Donald Trump swept through the primary and election campaigns like a disruptive force of nature to a victory that unsettled almost all conventional wisdom about modern American politics. A shocked Democratic Party and city-based cultural elites are still in denial about his victory.
President Trump is proving to be an equally disruptive force in domestic and world politics alike. Within the U.S. political system, the critical question is if the Trump administration can survive Trump the impulsive, volatile, tweet-addicted person. Globally, Trump let loose on the world is proving to be the metaphorical equivalent of a bull in a china shop. He signed 18 executive orders in the first dozen days in office. World leaders are in shock more than awe at the ensuing turbulence.
A politician eager to implement instead of abandon and dilute core election promises on trade, immigration and national security, and to do so sooner rather than later, is a refreshing and bracing experience. An important explanation for Trump’s victory was swelling disenchantment and backlash against the “normal” politics of dissembling, spin, talking points, slogans and broken promises. Trump won despite himself because his opponent was the very embodiment of establishment “politics as usual,” and in reaction against identity, victim and outrage politics. To that extent opposition to Trump that takes the form of virtue signaling will only endear him more firmly to his base.
A perfect illustration of the tension came with Trump’s executive order of Jan. 27 imposing a 120-day travel ban on all refugees and a 90-day ban on those from seven Muslim-majority countries. The manner in which the policy was announced and implemented with immediate effect was shambolic and callous and cruel in its human impacts. Foreign governments, international airlines, U.S. airport officials, and even government and Republican Party leaders conveyed utter confusion on details. Senior Trump Cabinet members said they had not been consulted or informed in advance, a large number of career diplomats wrote a dissenting cable, and acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee) was fired for instructing staff not to enforce the president’s order.
Would non-citizen migrants and residents from the banned countries be permitted to return to the United States after overseas travel? What about citizens of the countries subject to the ban who were also dual nationals of non-ban countries like Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom?
The answers provided by individual officers at different airports were contradictory and inconsistent. Many travelers with valid visas were prevented from boarding or entering the U.S. and had to return home. In the end lawyers successfully obtained a judicial halt to the capricious ban.
Chaotic implementation aside, how justified was the ban on merits? To begin with, critics are either unaware of or have chosen to ignore the extent to which existing U.S. visa processes and customs/immigration clearance procedures are intensely disliked by many foreigners. Trump was fulfilling a campaign promise to suspend Muslim immigration from terror-affected countries until such time as adequate safety measures could be instituted. Early polls showed majority public support for his decision. Nor was it a ban on all Muslims, most Muslims, or from all the Muslim majority countries. Visitors from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan — with the world’s four biggest Muslim populations — were not affected.
It may also be argued that there is a significant difference between saying no Muslims will be allowed to immigrate; and deciding to limit the numbers of Muslim immigrants so that they do not exceed a defined percentage of the total host population. Much of the angst in Western societies stems from apprehensions of Muslims’ unwillingness to live by the moral code of the host society.
Demands for the applicability of Shariah laws, insistence on full veil covering in public including while driving and testifying in court, polygamous practices, predatory sexual behavior, refusal to take part in swimming lessons alongside members of the other sex, etc., have all fed such fears and paranoia. Western liberal elites have increased the disconnect with mainstream opinion by appearing often to appease such demands instead of defending their own values.
There are matching fears of sleeper terrorists among the refugees and immigrants. The overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. Most contemporary terrorist attacks are carried out in the name of Islam. Most victims of terrorism today are Muslims. Liberals choose to emphasize the first and third but ignore the second while Islamophobes focus only on the second.
Much of the hysterical reaction fed the narrative of self-serving hypocrisy, both in the U.S. and other countries. Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard won re-election in 2001 by insisting that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Trump’s travel ban does not differ substantially from this hard-line statement of border protection and state sovereignty.
Within the U.S., critics ignored the excesses of an imperial presidency under President Barack Obama and also the fact that the Obama administration had imposed a six-month freeze on processing Iraqi refugees in 2011 after discovering that two al-Qaida members had been admitted as refugees from Iraq and were living in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The list of seven countries too was drawn up based on an assessment done by his administration.
Abroad, many other Western countries also have restrictive policies and, as argued in these pages earlier, the Australian policy of offshore detention of would-be refugees arriving by boats is far more cruel than Trump’s travel ban. Many Islamic countries should first repeal their visitor policies banning Israeli Jews before criticizing any country for restricting Muslim arrivals.
Against all this is the immense reputational harm to the United States, the damage to American businesses and services, the rift in relations with key allies and the huge risk of the sheer counter-productiveness of the policy in fighting the scourge of terrorism. Washington surely has an obligation to accept refugees from countries it has bombed, invaded and destabilized.
An important part of U.S. soft power is its openness and welcome to all groups and in particular to the persecuted groups seeking refuge and shelter (think the Statue of Liberty); Trump presents an angry and hostile unwelcome instead that is wrecking U.S. soft power.
Many U.S. firms, especially in the IT sector (Amazon, Apple, Ford, Google, Microsoft), voiced forceful objections based in self-interest: the pool of skilled foreign technical workforce has been a key ingredient of their success in maintaining a global competitive edge. Foreign students and scholars at U.S. universities have been key to innovation, productivity and cutting-edge scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Several allies were left bewildered and resentful at this unprecedented unilateralism by Washington, the debris of which had to be cleaned up by them.
Most importantly, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the policy was a gift to jihadist recruiters in validating their narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam itself, not with terrorism. The ultimate proof of the idiocy of the policy? Not one of the 9/11 hijackers would have been caught in the 2017 travel ban.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. This article first appeared in The Japan Times on February 7, 2017.