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America Now Looks Like the Past, Not the Future

Trump's refugee ban abandons America's claims to moral leadership.

Pool/Getty Images

Iranian scientist Samira Asgari was one of many people from around the world caught in President Donald Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. On Saturday morning, Asgari was scheduled to fly from Frankfurt to Boston, where she had a visa to work as a post-doctoral fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to study the relationship between genetics and tuberculosis. But before she could board her flight, she was stopped by an U.S. consular officer who said her visa was no longer valid because of Trump’s order.

“The shock wore off yesterday evening,” Asgari told The Atlantic on Sunday. “Now there’s just extreme sadness, and a very strong feeling that I’ve been discriminated against. Even in Iran, you have this picture of America as a dreamland. But for people like me, this isn’t the America we imagined.”

Asgari’s disillusionment with America suggests what will be the most lasting impact of the temporary refugee ban: that it tarnishes America’s claim to be a progressive country, the land of the future. As a piece of policy, the order, reportedly crafted by the ultra-nationalist ideologues Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller in defiance of career bureaucrats at the department of Homeland Security, is politically vulnerable. The Trump administration is already walking back key parts of the policy. “As far as green card holders, moving forward, it doesn’t affect them,” Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, said on Sunday’s Meet the Press. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly later released a statement saying, “In applying the provisions of the president’s executive order, I hereby deem the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest.”

Politically, the ban is proving to be a costly failure for Trump, both because of the opposition it has generated and because of its incompetent execution. Even some key members of Trumps’s own party, who have been so tolerant of his bigotry and poor handle on policy, feel emboldened to criticize him. “I think we need to be careful,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “We don’t have religious tests in this country.” Senator John McCain said, “Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.” Senator Rob Portman called the ban “an extreme vetting proposal that did not get the vetting it should have had.” In a statement, New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance said, “the president’s current travel ban executive order appears rushed and poorly implemented.”

A wide range of Christian leaders have also denounced the ban. Leaders of the evangelical community, who make up one of Trump’s crucial voting blocs, sent a letter to the president saying they were “troubled” by the ban and calling for refugee resettlement to resume. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago was blunter in his condemnation. “This weekend proved to be a dark moment in U.S. history,” Cupich said in a statement. “The executive order to turn away refugees and to close our nation to those, particularly Muslims, fleeing violence, oppression and persecution is contrary to both Catholic and American values.... The world is watching as we abandon our commitments to American values. These actions give aid and comfort to those who would destroy our way of life. They lower our estimation in the eyes of the many peoples who want to know America as a defender of human rights and religious liberty, not a nation that targets religious populations and then shuts its doors on them.”

Cupich’s words echo the sentiments expressed by Asgari, that this ban changes how we should view America. Trump’s order, and indeed his elevation to the presidency, does seem to presage a transformation. America increasingly appears to be a nation that represents not the future, but the past.

America has fallen under the sway of reactionary and nativist politics before, notably in the 1920s when it adopted an extremely restrictive immigration policy. But since World War II, the United States has prided itself on being the global leader on human rights, the cutting-edge model for liberty and democracy. This self-flattering view was held by both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, one of its most eloquent advocates was Ronald Reagan, who loved to evoke the old Puritan vision of America as a “shining city on a hill.” This was the “dreamland” America that drew immigrants like Asgari.

Trump has no such idealized image of America.

To judge by his speeches, notably an inaugural address that fear-mongered about “American carnage,” the president believes the country is in deep trouble and needs to get its own house in order. Trump is more interested in recovering past glories—the old days when “we’d win with wars” rather than now, when “we don’t win anymore”—than in creating a new tomorrow.  It’s no surprise that some of the loudest complaints about Trump’s ban came from tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that rely on the immigrants that Trump demonizes.

The drift of Trump’s policies and words in the first ten days of his presidency are toward an America that eschews international responsibility and disdains international opinion. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and has threatened to raise tariffs both in general and against particular nations like Mexico, China, and Germany. He’s created a diplomatic crisis with America’s southern neighbor, Mexico, by initiating his plan to build a border-spanning wall and somehow getting Mexico to pay for it. He’s laid the groundwork for a much more aggressive policy of deporting undocumented immigrants, including cracking down on sanctuary cities and those who try to help those immigrants. He’s encouraged the building of two oil pipelines—the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline—which will make it more difficult for the U.S. to live up to its climate obligations in the Paris Agreement. He’s indicated he’ll keep the prison in Guantanamo Bay open, mocked the Geneva Convention, and has celebrated waterboarding by saying torture “absolutely works.”

On the international stage, Trump is pursuing friendlier relations with the most powerful nation that wants to disrupt this international order: Russia. Conversely, Trump has had frosty relations with traditional allies like Germany. In a telling moment, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Trump on Saturday, she expressed concern about his moves to ban Muslim immigrants and felt it necessary to explain to him the importance of the refugee convention. 

You could almost argue that Trump’s lack of compunction about international norms shows a certain realism, but his dire view of America is also part and parcel of his pinched and narrow nationalism, his inability to see how immigrants enrich a country. The large protests that broke out across the country over Trump’s order were a function of more than just opposition to this specific policy. Rather, those protests were fueled by a fear that Trump’s America will be an anti-future, a hateful and small-minded dystopia with a plummeting global reputation. Such protests might thwart Trump on a few issues, and the legal system might thwart a few more, as when judges put a quick stay on parts of Trump’s executive order.

But simply by becoming president, Trump has won a huge victory for his backward view of America. Thanks to the quirks of the Electoral College and a 46 percent minority of the voters, America has put in power a president who doesn’t believe in the longstanding values of his country. Who knows what damage he can do to those values over four or eight years? It only took Trump 10 days to tarnish the idea of America as the beacon of the future. The dreamland is fast becoming a nightmare.