On Friday President Donald Trump appeared to keep his campaign promise and issued an executive order to stop immigration into the US from 7 countries – all of which have predominantly Muslim populations. The uproar of the last week is what followed. This continues a general national tone which is apparently the new normal of the Trump Presidency. Lost in the outrage and barrage of half-truths from both sides is the reality of what the President truly did and what has taken shape since. We have a new political narrative in the United States and neither side is overly concerned with facts.
Some Basic Premises
Every nation has a right to protect and enforce its own sovereign borders however it sees fit. This is a foundational assumption of the international order. That is why invasions are frowned upon. The means and measurements of a nation’s border enforcement need not be popular internationally but it is a fundamental right of sovereign states to have this prerogative. While this is true, American history is one defined by immigration. Ideas like the “melting pot,” icons like the Statue of Liberty, not to mention the rise to prominence in the 19th and early 20th centuries speak to the cultural legacy of immigration in the United States.
Hidden beneath this legacy are the darker stains of frequent anti-immigration sentiment that has also been a consistent piece of our history. Economic downturns and transitions frequently translated to new immigrant populations serving as the scapegoat for those losing out in such times. Nevertheless, the image of open doors to the world has been a central American value and ideal since George Washington’s farewell address.
America’s leaders have a right to open or close the nation’s borders but the historical legacy of openness is part of the nation’s cultural identity. These premises being established let’s examine what has taken shape since last Friday.
A Time of Constant Outrage
President Trump thrives on media outrage and controversy. This was his appeal, his modus operandi, throughout the presidential campaign. Insulting John McCain’s military record, supporting torture, and promising to “bomb the hell” out of our enemies were just the tip of the bravado iceberg which candidate Trump danced upon to sell his brand of political incorrectness to a frustrated electorate.
The media was no victim in this chaotic and unstatesmanlike campaign. All branches of American media institutions lived off Trump’s outrage and controversy-fueled campaign like it was oxygen. In the course of the presidential election a sort of ecosystem was developed between the two. The candidate who was seemingly willing to make any remark that resulted in personal attention fed the shock and outrage of the media machines who quickly gasped in horror before talking about it, analyzing it, and saturating the public with it until the candidate’s next episode.
The common root between both sides of this relationship is a lack of principle and conviction. This has proven even more prevalent since candidate Trump became President Trump. When pundits, protesters, politicians and talking heads accuse Donald Trump of being a fascist or a Nazi or made in the image of Hitler – the American public needs to pay careful attention– then they need to roll their eyes in dismay. Such statements are a media hyped narrative and not the real issue taking shape.
The great differentiation between President Trump and the many dictators and fascists he is often compared to by the media comes down to two words – deliberate foresight. Hitler and Goebbels (both of which I have seen the President compared to many times in the media this week) were wicked, evil men because they had a deliberate purpose and plan that fostered their actions, words and horrific results.
Donald Trump does not. The assumption of foresight and deliberation on the part of President Trump is giving him far more credit than his record deserves.
The so called “Muslim Ban” of last Friday never mentions a ban on Muslims. Not once! It is called that on the basis of two points:
1) The countries selected for the ban are all predominantly Muslim. (Look up the difference between correlation and causation to help here.)
2) In the presidential campaign Donald Trump promised to ban Muslims.
Deductive reasoning then leads us to believe this is a ban on Muslims entering the country. But there are many Muslim countries that are NOT included in the ban. So how can this be a Muslim ban?
The real issue is even more simple than that. To believe that the executive order of last Friday is tied to Donald Trump’s statement in the campaign is to presuppose a level of responsibility and connectedness in Donald Trump’s statements and consciousness. It is to believe that he has an ultimate purpose here. He doesn’t! He is in the moment revving up the crowd and the consequences are not a thing he finds necessary to consider.
We aren’t dealing with a fascist. We are dealing with a carnival barker. He lives to stir the pot and be the story.
Facts About the Ban
The executive order to Protect the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States placed a 90 day travel ban on citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The US Refugee Admissions Program was suspended for 120 days. Syrian refugees were indefinitely prohibited from entering the United States.
At an individual level two groups of people were immediately affected by the order: refugees seeking asylum in the US and foreign citizens of the seven countries mentioned above who were planning on traveling to the US.
These are the basic facts and after that comes the politics and/or incompetence.
Critics have argued that as many as 20,000 refugees could have been resettled and found safety in the US during this 120 day suspension. Many of those refugees would have been from Syria. Shortly before leaving office President Obama set the number of refugees allowed into the US for fiscal year 2017 at 110,000. Among this number would be 40,000 from the Middle East, presumably many from Syria which President Trump has now shut down. This is a violation of American values literally inscribed on the Statue of Liberty meant to welcome the world’s oppressed:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
The problem with this assumption is that since 2012, the start of President Obama’s second term, the US has taken in only slightly more than 12,000 Syrian refugees – total. President Obama raised the number allowed before he left office with the expectation, if not dare, for President Trump to reduce it. President Trump is being judged by measures President Obama was not judged and then ridiculed as authoritarian.
Critics also point out that the selection of the seven countries affected by the executive order is not reasonable because no terrorism related deaths on American soil have come from these countries. In fact, those countries whose citizens have launched deadly terrorist attacks on US soil (Saudi Arabia for example) are not even mentioned in the order.
The countries were selected on the basis of prior policy however. All seven countries have high volumes of terrorist activity and pose a threat in exporting that activity abroad. In fact, President Obama’s administration created the list. In 2011 after the fingerprints of an Iraqi refugee living in Kentucky were found in Iraq on a roadside bomb planted to harm American troops the Obama administration had to reevaluate and greatly reduce its refugee intake that year.
In 2011 the number of refugees coming into the United States slowed to a trickle compared to 2010 and 2012. This was in direct response to presidential orders after the Iraqi refugee in Kentucky was identified and found to have slipped through the system. After the many exemptions and special cases that the Trump administration ends up allowing to be excused from the executive order this year, the numbers could be very similar to what President Obama allowed in 2011.
So what is the difference between the two? The Obama administration had the good sense and experience to not declare they were issuing an immigration ban. And even if they had said this in 2011, the media would have been unable to link it to previous remarks that singled out specific religious groups for immigration bans. President Obama and his team did not do these things because to do so would prove they were either mad or completely inept.
Incompetence Not Fascism
The terrible revelation of this whole episode is not that President Trump and his inner circle are a bunch of sinister enemies to humanity. It is that they are horribly incompetent. The entire implementation of the executive order was done with a level of vagueness and miscommunication that bypassed the instruments of statecraft and organization to insure mistakes. The order touted to secure the United States from terrorism, was not even first vetted by the security establishment of the United States.
This legal analysis of the executive order makes the following observations related to the ineptness of its implementation:
NBC is reporting that the document was not reviewed by DHS, the Justice Department, the State Department, or the Department of Defense, and that National Security Council lawyers were prevented from evaluating it. Moreover, the New York Times writes that Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the agencies tasked with carrying out the policy, were only given a briefing call while Trump was actually signing the order itself. Yesterday, the Department of Justice gave a “no comment” when asked whether the Office of Legal Counsel had reviewed Trump’s executive orders — including the order at hand. (OLC normally reviews every executive order.)
While most of the country was fearing fascism and authoritarianism the real story was that the commander in chief and his inner circle might not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Granted, all presidential administrations have a rough start. We forget the first 2-3 years of President Obama’s administration too quickly. But this is a level of tactlessness that is unprecedented in the modern presidency.
Could the miscommunications and misunderstandings and levels of frustration have been prevented this past weekend? Easily. The fact that they were not prevented bring us to the real issue taking shape. President Trump, consistent with his campaign and his life as a celebrity, values controversy, outrage and personal attention more than he does any single policy or political strategy. The resulting outrage from this executive order played right into his personal priorities. At the same time, the ineptness, vagueness, miscommunication and lack of coordination presented the order as ripe fodder for the collective imagination of the media and its audiences (slightly more than half of whom did not vote for the President).
It has been said that perception becomes people’s reality. Personally, I have always struggled with that statement as it is too accommodating to self-deception. Never the less, we are living in a world where increasingly alternate realities are being defined by alternate perceptions.
Make no mistake the executive order of last Friday was political in nature, not substantive. It was designed to get a rise from the President’s supporters and foment outrage from his critics. This will not prevent terrorism. It does not even target the causes or avenues through which terrorism flows in the real world. But political actions have real world consequences, especially when such actions are as muddled as this one was. Innocent people were caught in the crossfire and it is very likely that innocent people who might have lived will now die due to this policy. It is certain that the values of openness and liberty which America has historically lauded itself for have been severely damaged.
Accepting this as factual realities we must also realize that much of the hype this past week has been built upon perception and not reality. All too easily many in the United States jumped to the conclusion of an Orwellian nightmare unfolding before our eyes. Comparisons to the rise of fascism, the turning away of Holocaust refugees in the 1930s, were at the tip of so many people’s tongues before the facts were even known or understood.
This story featured in a New York Times article on the chaos at JFK Airport last weekend captures this conflict between reality and perception:
Espaillat was born in the Dominican Republic and arrived in the United States in 1964 as a young boy. “I came to this country with no papers, you know?” he told me. His parents had come to New York to reunite with his grandparents, who immigrated in the 1950s; after overstaying their visitor’s visas, Espaillat’s family had petitioned for green cards, returned to the Dominican Republic and come back to New York as legal residents. “I felt this was personal for me,” he said. “If it was Saturday, I would’ve been one of those people stopped.” He drove to Kennedy early in the evening.
At Terminal 1, he said, the C.B.P. officers checked his congressional ID and ushered him into a small room with a Plexiglas window and a security door. “It felt like a prison,” he said. He asked the officers about the detainees. “They just refused to give me any information about them,” he said. When he asked for the name of the officers’ supervisor, none of them would provide it, he said. “I told them that I didn’t feel that Customs and Border Protection was a secret society,” he said. “If you go to a police precinct and ask for the commander, you have the right to know who that person is. A platoon in the Army, you have the right to know who the commanding officer is.” All they would give him was a general office number to call. “ ‘We can’t put you in touch with anyone’ — that was the attitude,” he said.
International travelers, even American citizens, will recognize the absurdity of this man’s behavior. I am not justifying the demeanor or rudeness exemplified by the customs and security personnel at the New York airports but any American citizen travelling abroad is familiar with it. The very much “UNWELCOME HOME” message these government agents exhibit when you arrive is dispiriting the moment you step onto American soil.
I have friends from the Caribbean who frequently travel back and forth to the US for Christian ministry related work. They have told of all sorts of inconvenience, rudeness, intimidation tactics and more that are freely utilized by government agents to measure those who want to enter “Fortress America.” It is common. Another friend, also in Christian ministry, was recently pulled aside and held in customs for several hours because he had logged several trips to Canada in the last year visiting churches. When stating the purpose of his visit he would say “to visit a friend.” The security apparatus, after logging so many repeat visits and purposes of the visit deemed that a worthy threat to hold him.
The experience highlighted in the New York Times article demonstrates reality inflamed by a narrative and perception that is pushing the divisions within America to the breaking point.
Closer to the Breaking Point
The popular narrative is based upon a growing alarm of authoritarianism and fascism. This is a distraction. The greater threat to American society is the failure to need or expect facts and reality in order to manage our responses. Our emotions, our outrage, our protest are being tossed about by both sides without any sense of responsibility or priority for facts and truth. As these divisions grow wider and the polarization becomes more intense, what happens when genuine threats confront us? We are losing confidence in our leaders and our institutions. That loss of confidence is resulting in a society increasingly insecure and vulnerable.
Long ago the American propagandist Thomas Paine wrote in his book American Crisis “These are the times that try men’s souls.” We are in such times once again! The difference makers, the ones who can stand with confidence and hope are not those who yell the loudest, protest the fastest, or become the most outraged toward either side. The standard bearers in these times will be those who can keep their heads and distinguish truth from perceptions and lead others to do the same.