On Jan. 27, 2017, former host of “Celebrity Apprentice” and President of the United States Donald Trump signed an executive order that closed America’s borders to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely. The decision, a fulfilled promise initially made by Trump during his presidential campaign, provoked the ire of progressives, leading to mass demonstrations across the United States. Liberal pundits and politicians (and many conservatives as well) rightfully excoriated Trump for his callousness, noting the cruel irony of this Order being signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day (FDR’s administration turned away several Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, citing national security concerns. Many of these refugees would later be killed).
Although (due to both diligent activism and the legally heinous character of the order) the Executive Order would eventually be stopped by a temporary restraining order issued by Judge James Robart in Washington, Trump and his cronies’ persistence on the matter signifies that his opponents are in for an arduous fight.
Actively resisting racist Executive Orders like these are, of course, essential to protecting this nation’s most vulnerable people. However, at the same time, much of the rhetoric condemning the travel ban invokes strains of American exceptionalism and historical amnesia that depict a fictionalized United States where something like this couldn’t happen. Charting the ideological and historical underpinnings of this Executive Order are crucial to debunking and problematizing some of the discourse surrounding it.
As such, many critics (such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton) responded to the immigration ban with the oft-repeated, ahistorical bromide of, “This is not who we are” (Twitter, @HillaryClinton, 01.28.2017). While I understand the practical necessities of public figures appealing to liberal-nationalist sensibilities in the wake of such decisions, Clinton’s response here erases America’s dark history when it comes to immigration.
Historically speaking, Trump’s Executive Order fits into a larger pattern of ethnically/racially prescribed immigration policies in the United States. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 (which limited naturalization to “free white persons…of good character”) to the Chinese Exclusion Act, xenophobic paranoia and state-sponsored racial exclusion have long tainted American policy. From a perspective of immigration policy, the United States has long tried to exclude people who they deemed “undesirable” or a “threat,” almost always along racialized lines.
The overt racism and Islamophobia of the EO, however, would suggest this is the 1920s: the era of ethnic quotas, the return of the KKK and widespread scapegoating of immigrants. The nearly-euphemistic, smoke-screened language of Obama and Bush’s drone strikes and no-fly lists is now a thing of the past. With a stroke of his pen, President Trump sent a signal to the rest of the world that he believes Islam is a problem to be dealt with. Subsequently, Trump’s callous, bluntly cruel travel ban functions as the logical inheritor of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States.
Contemporaneously, state-sanctioned discrimination and racism against Arab Muslims over the past several decades disrupts idyllic (though fallacious) conceptions of the United States that figures like Hillary Clinton attempt to conjure. Pieces of legislation like the PATRIOT Act effectively legalize unfettered surveillance, interrogation and illegal seizures of information and property, mostly aimed at people (immigrants and citizens alike) from the Middle East. As Farhana Khera argued in 2011, “Little is publicly known about the full scope of the FBI’s activities. Much of it is shrouded in secrecy. But we do know that, according to one former senior FBI counterterrorism official, the FBI conducted nearly 500,000 interviews of Muslim and Arab males from 2001-2005, and not a single one of those interviews led to information that would have allowed the government to detect or prevent the 9/11 attacks” (CNN, “Reform the un-American Patriot Act,” 10.26.2011).
This paints a very different picture of the United States than Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s invocations of “all that is decent and exceptional about our nation” (John McCain’s website, “Statement By Senators McCain and Graham On Executive Order on Immigration,” 01.29.2017).
Since Sept. 11 in particular, discriminatory language, rooted in Orientalist thinking, has marred popular discourse surrounding the status of Muslims in the United States. As I’ve written before, Islamophobia has become a cornerstone of the rhetoric weaponized by figures on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, from Bill Maher to Ben Carson (The Miscellany News, “Islamaphobia (sic) permeates GOP rhetoric,” 09.23.2015). To effectively resist and upend such ideological paradigms, one must look to the pervasiveness of such racism in both major political parties and their supporters.
At the same time, Trump’s particularly noxious and terrifyingly influential brand of bigotry is unlike any seen before. It would be a grave mistake to say Obama’s (extraordinarily harmful) continuations of Bush’s foreign policy are morally similar to this Executive Order. Though the logical brainchild of such policies, such overt, modern bigotry at the federal level is alarming and unprecedented.
The ideological impacts of Trump’s rhetoric on (predominantly white) American citizens are equally alarming. Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiments (such as his call for a Muslim ban back in late 2015) have implicitly encouraged extremist acts of violence and hatred. Even before his election, a report from California State University-San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate saw “that anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.S. rose sharply in 2015 to the highest levels since the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks…[T] he report looked at daily data following terrorist attacks, and found that ‘a tolerant statement about Muslims by a political leader was accompanied by a sharp decline in hate crime, while a less tolerant announcement was followed by a precipitous increase in both the severity and number of anti-Muslim hate crimes’”(The Atlantic, “Donald Trump and the Rise of Anti-Muslim Violence,” 09.22.2016).
Trump did not conjure hatred from nowhere, but he sure did unearth, encourage and weaponize it.
Though luckily gutted by the court systems, this victory for progressives and immigrants should not encourage passivity. Trump has vowed to write a new executive order, “indicating that the administration may try to quickly restore some aspects of the now-frozen travel ban or replace it with other measures” (The Washington Post, “Trump considers ‘brand new’ immigration order,” 02.10.2017).
Any progressive or supporter of immigrants’ rights should understand that the struggle against Trump’s racist policies must be rooted in historical understanding and larger ideological trends. Leaning into rhetorics of American exceptionalism, as Hillary Clinton and numerous other liberal pundits have, erases the harmful impacts of interventionist foreign policies and other discriminatory practices of the United States government over the past few decades. There are a multitude of other issues tied to these histories that my analysis neglects–I don’t discuss the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, America’s (mostly) uncritical attitude towards the Israeli occupation of Palestine, no-fly lists and the like. The ideologies and histories which form the backbone of these issues must be confronted if Trump’s neofascist administration is going to be properly resisted.
While critiques should and must be leveled against Trump’s administration, they must not neglect the United States government’s shameful history when it comes to the relationship between immigration and legalized discrimination. The Hillary Clintons and John McCains of the world miss the point when they try to claim Trump’s disgusting travel ban is anything but a logical progression of the anti-Arab racism that has permeated national discourse and policy for decades. I do not seek to purport that Hillary Clinton or John McCain or their colleagues are ideologically or morally equal to Trump, whose presidency has already eschewed any respect for the rule of law or basic human decency. What these individuals must reckon with is the harm that stems from their proclamations of American exceptionalism and acknowledge and seek to rectify their own complicities in the propagation of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, both at the governmental and societal level.