For one thing, at least, we owe Donald Trump our most sincere gratitude: He’s given us the gift of clarity. What’s the issue really dividing Americans? It’s not the economy—just look at the way Republicans, formerly the champions of free markets, are cheering on a populist president who bullies CEOs into putting social welfare above the dictates of their own balance sheets. It’s not foreign policy—just look at the party of Reagan cozying up to the Russians and praising Julian Assange as a courageous truth-teller. It’s not even the so-called culture wars, which are good for generating breathless headlines but occupy a relatively small space in the emotional makeup of most non-rabid Americans. The real issue that divides us? It’s immigration.
While most of the furor surrounding Trump’s recent executive order was directed at its obvious legal, procedural, practical, and moral failures, lurking just beneath the surface was a deeper—and far more divisive—question. Put bluntly, the conversation we’re really having now isn’t about how we view the immigration of specific people from specific countries under specific circumstances; it’s about how we view immigration writ large. Clearly audible in the subtext of all our shouting are two radically distinct positions.
The first is best expressed in the battle cry of the thousands who rushed to the airports last weekend to protest the ban: “No borders, no nations, fuck deportations.” Taken literally, the position, of course, is silly: For better or worse, we live in nation-states, concrete entities that face concrete threats and are not only entitled but obligated to defend themselves accordingly. But the slogan isn’t meant literally; it’s merely the expression of a broader worldview, one for which an American is, put simply, whoever wants to be one and is willing to work hard at it. This vision extends to the poor young woman from Sudan who dreams of one day becoming a nurse in Ohio just as it does to the physicist born and bred right outside Denver. It’s a worldview that reads American history as a string of great immigration stories, from the improbable tale of that first ship of pilgrims to land on these shores to the 5-year-old kid from Moscow who sought refuge in Adelphi, Maryland, and, free of tyranny, went on to found one of the world’s mightiest corporations.
And then there’s Steve Bannon. Talk of Trump’s senior aide is often focused on his facility with seizing and using power rather than on his vision for America’s future. But the vision is evident, and it, too, has a lot to do with immigration. It was made clear in an interview from Nov. 2, 2015, on Breitbart Daily News, the radio show of the far-right publication Bannon headed before joining Trump’s campaign. The interviewer was Bannon himself; the interviewee was his favorite Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump. Eventually, the conversation got around to immigration.
“You know,” Trump said, “we have to keep our talented people in this country.” Bannon uttered an “um” of disagreement. Trump noticed.
“I think you agree with that,” Trump replied. “Do you agree with that?”
“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think,” Bannon said. He never finished his sentence, but he had this to add: “A country,” he said, “is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
This statement, too, contains multitudes. What it means is this: America is for Americans, those already here, those who do not come from Asia or elsewhere, those who are not dissimilar from the people who read Breitbart and vote for Donald Trump. It’s a vision few traditional conservatives, or even classical Republicans, probably share, but one that is increasingly more common among the far-right parties of Europe and elsewhere. It’s deeply xenophobic—needless to say, Bannon’s quip about the majority of Silicon Valley companies being controlled by foreigners is, to put it kindly, an alternative fact—and colored by more than a smidge of white nationalism.
Does this mean that everyone who supports the president shares Bannon’s vision? Of course not. As that 2015 interview suggests, not even Trump himself holds his aide’s extremist views. But with the president being a notoriously transactional executive famously uninterested in and unfettered by steady, coherent ideologies, it’s safe to assume that whatever vision vacuum Trump creates will quickly be filled by those closest to him, in this case Bannon.
This, in part, is why the past week has felt so terrifying to so many of us. To take a shot at an alternative chant, bans, borders, and executive orders are fine— it’s the soul of America that’s on the line. As Bari Weiss so eloquently argued in The Wall Street Journal this week, “whatever else you believe this country to be, whatever you’d like it to become, only those who believe in alternative facts can deny that we have always been a nation of immigrants.” And most of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, would like it to stay that way.
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