What do to next? Trump’s Immigration Rhetoric, Pt. 5

This is the final entry in a series. See part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

To recap: we have estab­lished that pres­i­den­tial rhetoric is pow­er­ful and can influ­ence the pub­lic. We have estab­lished that it has a pow­er­ful role in shap­ing how the media choose to cov­er cer­tain issues and in what way. And we have estab­lished that the cur­rent pres­i­dent has a unique propen­si­ty for using divi­sive lan­guage to trig­ger and ampli­fy white griev­ance pol­i­tics.

This means the way the pres­i­dent has approached the top­ic of immi­gra­tion is inher­ent­ly fraught — it is a high­ly emo­tion­al top­ic that often works at a sub­lim­i­nal lev­el of vis­cer­al reac­tions, and is rarely con­nect­ed to real-world data and facts. Yet, as Adam Ser­w­er puts it, whether Amer­i­ca can con­tin­ue as a mul­ti-racial democ­ra­cy is an exis­ten­tial ques­tion, not just for us, but glob­al­ly. But it isn’t lost; after all, he notes:

A plu­ral­i­ty of Amer­i­cans in 2016 and 2018 vot­ed against defin­ing Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship in racial terms, some­thing that has per­haps nev­er hap­pened before in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States. There was no anti-racist major­i­ty at the dawn of Recon­struc­tion, dur­ing the hey­day of immi­gra­tion restric­tion, or in the twi­light of the civ­il-rights move­ment. The vot­ers of this coali­tion may yet defeat Trump­ism.

There’s a lot that indi­vid­ual, nor­mal peo­ple can do to oppose racism expressed as anti-immi­gra­tion com­ing from the top.

Decide to act

Dele­git­imiz­ing immi­grants through hate speech and abu­sive poli­cies must be unac­cept­able in a civ­il soci­ety. Cit­i­zens can­not exist equal­ly if the gov­ern­ment is using its vast pow­er to sin­gle out non-white groups for cen­sure and mis­treat­ment. Karl Pop­per famous­ly called it the para­dox of tol­er­ance: “In order to main­tain a tol­er­ant soci­ety, the soci­ety much be intol­er­ant of intol­er­ance.” This means choos­ing to be intol­er­ant of intol­er­ance on an indi­vid­ual, and behav­ing accord­ing­ly.

Think of it as an immune response: end­less stud­ies have demon­strat­ed con­clu­sive­ly that immi­gra­tion is good for soci­eties. This isn’t some fuzzy argu­ment about cul­tur­al mix­ing, either: econ­o­mists pub­lished peer-reviewed research in March, 2019, that showed con­clu­sive­ly that immi­grants are good for the econ­o­my. Even with­in the Unit­ed States, the coun­ties that had more immi­gra­tion between 1850 and 1920 had high­er income, less pover­ty, less unem­ploy­ment, high­er rates of urban­iza­tion, and more edu­ca­tion than coun­ties with less immi­gra­tion.

And think of the pub­lic out­cry to the first Mus­lim trav­el ban, and to the first round of fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion at the south­ern bor­der: decid­ing to act works. Pub­lic out­cry works.

Speak Plainly

There is an art to speak­ing truth to some­one who is unwill­ing to hear it. When some­one uses racist lan­guage, iden­ti­fy it in plain lan­guage.

Aston­ish­ing­ly, this has been a chal­lenge for many polit­i­cal jour­nal­ists for a vari­ety of rea­sons behind the scope of this essay. Indeed, as we not­ed ear­li­er, the sim­ple act of cov­er­ing how the pres­i­dent talks about immi­gra­tion can itself do dam­age by ampli­fy­ing racist ideas and refram­ing the dis­cus­sion in a way that down­plays the human­i­ty of the peo­ple under dis­cus­sion.

Mar­garet Sul­li­van has one idea: a “truth sand­wich,” where­by a false or racist claim is con­tex­tu­al­ized before and after with facts that demon­strate its fal­si­ty or abu­sive­ness.

This is not a carte blanche to be a jerk while speak­ing plain­ly (though that some­times might be war­rant­ed). Rather, think through how to use plain lan­guage to cut through the weasel words and jus­ti­fi­ca­tion some­one might be using to defend the inde­fen­si­ble: What do you mean by that? Do you real­ize why it’s hurt­ful? Do you care?

Some­times a per­son might not care that they’re being hurt­ful. If so, it is impor­tant to talk plain­ly about that, too: jerks need to be iden­ti­fied as jerks.

Do Not Fear Confrontation

In 2017, Richard Spencer, a white nation­al­ist noto­ri­ous for lead­ing a ball­room in Nazi salutes while yelling “Heil Trump” dur­ing the elec­tion and lead­ing tiki-torch wield­ing white peo­ple shout­ing “Jews will not replace us” at the Char­lottesville Nazi ral­ly, was work­ing out at a gym in Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia. He did this not only because most peo­ple don’t know who he is, but because he counts on being able to “pass” into polite soci­ety when he real­ly has no busi­ness being there.

A pro­fes­sor at George­town con­front­ed Spencer; loud­ly con­demn­ing his white suprema­cist views and demand­ing he leave the gym. The gym agreed and barred him from work­ing out there.

Some oth­er exam­ples of con­fronting the peo­ple who pro­mote inhu­mane treat­ment of non-white peo­ple:

  • Dur­ing the height of the child sep­a­ra­tion pol­i­cy, then-DHS Kris­ten Nielsen decid­ed to eat at a Mex­i­can restau­rant in Wash­ing­ton DC (the optics of which went unre­marked upon in the cov­er­age). A net­work of activists spot­ted her and con­front­ed her, pub­licly, yelling “shame” until she left.
  • In Ken­tucky, Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell was con­front­ed by anoth­er group of pro­test­ers, part of a series of pub­lic con­fronta­tions over his con­duct as Major­i­ty Leader.
  • Stephen Miller, a senior advis­er to Don­ald Trump wide­ly viewed as the archi­tect of his racist immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, was cursed at by a bar­tender as he picked up take­out sushi.
  • Sarah Huck­abee Sanders, then the White House spokesper­son, was con­front­ed at a restau­rant for mak­ing the staff uncom­fort­able by her very pres­ence and was polite­ly asked to leave.

These inci­dents did not on their own change the terms of the immi­gra­tion debate. What they did was demon­strate that hold­ing odi­ous views and enact­ing them as pol­i­cy is unac­cept­able in polite soci­ety.

There is a trap in this approach, which is the dread­ed cries of “civil­i­ty.” This is where the above point about speak­ing plain­ly, becomes impor­tant. Civil­i­ty does not include let­ting teenagers vom­it to death from the flu in a crowd­ed cell because CBP guards deny him med­ical treat­ment. Civil­i­ty does not include rip­ping infants away from their par­ents and caus­ing per­ma­nent emo­tion­al trau­ma as a “deter­rent” to claim­ing asy­lum. It isn’t civ­il to pack peo­ple so tight­ly in freez­ing cells with noth­ing more than a shared sleep­ing pad and alu­minum blan­ket that they can’t even lie down.

Civil­i­ty is a two-way street. Don’t let the abusers hide behind it.

Understand — And Communicate — The Fuller Picture

When the pres­i­dent talks about immi­gra­tion it isn’t just about immi­gra­tion. As one exam­ple, his admin­is­tra­tion inten­tion­al­ly broke the immi­gra­tion courts to cre­ate a back­log of cas­es, to crowd deten­tion facil­i­ties. He man­u­fac­tured a human­i­tar­i­an cri­sis to cre­ate urgency and demand a res­o­lu­tion on his terms.

Trump’s pri­ma­ry financier and patron. Robert Mer­cer, is an investor in the pri­vate secu­ri­ty com­pa­nies that oper­ate these camps — their invest­ments in these com­pa­nies have paid off an exor­bi­tant rates since they began fill­ing up with migrant chil­dren.

It’s also not about crime of the econ­o­my. Peo­ple aren’t com­ing here to hurt the coun­try. The rea­son peo­ple are flood­ing to the bor­ders is part of a region­al clus­ter of chal­lenges, from vio­lence to insti­tu­tion­al fail­ures to the long lega­cy of dis­as­trous U.S. poli­cies toward Latin Amer­i­ca. But these immi­grants com­mit far less crime than native cit­i­zens; and cities that wel­come large num­bers of immi­grants are more eco­nom­i­cal­ly suc­cess­ful than those that don’t.

Con­sid­er the pres­i­dent say­ing he wants to increase immi­gra­tion from Nor­way and to decrease it from coun­tries he called “shit­holes.” The clear impli­ca­tion is that white euro­peans are “good,” while non-white peo­ple from out­side Europe are “bad” (there are some­times allowances made for peo­ple of Asian her­itage, based on dam­ag­ing stereo­types about math scores). The type of “accept­able” non-white immi­grant changes over time (the Chi­nese Exclu­sion Act of 1882 is only the first exam­ple of restrict­ing immi­gra­tion explic­it­ly on race; oth­ers include mass oppo­si­tion to Ital­ians, Irish, and South­ern Euro­peans more gen­er­al­ly.

The big­ger pic­ture here isn’t that racial exclu­sions are okay; but rather that they’re not. In the 21st cen­tu­ry restrict­ing immi­gra­tion based on Catholi­cism sounds bizarre and vague­ly ille­gal; yet the admin­is­tra­tion con­vinced the Supreme Court under dubi­ous rea­son­ing to allow an explic­it ban on the basis of hav­ing an Islam­ic major­i­ty. The tar­gets change over time, but the cen­tral belief sys­tem of white suprema­cy remains the same.

So what to do?

There is no one thing that a per­son can do to com­bat the white suprema­cy being expressed as immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy at the White House. Decid­ing to act, using plain lan­guage, embrac­ing con­fronta­tion when nec­es­sary, and com­mu­ni­cat­ing the big­ger pic­ture about these poli­cies and words will not end the prob­lem overnight.

Aldous Hux­ley, in the intro­duc­tion to Brave New World, said “The price of lib­er­ty, and even of com­mon human­i­ty, is eter­nal vig­i­lance.” He was draw­ing on a long line of sim­i­lar state­ments stretch­ing back to the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, but his includ­ing of “com­mon human­i­ty” is what strikes me as being espe­cial­ly ger­mane. Immi­gra­tion is often delib­er­at­ed out­side the bounds of what we would con­sid­er to be a ques­tion of lib­er­ties — immi­gra­tion courts oper­ate under a sep­a­rate sys­tem of laws and rights than do nor­mal courts.

This is a long term chal­lenge, and it can only be addressed with a view toward the long term.

Con­sid­er­ing the basic human­i­ty of the peo­ple in ques­tion, there­fore, brings the dis­cus­sion beyond a legal­is­tic pars­ing of reg­u­la­tions toward a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion of fair­ness, dig­ni­ty, and jus­tice. Arriv­ing at a bor­der with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion is not an excuse for abu­sive, dehu­man­iz­ing treat­ment, and no one advo­cat­ing such a thing should be allowed to do so with­out chal­lenge.

So, know­ing how this rhetoric can prop­a­gate and infect the pub­lic dis­course like a meme, and how to fight back against that rhetoric, is a vital first step toward revers­ing the abus­es hap­pen­ing in our name.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.