Donald Trump imagines America is under siege

With his refugee ban that targets Muslim-majority countries, the president reveals an authoritarian urge to govern by fear

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks while campaigning at Regent University October 22, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers remarks while campaigning at Regent University October 22, 2016 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We are less than two weeks into the Trump administration’s tenure, and the president’s slide toward authoritarian rule continues apace. Late last week, Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and halting the United States’ refugee program while he “figured things out.” The normalization of extreme measures and hasty decisions is now well underway as the president doubles-down on his commitment to use the state and his authority to reshape the American and world order.

The Trump administration has clearly adopted an irrational siege mentality, the likes of which the United States has not witnessed domestically in decades. The president’s executive order was immediately condemned by American politicians, rights activists, and world leaders. In the hours and days that followed, the hastily executed order sowed confusion both stateside and abroad. The White House denied targeting Muslims and even suggested the ban was going smoothly—both claims that were obviously untrue.

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In response to backlash against the order, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, denied that the Muslim ban was indeed a “Muslim” “ban,” despite the fact that the executive order banned certain Muslims from entering the United States and that Trump himself had used the word “ban” in reference to it (and later tweeted that critics can “call it what they want”).

In another Orwellian moment worthy of “We’ve always been at war with Eurasia Eastasia,” the White House blamed the media. Naturally. Trump was merely repeating the word used so frequently by the administration’s most nefarious enemy, the press, Spicer claimed.

Under normal circumstances, travel bans or restrictions are policy tools that countries use to manage risk during uncertain times. In 2011, President Barack Obama temporarily slowed the admission of Iraqi refugees after discovering that two individuals—out of tens of thousands—who had fled Iraq were arrested in the U.S. on terrorism charges. After the arrests, the Obama administration revetted 58,000 Iraqi refugees and introduced stricter screening procedures for Iraqi nationals entering the country. As a result, the rate of refugee arrivals from Iraq declined in 2011 against 2010 numbers, but then rose in 2012.

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Trump’s ban is wildly more impulsive and far-reaching than Obama’s quite limited 2011 measures. The ban is hasty and somehow both sweeping and incomprehensive. The president chose to sign the executive order his first week—indicating that the need for the order was immediate. There was no time to wait. The clock was ticking. Like an episode of 24.

As far as anyone can tell, there is no immediate threat to the United States that necessitates such an order. As David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute—a conservative, libertarian think-tank founded by Charles Koch, of Koch brothers fame—pointed out:

“The order would ban all people entering the United States from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, and yet no terrorist from these places has carried out a lethal attack in the United States. Indeed, no Libyans or Syrians have even been convicted for planning such an attack. Moreover, the likelihood of being killed by any refugee from any country is just 1 in 3.64 billion a year. This discrimination is arbitrary and cannot be rationally justified based on a[sic] assessment of the risk.”

Left off the ban list are countries where Trump has done business. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt were not included in the seven countries targeted. As the New York Times reports, “…these three countries have exported terror to the United States in the past. They accounted for 18 of the 19 terrorists who perpetrated the Sept. 11 attack … These countries, unlike those subject to the ban, are ones where Donald Trump has done business.”

In instituting this ban, Trump is trying to look strong and decisive on security without doing the difficult work of developing careful, targeted policy as measures become necessary. It seems that he’s also trying to avoid risking any of his personal financial interests. I imagine the president in the White House Situation Room, pushing little toy soldier figurines around a map of the world and setting up flimsy little fences, all the while being careful not to knock over any of the garish hotel pieces that dot the map. Like a game of geopolitical Monopoly fit for a lunatic.

It is common for authoritarians to use their office to enrich themselves, their families, and their friends. Some do it through the corrupt privatization of state-owned enterprises or assets (for instance, Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union). Others craft domestic or foreign policy in the service of their personal wealth and business interests. At the very least, Trump seems to be making policy in such a way as to avoid damaging his personal financial interests.

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The need to maintain trust and legitimacy in a democracy requires a significant degree of transparency when a leader has personal interests that intersect with his or her office. After all, to be in office is to be in a position of service to the state and the people for whom it exists. Trump has refused to be transparent about his personal interests and finances— which is unprecedented in recent American history, though it’s par for the course in authoritarian regimes.

In a sane world, not only would the leader of the free world refrain from mixing his office with his own business interests, he would also take some time to carefully develop policy based on evidence and risk assessments that balance security against rights and the basic moral imperative to treat human beings with dignity. But we’re now living in a world in which the president of the United States of America can and does make policy on the fly in a bid to frighten Americans into taking him seriously while he tries to figure out how to be a leader. We’re living in a world in which the global hegemon is testing extraordinary, unnecessary, and probably illegal security policy in real time.

In both the short and long term, the ban will have negative effects on the United States and the world. It will encourage both to be more paranoid, closed off, and hostile to those perceived as a risk—regardless of whether or not that perception is reasonable or fair. It will also encourage increased securitization while paving the way for future unreasonable and extreme measures. Why? Because the ban isn’t just a one-off act: it’s a statement about how we should think about the world.

Insofar as the ban represents a way of seeing the world, the executive order that shut America’s doors to so many, so abruptly, contributes to a state-of-war and siege mentality that sorts the world into good and evil, with a grossly inordinate emphasis on foreigners and Muslims as part of the latter. The ban encourages Americans to be afraid. Very afraid. After all, why institute an immediate, wide-ranging, emergency ban in order to “figure things out” if the threat isn’t shadowy and imminent and awfully scary?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.(Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017.(Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

A frightened people are a malleable people. In times of great fear, leaders must show more prudence and wisdom than usual, lest the fundamental rights, liberties, and norms that underwrite not only democracy, but also human decency, be set aside in the name of order and security.

Donald Trump does not have these capacities. Rather, he has proven himself to be predisposed to overreacting and restricting human rights as he sees fit. And those who oppose his high-handedness? Traitors and enablers of America’s enemies—such as the distinguished lawyer and civil servant Sally Yates, whom he fired as acting attorney general (from the traditionally independent Department of Justice) based on her refusal to defend the indefensible ban.

In the days and months to come, Americans must resist the temptation to give into fear by uniting around common sense and common decency; calling out cynical, xenophobic, and bigoted policy; standing in solidarity with those unfairly targeted by the ban; and demanding that American politicians and leaders around the world join in.

Many have already taken these steps. And while these actions are moral in and of themselves, there is one other reason why one might pursue them: by helping to protect others, you might just end up saving yourself.

David Moscrop is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia and a writer. He’s currently working on a book about why we make bad political decisions and how we can make better ones. He’s at @david_moscrop on Twitter.