The following are a few thoughts on President Trump’s recent executive order and the response to it.
We should never forget that the president is a reality TV star. Television and, more recently, the Internet are the media that define contemporary politics. President Trump is at home with and driven by these media to a degree that few other politicians are. We shouldn’t forget how focused Trump is on things such as ratings, applause, opinion polls, positive press, and audience numbers.
Rather than fixating on how Trump is doing law and regular politics badly, we should consider the possibility that Trump is approaching politics as reality television and the nation as the audience of his political theatre. To the extent that our politics is increasingly hostage to the media of TV and the Internet, Trump may be a lot better at working the audience of the nation than a regular politician. However, in many respects we are now seeing the profound tension that exists between the spectacle of politics in the mass and social media age and the substance of prudent political governance. Trump’s brilliance at the former is not unconnected with his catastrophic unsuitability for the latter.
We should also stop trying to find something behind the spectacle when it comes to Trump, whether that be some dark fascist vision or Scott Adams’ style nimble navigation of a master negotiator. For Trump, the spectacle is not a mask, but the thing that really matters. This does not mean that Trump isn’t able to play the games of specious media exceedingly well, or that there aren’t others around him taking advantage of the spectacle that he creates.
Extending this point, our fixation on television and social media as citizens or subjects is also a reason for the volatile character of modern democracy, on both sides of the aisle. Just as the narcissistic President Trump is focused upon his image in the water of social media and television, so we increasingly carry out our politics as self-preoccupied identity-signalling.
Taking such a perspective, I wonder how much of the supposed clumsiness of President Trump’s executive order is actually intended to serve as political theatre. It makes Trump look tough to his base. It attacks a liberal sacred cow, provoking many hysterical reactions that make the left look stupid. It heightens the sorts of tensions that brought Trump to power in the first place. It acts as a demonstration to certain immigrant groups and their communities that the gloves are off and, if they don’t get in line, the system won’t be nice and reasonable with them. Whatever the actual content of the order, the spectacle is clearly calculated to make Muslims feel unwelcome, which is a powerful signal to a base that is disgusted with Europe’s and American liberals’ blinkered Islamophilia. It is an ugly order and it was intended to be ugly. It is very poorly calculated to tackle the actual problem of radical Islamists and the difficulties of integration. However, it delivers the desired spectacle, which was always more important than the substance.
Trump is already thinking ahead to 2020. Campaigning for the presidency comes far more naturally to him than actually executing the office. I suspect that the next few years will involve Trump acting more as a wrestling ‘heel’ than as a conventional president: maximizing spectacle and the confusion that accompanies it, breaking the rules, playing to a highly partisan base by attacking the unpopular ‘babyface’ of the progressive left, while complaining that things are rigged against him. It will be great television, widely appreciated by the masses, and generally terrible for the country.
The public, the media, and other politicians understandably reacted to the spectacle created by President Trump’s order, in large measure with spectacles of their own. For instance, Justin Trudeau, another politician naturally suited for a spectacle-fixated age, tweeted:
Of course, appearances matter, especially when it comes to such things as the face that we present to the world as a nation. However, in the age of television and social media, our politics has become so absorbed with surfaces and appearances that the substance of actual policies is neglected.
When one looks at the actual substance of the executive order, a lot of the spectacle that has been created around it, both by Trump and by his opponents on the left and right, seems to operate according to misconception and ignorance. For instance, the list of the seven countries in question wasn’t selected by Trump himself, but comes from policy established under President Obama’s administration (note the absence of the names of the countries in President Trump’s order). Yet there were no shortage of people arguing that the list of countries was determined by Trump’s own business interests.
On the other side of the issue, both Canada under Trudeau’s government and President Obama administration have placed significant restrictions upon Syrian refugees in the past, even when they have welcomed many. For instance, Trudeau’s government has prevented unaccompanied Syrian men from entering Canada. In the four years of 2011 to 2014, the US only admitted 201 refugees from Syria. 2016 represented a very significant increase, but Trump is hardly (temporarily) turning off a fire hose. The huge conflicts at the level of spectacle often mask fairly minimal differences at the level of substance.
To put all of this in some perspective, in Syria alone there are over 12 million people who have either become refugees or been internally displaced.
Since America would only be taking in a fraction of a percent of the population that needs to be helped, why has all of this provoked so much outrage? Why are we talking so much about the tiny trickles of refugees that will make it to America and so little about the vast rivers of displaced persons needing help in the affected regions?
I fear that the issue has become grossly distorted precisely by the way that it plays into the politics of spectacle. Unfortunately, the urgent question of how Western nations are to help refugees in regions that they played a large role in destabilizing in the first place has become entangled in the domestic psychodramas of the American right and left.
In a sort of misguided virtue ethics, the narcissistic focus on what sort of—exceptional, naturally—nation America ought to be tends to eclipse the real practical questions that face us. Western and American exceptionalism is in large measure the cause of problems we are now addressing—sentimental humanitarianism and military interventionism are two sides of the same coin. The danger of a narcissistic virtue ethics is that of a preoccupation with our own identities obscuring our view of our actual moral responsibilities, which typically require rather a lot of humility, repentance, and self-forgetfulness of us.
In both sentimental humanitarianism and military interventionism, our self-obsessed fixation with Western identity prevents us from perceiving the rest of the world aright. The rest of the world can become a source of foils, props, and screens for the projection and expression of our own identities. For instance, the left has adopted Islam as a favoured ‘far group’, an anti-colonialist, anti-Western, movement of the oppressed to serve as the prop in its psychodrama, the manic pixie dream religion by which it will be delivered from its orientalism. Its perception of reality so distorted by its self-preoccupation, the Arab-Israeli conflict becomes an obsessive fixation for the imagination of the Left, a projection of its own neuroses. The right’s common tendency to identify America with the cause of God, truth, liberty, and justice is, if anything, even more dysfunctional.
A fitting response to the actual challenges we face, however, won’t really be found in specious gestures designed to shore up America or the West’s sense of itself, but will primarily be addressed by concentrated relief efforts in affected regions.
Within such a fevered context, it is exceedingly difficult to construct a prudent immigration policy. Whether it is by Trump’s wall or the welcoming lamp of Lady Liberty, the slightest glimmer of sensible policy can easily be overwhelmed by the symbolism and spectacle of America’s current identity crisis (played out, naturally, through our self-projections onto the screens of social media). The spectacle of immigration policy has become the battleground upon which the new war for America’s identity is being fought: will America be a proud and great, yet distinct nation before all other nations or the post-national liberal utopia, where all difference has ceased to make a difference? Indeed, in the age of social media, America’s identity crisis is closely bound up with the myriad individual identity crises possessed by its people.
It wasn’t always this way on the left. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton could make very strong statements about border security, without provoking outrage. However, although politicians on both sides still tend to have more sense in their policies than they do in their rhetoric, immigration policy has now assumed a deep significance for both sides, demanding extreme rhetorical posturing and symbolic gestures to affirm the sacred values appropriate to the world views of the respective sides.
Immigration is definitely an important part of the American psyche, much like the Frontier. However, just like the Frontier, there are great dangers in allowing such symbols, myths, and principles to metastasize in a way that can end up proving destructive. The mindset produced by the Frontier has encouraged unhealthy forms of American expansionism, much as an unhealthy form of British identity was once forged upon the anvil of the Empire (and we are still boisterously singing about ruling the waves, even though we are teetering on the brink of ceasing to be a blue-water navy). Sometimes we need radically to reassess such things and move into new stages of national life.
Getting over the myths of historical immigration—and like the Frontier, American immigration has no shortage of self-aggrandizing myths—is a necessary part of maturation as a nation, of shedding certain of the pretensions of American exceptionalism. Emma Lazarus’s poetry is just another brand of flattering American exceptionalist fiction—the mother of an eschatological people, standing at the ‘sunset gates’ of the ‘golden door’, over against all of the ‘ancient lands’, laden down with their history. Much like the fiction that drove the Western expansion of the nation, it was never really strictly true and still isn’t. Any exploration of the history of America’s immigration and naturalization policies and its chequered record of assimilating and integrating people groups should make this amply apparent, but it does make a certain type of American feel proud.
The poverty of Christian reasoning in response to President Trump’s executive order has been shocking, if not unsurprising. For one, there has been a profound failure to distinguish between the ‘good’ of helping refugees and the ‘right’ of sensible policies for doing so. Careful reflection and deliberation upon the actual shape of the refugee problem and the sort of responses that might make a difference has been largely absent. Instead, we have witnessed a conflation of the good with the right, and the widespread assumption that the latter is self-evident from an appreciation of the former.
Many liberals who would never otherwise reference the Old Testament have (in a welcome move) exhibited a considerable concern that we apply its teaching to refugees. Many Christians have joined them in pious, yet deeply unconsidered, pronouncements, presuming that such things as the Parables of the Good Samaritan or the Sheep and the Goats, the fact that Jesus was a refugee, or various Old Testament statements on the foreigner or resident alien clearly and straightforwardly dictate the sort of approach we should take to Syrian refugees, with little regard for the more complex moral and practical reasoning demanded by the issue.
Once again, the inherent self-reflexivity of social media has encouraged the devolution of this discussion into virtue-signalling, when actual virtue would better have been served by pushing questions of our identities to the periphery of the field of moral deliberation. When identities are so entangled in the discussion, it is difficult to make headway. Rather than kneejerk, identity-signalling responses, I would love to see Christians exhibit deep acquaintance with the facts and parameters of the situation facing us, clear awareness of the sort of complex interweaving of the good of welcoming the stranger and the concrete policies of immigration exhibited in the Old Testament, caution in dealing with the tensions between symbol and substance, patient and perceptive deliberation in loosening the knotty challenge of shrewd and just immigration policy, wariness of the privileging of symbolic gestures over substantial actions, greater suspicion of the motives of people on both the left and right, and more careful negotiation of the febrile environment of social media as a realm of moral discourse.
Even when America did start to admit significant numbers Syrian refugees last year, the absence of Christians among them was striking:
The United States has accepted 10,801 Syrian refugees, of whom 56 are Christian. Not 56 percent; 56 total, out of 10,801. That is to say, one-half of 1 percent.
The BBC says that 10 percent of all Syrians are Christian, which would mean 2.2 million Christians. It is quite obvious, and President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry have acknowledged it, that Middle Eastern Christians are an especially persecuted group.
So how is it that one-half of 1 percent of the Syrian refugees we’ve admitted are Christian, or 56, instead of about 1,000 out of 10,801—or far more, given that they certainly meet the legal definition?
It is striking, when compared to the outrage among many Christians about this executive order, how few Christians made an issue about this at the time. Some of us did, but relatively few.
This seemingly marked unconcern for Christians, when viewed alongside the radical concern for Muslims, is significant. In part it results from the failure of many in America and the West to recognize that, although (nominal) Christians may be a majority in our lands, they are brutally persecuted minorities elsewhere in the world, often suffering even more as refugees as they are attacked by Muslims in refugee camps. For liberals, such Christian refugees cannot serve the same ends in their ideological imagination and may indeed unsettle them.
Beyond this, however, many Christians seem to have adopted a radical altruism that seemingly privileges members of other religious communities over Christians. Yet, Scripture is consistently clear on the fact that we should take an especial and particular concern for the wellbeing of other Christians. The fact that Christian communities that date back almost two millennia in the Middle East have been ravaged or even driven to the point of extinction over the last decade should be a matter of extreme concern to us. This isn’t just because they are ‘minorities’, but because they are our brothers and sisters and also because they bring the light of God’s truth to spiritually dark parts of the world that are in desperate need of it. Unpopular though this sentiment might be in the context of liberal society, we believe that the fate of these people should be a matter of particular concern, and not just for the Church, but for any righteous government.
When using the Old Testament in this context, it is important to bear in mind the framework within which refuge would be given and the differences between foreigners whose stay was temporary and resident aliens (James Hoffmeier has some helpful thoughts on this, for instance). The resident alien was like a protected guest, treated as a member of the ‘family’ of Israel, but the guest/host distinction meant that they did not have the same status in key respects.
For one, God’s vision for Israel was robustly opposed to religious pluralism. It allowed for assimilation of outsiders into the Israelite people, but firmly opposed a sort of multicultural intermarriage. It restricted key civil rights to Israelites. Foreigners had to abide by the Sabbath law and other such things. The Law also restricted their rights of land ownership, meaning that they would typically be restricted to day labour, artisanal work, trade, etc. It restricted the possibility of entrance into fuller civil rights for a number of generations, and more in the case of certain people groups (Deuteronomy 23:3-8). It denied them certain of the protections enjoyed by Hebrew slaves and certain of the rights enjoyed by Hebrew slave-owners. The nation also retained an ethnic core to its identity.
The welcome (and occasional assimilation) of the stranger, then, was a crucial value, but the relationship was typically that of guest/host, with the limits typical of such a relationship applying. This is not the same thing as we are dealing with in the current situation.
It is imperative as Christians that we consider the way that immigration functions within liberalism. I have argued in the past (see my remarks in the comments here, for instance), that mass immigration from culturally alien nations is one of the means by which liberalism extends its power and one of the means by which the expulsion of Christian values and practices from public life is effected and justified. It is one of the means by which a people is rendered more controllable by the forces of capital and government.
Mass immigration, in the form it is practiced in the liberal West, is a profoundly socially destructive force, antagonistic to historic modes of life. It fractures the foundations of society upon which our liberal institutions and freedoms are built, as I argued in my recent post. It is less a matter of welcoming the stranger into our society as a guest and much more typically a matter of a host people being steadily dispossessed of their land by a liberal polity to which all are slowly subjected as an ever more atomized and amorphous mass of people. Without becoming an inhospitable people, we need to be a lot more resistant to such developments.
Likewise, we need to be on our guard against the rising liberal ideology of immigration, with its focus upon the universal, deracinated subject, its discourse of rights as opposed to distributed goods, resistance to borders, hostility to the assertion of particularity, its assertion of the supposed duty of self-effacing altruism and indiscriminate welcome, the undermining of the difference between host and guest, the messianism of its sentimental humanitarianism, its erasure of history, etc. Just as Satan may come as an angel of light, so dangerous error can masquerade as Christian virtue. As I have argued when examining this issue in the past, being wise as serpents yet harmless as doves may never have been more important for us.