Why anti-Trump travel boycotts won't work

They're not worth doing, they're not worth opposing, and they won't change much. Boycotts invite a tragic conclusion for the Trump era.

Banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, as President Donald Trump has decreed by executive order, is a blunt instrument that makes life hell for innocent people. Personal travel boycotts, a trendy reaction in Canada and around the world to the ban, are just as blunt—and easier to impose. They’re also a terrible antidote to whatever ails our American friends.

Canadian academics are boycotting conferences south of the border. Canadian authors like Linwood Barclay are calling off public appearances. Canadian tourists are taking a break from visiting, say, the Grand Canyon until the next president’s inauguration. These boycotts are well-meaning nods to the less privileged among us, typically people whose recent lineage traces to red-flagged countries—the six nations targeted in Trump’s executive order, but of course many others around the world—and who are given much grief at the border because of how they look or sound.

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We’ve recently learned about Fadwa Alaoui and Manpreet Kooner, two Canadian citizens denied entry into the United States and incomprehensibly told they required immigrant visas. Alaoui wanted to give her son, stricken with cancer, a change of scenery for the day. Kooner wanted to visit a spa. Both were left understandably shaken, and neither found any justice at the end of their nightmares.

We all know someone who’s now more nervous crossing the border than even just a few weeks ago. Boycotts in solidarity are a natural response, both on principle and because of our perceived spending power. Maybe a united world could repeat the perceived effect that boycotts and sanctions arguably had on, say, Apartheid in South Africa. Withholding a couple thousand dollars in delegate fees, sightseeing adventures or duty-free liquor could add up, if only tens of thousands of us would join forces and punish America for its president’s destructive immigration policy.

But that’s a big “if only.” In 2014, Canadians tourists spent 23 million nights and $21 billion in the U.S. It would take hundreds of thousands of individual boycotts to make a dent in that flow of travellers. On top of that, the broader Canada-U.S. economic relationship—our exports to the U.S. totalled $392 billion in 2016—would dwarf the impact of even the most ambitious border boycott imaginable.

Last year, the Freakonomics podcast mused about the effectiveness of consumer boycotts. The episode’s basic conclusion was that they can maybe sorta work, but mostly don’t work. That said, Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University, argued that focused boycotts, even if they fail to financially drain their targets, can at least hit a company’s reputation where it hurts.

But whose reputation do travel boycotts threaten? All Americans? Or are they meant to force change at the polls in four years? That’s a long time to pack up and abandon the sort of exchanges that, in the meantime, help us better understand America’s struggle to come to terms with itself—and even lend an ear.

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011 file photo, a car approaches the United States and Canada border crossing in Lacolle, Quebec, south of Montreal. In April 2013, in its 2014 fiscal year budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security requested permission to study a fee at the nation's land border crossings. The request has sparked wide opposition among members of Congress from northern states, who vowed to stop it. A fee, they say, would hurt communities on the border that rely on people, goods and money moving between the U.S. and Canada. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz, File)

Spend any time south of the border, and it’s impossible not to trace a quiet struggle there—less a resistance than an attempt to live adjacent to, if not precisely within, Trump’s vision of the country. A counterculture gone mainstream that might come to define many American lives.

Visit San Diego and hear from an airport-shuttle driver who lives in Mexico but works five days a week in the city. He’ll tell you that his traditional run-around at the border has worsened since January, but somehow sounds cheerful—and appears to be plugging away at a mock citizenship test sitting in a pile on the passenger’s seat.

Head to Grand Canyon, which will remain intact in four or eight years—even a bellicose president is nowhere near as mighty as a river that’s spent five million years carving a mile-deep gorge—and keep in mind that the non-profit Grand Canyon Association, which supplements threatened federal funding for educational tours and trail maintenance, counts on all those tourist dollars spent on magnets and postcards.

Strike up a conversation with a Navajo artist at the Four Corners monument where Utah and Colorado meet Arizona and New Mexico at a tidy crosshairs landmark. She’ll tell you how Navajo tend to vote Democrat, but some voted for Trump because of an apparent aversion to women leaders (a so-called “buckskin ceiling”). She’ll also tell you that her kids, who are headed to college, can’t understand their grandmother’s language. And then she’ll tell you she’s a Washington Redskins fan, and she’s wearing that toque not to reclaim the logo, but because she kind of likes it.

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If more direct resistance is your thing, drop in to Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen in Santa Fe, which tracks donations to the Standing Rock protest (“$360 sent to Water Protectors Legal Collective, 2/1/17”). They can use the cash visitors spend on organic scrambled eggs and avocado salads. Just more Americans who live behind enemy lines in their own country.

No boycott can replace a genuine exchange of ideas between a Canadian trying to make sense of the world and a hard-working Mexican who aspires to be American or a non-profit conservationist who can explain the genesis of Grand Canyon or a Navajo artist who defies assumptions or a cafe that wears its activism on its cash register.

And no boycott can dismantle the crooked fairy tales of bigots, born out of bitterness in a country they no longer know. “Feels like the calm before the storm, doesn’t it?” says a man filling his gas tank at a station outside Albuquerque. “All these shabby businesses, run by Arabs.” Had he paid inside the store, he’d have encountered a white cashier, and if he’d bothered to ask, he’d have learned the station’s owner was a (white) Mormon who lived out of state. Witnessing that remarkable detachment from the truth, packed in such baldly erroneous assumptions, reveals one pocket of a nation so divided people are unwilling even to talk to each other.

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Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of obvious privilege to be in a position to call for constructive engagement with Americans, let alone answer it. The sort of person who goes to the airport and, instead of answering a barrage of probing questions, typically endures harmless small talk about the reason for their trip—a baseball game or a road trip or some other slice of American life.

That experience reeks of unfairness. Set against that preferential treatment, who could be blamed for refusing to cross the border in solidarity with Muslim people? But any collective cold shoulder would invite a tragic conclusion: we’d no longer hear those countless voices that tell the modern American story in all its beauty and ugliness.

As that country tears itself apart, we could all stay away and congratulate ourselves for the strength of our conviction. And we could stick to chatting up American tourists when they pay us a visit. But an honourable boycott won’t change much. And we’d all be more ignorant for it.