Once again, albeit indirectly this time, Vladimir Putin has managed to upend American political discourse. And as before, grifters and strivers, Democratic politicians among them, are doing what they can to whip a legitimately alarmed and outraged public into a confused and ugly froth. On Thursday, California Congressman Eric Swalwell—best, and yet least, remembered as an also-ran in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary —appeared on CNN to recommend a set of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. “Frankly, I think closing their embassy in the United States, kicking every Russian student out of the United States—those should all be on the table,” he said. “Vladimir Putin needs to know every day that he is in Ukraine, there are more severe options that could come.”
After Fox News jumped on his comment on expelling students with an article featuring the clip, he responded on Twitter. “When Fox News thinks they’re owning me but the comments section agrees with me,” he wrote. “Looks like they miscalculated America.” Joining the Fox News comments section in support of Swalwell’s idea was Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego, who’s being touted by pundits and progressive activists as a potential primary challenger to Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. “We are not living in normal times,” he tweeted Friday evening. “These Russian students are the sons and daughters of the richest Russians. A strong message can be sent by sending them home.”
As Paul Blest noted at Vice, there are nearly 5,000 Russian students in the U.S. It is not actually true that all of them are “the sons and daughters of the richest Russians,” and it wouldn’t matter, ethically speaking, if they were. A just society cannot punish people, on the basis of their nationality, for actions they aren’t responsible for and may not even support. Those who can’t grasp this exceedingly simple principle should consider whether it would have been fair for American students to have been mistreated or inconvenienced abroad over the policies of Donald Trump. Opening a book—or even a Wikipedia article, whatever their minds might manage—on internment during World War II would also be worthwhile.
Swalwell and Gallego’s mentions are packed with cable news–addled fools objecting to the internment comparison because Swalwell’s proposal is less severe—as though that makes it right—and arguing, too, that a bunch of students sent back to Russia against their will might force Putin’s authoritarian regime to reverse course through protest. This is the way it always is. In any given geopolitical situation, whether our boots are on the ground or not, someone, somewhere, must be made to pay for American delusions.
Students come to the U.S. for different reasons; many don’t stay. But it is an absolute certainty that some of those Russian students came here because they saw something in this country it’s now incredibly difficult for us to see ourselves. How loudly can we boast today that America is a democratic society—a community of political equals where every vote matters? How credibly can we claim that ours is a society of shared prosperity—a place where even the poorest among us might be carried upward and forward by a fair economy into new lives? Can we really tell the world that we’ve left the days of censorship and state-approved ideas fully behind? Are we really a country where we can each be the authors of our own identities and live free from prejudiced interference?
Against all odds and against all evidence, people the world over still believe in the American idea. Many risk all they have, and spend much they don’t, to come here—only to discover that the idea is, in fact, merely an idea. But in the mere act of coming, each of them does their small part to make the idea real—you will find among them the truest keepers of the faith we have. We’ve spent much of the last 20 years in American politics trying to decide how many of them to throw out.
One of Donald Trump’s last pushes on immigration was an effort to drive out Chinese students. One of his first was a ban on the entry of Muslims, which he disguised and defended as a ban on entrants from particular countries. Throughout his presidency, many activists argued that Democratic outrage over these and other policies was belied by Democratic action and rhetoric under Obama and Bush. Whether one agrees with that indictment of the full party or not, it’s abundantly clear that Swalwell and Gallego—two of the Trump administration’s most camera-ready critics—are not coming to immigration policy from a place of consistent and coherent principle. Without reflection or hesitation, they’ve turned to casual jingoism and a proposal that will accomplish nothing but the stigmatization of people who have done nothing wrong.
The last year in punditry has been thick with suggestions that more Democrats should take after them—the party’s decades-long decline in rural America, it’s been argued, might be meaningfully reversed with a bit of blustery machismo and performative hostility to marginal constituencies. This isn’t the place to relitigate why that approach would be wrong as a matter of strategy. What Swalwell and Gallego have illustrated here is why that approach would be substantively dangerous. Without a care in the world, politicians with an instinct for sound bites propose things that can have real consequences for real people.
Over and over again since Biden took office, we’ve been assured that the adults have returned to the room. If so, we ought to expect more from them—the ideas they put forward should be informed by our history and by common sense. We simply cannot have elected Democrats proposing the expulsion of innocent people from the U.S. on the grounds that these are not “normal times.” Given the trajectory of the American right and our politics as a whole, there can be absolutely no quarter for such arguments. This war is a test. Swalwell and Gallego have already failed it. They should apologize or resign.