Trump Diary 3: January 28, 2017

The other shoe has dropped. The travel and reentry ban issued by the White House on Friday has pushed the US into new and unstable territory.

That sudden escalation made me reflect on how we got here. I considered my evolving mindset over the last week, particularly the strange disjunction between Trump’s oblivious narcissism and the aggressive policies coming out of the White House–evidently none of them from Trump’s hand. In between Trump’s media whinging and the flurry of ambiguous, autocratic executive orders, the chief question in my mind was: What is the Trump administration doing that any other Republican would not have? To what extent is Trump a smokescreen for a longstanding Republican agenda? Keystone, TPP, mortgage rate cuts, and the now-undone health care freeze were all on the Republican agenda long before Trump entered the presidential race.

The Trump-only items mostly relate to the administration’s demagogic, rhetoric-first strategy, and his attempts to intimidate the executive civil service into submission. As ex-Republican senator Judd Gregg told WaPo, Trump supporters are “more interested in the verbal jockeying and the confrontational verbal approach than the results. So as long as he’s poking a stick in the eye of the people his constituency feels are a problem, the rest won’t matter.”

  • The federal hiring freeze is a Trump-only special because it stands a good chance of breaking parts of the government that really are indispensable, and will probably need to be undone in part. (See below, however.)
  • The executive order for the wall is a Trump-only special because it doesn’t provide any funds to build the wall. It is mostly empty rhetoric designed to build support for obtaining the money elsewhere.
  • The refugee ban is probably a Trump-only special. If Muslims are specifically targeted by it (something I’m still not clear on), that is definitely a Trump-only special.
  • The suspension of travel and reentry to the US by visa holders and permanent residents of 7 countries including Iran (but not including Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Pakistan) is definitely a Trump-only special. The countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

But it’s that last one that genuinely raises the specter of immediate crisis. The refugee ban will hurt a lot of people, but it’s something that most Americans will not see. The travel ban, however, is having effects up and down the US. Google says that at least 187 employees are affected by the ban. CEOs and professors are now unable to enter or leave the US. All of this is, I believe, primarily a consequence of Iran being included in the ban. Iran has a cosmopolitan urban elite that has a significant presence in the US, particularly in science and technology, and their stories of being stuck outside/inside the US or being detained are flooding Twitter and the news in a way that refugees’ stories mostly don’t. I imagine we’re getting a taste right now of what it must be like to live in Tehran, with the veneer of an urban, secularized environment subject to sudden destabilization by ruling reactionaries.

The travel ban serves no security purpose whatsoever. It is pure cynical theatrics, and it seems likely to have come from Bannon, who seems to be able to get Trump to sign whatever’s shoved in front of his face. (Trump himself is still more concerned with proving that he didn’t lose the popular vote by 3 million than he is with any actual political issues. As is a fair chunk of the media.) It really is a Lenin-like move from Bannon, very 1917, in that it seems calculated to encourage a state of permanent crisis, which would then give the administration more opportunities to exert power. We all know that presidents as varied as Lincoln, FDR, and George W. Bush all grabbed more executive power via emergency powers in times of crisis, and no one really stopped them from doing so. (I bitterly think back to law prof Bruce Ackerman’s “emergency constitution” that he proposed in 2004, which tried to regulate the suspension of constitutional rights as a response to terrorist threats.)

So what do you do if you want to, say, suspend habeas corpus and you don’t have a crisis? You create one. Whatever causes unrest, whatever “breaks” societal normality, works to one’s benefit because it disrupts the normal allocations of power, and in the ensuing destabilization, the quick-acting revolutionary can grab that power before the slow-moving bureaucracy can reconstitute itself. The courts can’t act fast enough to stop the train. States of emergency benefit the executive. Bannon probably would love an excuse to declare martial law in cities and send in the National Guard. The more traditional Republican faction of the administration probably doesn’t want to go that far, because they aren’t going to be wholly spared the effects of the disruption (economically in particular). But when Bannon says he looks up to Lenin as a model, I do believe him.

So my feeling is that we are now at a very significant bellwether. The inclusion of Iran, in particular, means that a lot of major social institutions, like tech companies and universities, are now being affected, and the leaders of those institutions are not going to be given the luxury to just sit back and be quiet about it, because doing so means abandoning those employees. Google’s PAC gave almost a million to Republicans last year, even as its CEO now objects to the travel ban. A lot of very rich and somewhat powerful people now have some hard decisions to make. With most “left” institutions like unions and academia hollowed out at this point, it’s corporations and the civil service “deep state” that offer the most possibility of institutional resistance to Trump–but I can’t say how high that possibility is. There’s also state governments, but their latitude for actual action is far more restricted.

There will be a lot of pressure on the White House to rescind the ban. I could see it being rescinded only for Iran, which would allow the ban to become the new normal while still removing most of its effects among American elites. (Perhaps only for Green Card holders, but even H-1B and student visa bans will be felt pretty noticeably.) That’s the smart strategy if the White House doesn’t want to pick too much of a fight right now. They get a toehold on suspending the rights of aliens while still appearing to “compromise” and be “reasonable,” and corporations are now in the uncomfortable position of having far fewer affected employees for a costly and dangerous fight.

If the White House does want to pick a fight, I can only imagine things are going to escalate quite rapidly. There will be many visible faces of banned Green Card holders who are high-contributing members of American society. They’ve had their rights taken away for no good reason, purely in the service of a larger executive power grab. If corporations resist, the White House could go after them. If cities resist, the White House could go after them.

There was a smaller incident earlier in the week, reports of a plan to make up a list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants and publish it on a weekly basis. This too came out of the Lenin playbook, designed to scapegoat a particular group and draw as much attention to them as possible. I can imagine Trump tweeting out names and photos alongside their crimes, saying “Immigrant scum, we need to kick them out!”

The question was always where this rhetoric would meet reality. It was certainly going to do so on the margins: refugees, undocumented immigrants, and other voiceless people would quietly suffer more, and the left would do its typically ineffective job of trying to guilt-trip people over it. But now the nativist xenophobia has met reality far closer to the mainstream, which means something has got to give.

Postscript: Given the current White House’s peculiar combination of authoritarianism and incompetence, another possibility occurs to me. The executive order of the ban was not drafted with any assistance from the State Department or the usual bureaucratic hands. It makes no mention of specific countries except for Syria, which it singles out for a permanent ban. It lists governmental visa exceptions, but doesn’t say anything about permanent residents. So it’s possible that (a) the drafters didn’t realize Iran was included, or didn’t realize the implications; and/or (b) the drafters didn’t realize the order as written would affect Green Card holders.

“Nobody has any idea what is going on,” a senior Homeland Security official told NBC News.

In this case, Bannon is still after a crisis, but he didn’t plan for this being it. It would be so perfectly ironic for White House incompetence, rather than authoritarianism per se, to create a Leninist political breakdown.

(Add’l Note: A friend points out that the inclusion of dual nationals makes it illegal for the EU to assist in preclearance, bringing the US into sharp conflict with the EU. This seems far more likely to be an oversight than the Iran or Green Card issues.)