protection for “Dreamers” and Temporary Protected Status immigrants in exchange for a $5.7 billion ransom for his vanity project “wall.” Of course, these immigrants only need protection in the first place because of Trump’s capricious, animus-filled decision to target their status and to repeatedly demonize them in his public utterances.


But something’s changed over the past months. Trump’s bullying tactics may no longer work. Where his antics once inspired fear, they now increasingly inspire mockery and fierce opposition.

For months after the November 2016 election, progressives seemed absolutely shell-shocked and impotent in the face of turmoil. But paralysis has now been replaced by righteous anger. People by the millions are organizing to fight for change, and those opposed to Trump and his amoral “transactional” governance are confident that the arc of history will ultimately bend in their favor.

Sasha Abramsky.JPG
Sasha Abramsky

By the third annual women’s march this past weekend, they were not only fighting mad, but also ready to seize back control over the country’s destiny. After November’s midterm elections, they know the power that mobilized progressive movements can generate.

Political banners only tell one so much, but one of the things that struck me at this most recent Women’s March was the willingness to use humor to puncture Trump’s strongman bubble. My favorite sign was an imagined conversation between A. A. Milne’s famous characters, Pooh and Piglet:

“Is Trump still President?” asked Piglet.

“Yes,” said Pooh.

“F--,” said Piglet.

So much bemusement is conveyed in that three-line imagined conversation. What makes it perfect is the sense of childhood marvel at the insanity of the adult world, which is pretty much what tens of millions of Americans feel today. It makes no sense that a man as heinous as Donald Trump – a man so ready to shred the most basic codes of decency – is the most powerful human being on Earth.

When my kids were much younger, I used to read them Winnie the Pooh stories on a fairly regular basis. Pooh always seemed to have rhymes to meet the needs of each and every moment. My kids used to particularly love the ditty: “Isn’t it funny / how a bear loves honey? / Buzz! Buzz! Buzz!/ I wonder why he does.”

As I marched, I couldn’t help wondering how that little bear would have navigated today’s hostage-taking moment. What would he have done had he been asked to exchange his friends’ well-being for his precious honeypot?

“Should I give him Roo / Like he wants me to do? / Shame! Shame! Shame! / What a vicious damn game.”

Or: “Should I pay Trump’s price/ A hostage-taker thrice? / Ugh! Ugh! Ugh! / What a foul mean thug.”

Back in 2016, there was a rash of stories about how young children instinctively shied away from Trump’s image and voice on TV. He scared them, even if they didn’t know why. Two years on, we know exactly why. The man is an extortion artist and someone who feels no compunction about hurting millions of people to get his way.

Yet despite his jutting chin and Mussolini-type posing, he’s an extraordinarily weak leader. His power depends on a cluster of fair-weather friends in the US Senate. He’s lost the battle for the public’s support on every one of his signature issues. He’s in legal peril from the Mueller investigation and New York State investigations. The House of Representatives is itching to impeach him. He’s seen as a malignancy by most every other Western leader. And he is having to scrape not just the bottom of the barrel to find people willing to work for him, but the mold underneath those scrapings.

The men, women and children who came out marching in every major city across the US on January 19th represent people power. They understand that Trump is a five-alarm emergency, and that the longer his aberrant presidency continues, the more he will destroy democratic precepts and shred the communal fabric. And, increasingly, they feel wind in their sails.

Sasha Abramsky, who teaches at UC Davis, is a Sacramento writer whose latest book is “Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream.” He can be contacted at