With all the awfulness in Britain this year, it’s been easy to forget about what’s happening across the pond, which is some small comfort. Donald Trump’s travel ban came into effect last night. It is a more nuanced and reasonable version of the order he issued in March. Will it make much difference to security or, more pertinently, the rate of immigration from these countries? Who knows, but the damage from the earlier ban has already been done.
When I first saw the future president speaking at rallies, he appeared to me a left-wing person’s idea of what a right-wing man is – loud, confident, small-minded, Manichean in his world view, claiming to speak on behalf of the little people but clearly with his own agenda. He also represented the trend of conservatism dumbing-down but taken to its absurd conclusion. And yet he won, because when it comes down to it, people vote for politicians who are on their side.
But while 2016 seemed to be bathed in liberal tears, the left’s pessimism seems to me misplaced. If you wanted to permanently damage opposition to social liberalism, you couldn’t have chosen a better antagonist than Trump; already anti-immigration parties on the continent seem to be in decline, which is probably not unconnected to the blundering imbecile in Washington.
Trump is perfectly cast for the role in the progressive narrative in which there is a right vs. wrong side of history. I realised this after he initially tried to ban people temporarily from seven predominantly Muslim countries, a decision that was clumsy, arbitrary, and stupid. Even the choice of states showed a real lack of sense: Iranian-Americans are largely middle-class and secular, and include a huge numbers of students and academics. Banning Iraqis meant locking out interpreters who had risked their lives for American soldiers.
Did they not realise how this would look? Sure, the ban had an approval rating of around 50 per cent, but for an anti-immigration measure that’s a low score. Populist policies need to be hitting 65 per cent at least because they will face fierce opposition from the most influential tenth.
I believe it’s up to Americans to choose who comes into their country and no one outside of America has the ‘right’ to visit, settle or start a family there, including me. I take the view that a nation is like a home, not a shop, in Scott Alexander’s analogy, and that once people stop believing it to be so, then faith in public institutions, and things like the rule of law, start to decline. But trying to articulate that, among an Anglophone intellectual class who have come to believe as a point of faith that America ‘belongs to the world’, takes skill and intellectual rigour. As Michelle Obama said in another context, you should aim high when they go low. And trying to enact or reverse social changes that are going to be met with fierce resistance by influential people requires cunning and subtlety. None of which Trump has.
In the last year, there has been a deluge of quite hysterical think-pieces pointing to a new fascism in America, testimony to the terrible poverty of history teaching and the collective imagination in the English-speaking world. Taking aside the United States’ strong institutions, its huge wealth and the independence – and non-fascism – of its judiciary, the Nazis came to power with the use of violence against opponents, which accelerated once they were installed; most of the political street violence being carried out in America right now is being done by enemies of the Trump regime.
It’s this kind of hyperbole that makes it difficult to take his opponents seriously, and distracts from the more salient point that Trump is totally unsuited to high office. So of Nate Silver’s 14 likely scenarios for the Trump presidency, I imagine number two most likely: a death spiral.
But who knows? What I can predict is that after Trump the triumph of the progressive narrative will be more complete than ever. My grandchildren will be taught at school about the president’s ‘Muslim ban’ just as my children are told about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. People will recall the Naked Gun-like image of a Jewish and Muslim family hugging while protesting against the order. There will be a film about Iraqi-Americans stuck at JFK, and how the coalition of good Americans fought back against the bad Americans (or to put it in terms that America’s young progressive intellectuals understand, it’s like Harry Potter and Trump is Voldemort). There will be a Booker Prize winning novel about the demonstration in London. Theresa the Appeaser will join a long line of urban myths, such as Thatcher Milksnatcher and Churchill firing on miners. There will be endless think pieces by very wealthy, very attractive but rather discontent women called Nadia and Leila about the history of anti-Arabism and Iranophobia in America. The hijabi woman will appear in children’s book. Etc etc.
Sure, continued immigration from the Muslim world to the US will probably present problems, especially in a nation in which firearms are readily available, and the country’s continued diversity will further polarise it and reduce social capital; but like the urban crime explosion of the civil rights era, this will not capture the imagination and only a few weirdo conservative writers will take an interest.
Popular culture is written by progressives for a number of reasons, and so conservatives are by nature cast as the bad guys in this drama. That’s frustrating, but it doesn’t help that we seem to sometimes write our own parts as the villains of the piece.