President Donald Trump’s attempt to shut certain Middle Eastern refugees and migrants out of the US by executive order won’t last long. We know because he said it won’t.
Most of its measures are temporary. That was easily lost in Mr Trump’s garbled syntax about the need for immigrants who will “love deeply our people” and in the often emotional press coverage. There will be a 90-day hold on migration from seven politically fraught countries in the greater Middle East, a 120-day suspension of refugee admissions, an indefinite suspension of Syrian refugees and a cap of 50,000 total refugees this year. Mr Trump promised something like this during the campaign, when he spoke of a ban on immigration from Muslim countries “until we find out what is going on”.
But it is now clear that, whatever his short-term plans, Mr Trump is going to seek a radical long-term tightening of US border policy. The executive order came days after he reaffirmed his intent to build a border wall with Mexico, and warned that he would use the power of the purse to discipline “sanctuary” cities that do not comply with federal immigration law.
The seven countries named in Mr Trump’s order were all Muslim, signalling a return to a selective immigration policy such as existed before 1965. Calling programmes for Syrian refugees “detrimental to the interests of the United States” shows he is willing to flout international norms.
Ordering agencies to compile crime statistics by foreign nationality shows he is preparing for a longer-term public relations battle. Mr Trump, whose approval rating increased to 55 per cent in a recent Rasmussen poll, has good reason to believe he can win it.
It may not look that way at first. Mass immigration is a strategic pillar of the Democratic party. Though weakened in last November’s elections they remain the better organised of the two parties on such issues. Their cause is more photogenic. US television this weekend was full of interviews with refugees stranded at airports. Democrats are also better placed to draw on official mythology: America is the repository of the world’s dreams, with a duty to fulfil as many of them as it can through immigration. So influential is this view that David Miliband, the former UK foreign secretary, praised the system Mr Trump is upending as “the strongest, most successful resettlement programme in the world”. Egyptian novelist Ali Hassan lamented in the New York Times that the US “is no longer the land of dreams.”
Yet, precisely because immigration is as close to national identity as Messrs Miliband and Hassan claim, those fed up with immigration are passionate. They see the US as a nation-state, not an agency tasked with fulfilling the dreams of Poles or Pakistanis. The history of immigration policy since Ronald Reagan’s botched compromise of 1986 is littered with betrayals. Mr Trump does not have leeway to tell his followers that all his build-a-wall talk and his sanctuary-city talk and his extreme-vetting talk was just a manner of speaking.
Mr Trump’s finely calibrated sense of his adversaries’ vulnerabilities is the most impressive thing about him, and the creepiest. Others react to him in ways that undermine their own dignity and authority. Mr Trump did not initiate talk of penis size during the election, his Republican rival Marco Rubio did, in a vain effort to sound more Trumpian. Mr Trump’s supporters did not march with vulgar posters of female genitalia — the women at the anti-Trump women’s march did, perhaps as a means of countering Mr Trump’s vulgar private remarks about women.
Now, during the 90 or 120-day period in which Americans try to “find out what is going on” and form an opinion on whether to make the US migration regime permanently stringent, activists will probably be on television every night. They will be stomping and chanting in the streets, in headscarves and keffiyehs, and holding signs reading “We Are All Muslims Now”, as one protester outside Kennedy International Airport did this weekend. “Make no mistake,” said California Democrat Kamala Harris, “This is a Muslim ban.”
Senator Harris may be right, But saying so is unlikely to damage the president. Mr Trump’s supporters are not blind. They see the same country his opponents do. The public understands that the vast majority of immigrants and refugees are not terrorists. Mr Trump’s voters are simply those who have been shaken up by news reports about bombings in Paris and Brussels, and who now want policies to match. There has lately been a lot of mockery in the press about Mr Trump’s fondness for “alternative facts”. If only that were the problem. Senator Harris and Mr Trump’s voters do not differ over facts. They differ over principles, which is something more dangerous.
The writer is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and is writing a book on the rise and fall of the post-1960s political order.
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