Donald Trump’s executive order Muslim ban is not about preventing terrorism, but about directing social and bureaucratic oppression against the American Muslim community. This should be self-evident from Giuliani’s verification that the new administration sought his assistance for a “Muslim ban.” Still, the media coverage and discussion have quixotically focused on a few key themes of the internal logic of the executive order and assumed a good-faith effort from the White House to curb terrorism. Right at the outset, the executive order set off a familiar starting gun for a well-trodden path in liberal America of milquetoast allegations of hypocrisy and stupidity towards their political opponents, alongside “explainer” articles that inevitably begin with some synonym of “Actually...,” accompanying well-formatted data graphics that no one currently in power will ever view.
Almost immediately after the release of the Muslim Ban, an Excel chart created by the libertarian Cato Institute — a well-known defender of basic human rights like advocating for the total dissolution of the social safety net — rapidly circulated the day of the executive order’s release. The chart tracks the origin points and frequency of terror attacks and compares countries of origin subject to the executive order and those that were not subject to the Muslim ban where Trump has business interests. Unsurprisingly, it demonstrated that countries in which Trump has business ties were left untouched by the executive order. The chart’s argument was subsequently rehashed into slicker graphics at a number of news outlets. These arguments were tweeted and posted on social media by innumerable Democratic Congresspersons as an indicator of yet another example of Trump’s corruption.
Setting aside the fact that the Obama Administration ensconced these countries’ terror risk label, there has, to date, been no indicator that demonstrating Donald Trump’s corruption is politically effective. It did not work during the campaign when it was clear the new president did not pay his workers and it did not work during the period following the campaign in which he claimed to divest himself of his financial conflicts of interest but did not.
More importantly, by engaging in the debate about the logic of an executive order banning certain countries linked to particular religions, the organizations and individuals opposing the executive order are tacitly providing feedback, guidance, and acceptance, not resistance to the executive order. Through their analysis of which Middle East and North African countries produce a higher volume of terror attacks as a counter-argument against banning citizens of the seven countries outlined in the executive order, the natural conclusion is: “if we are going to ban Muslims, let’s start with these Muslims.” The debate about the ban’s internal logic strengthens the process of institutionalization, normalizes the concept, and promulgates systemic xenophobia as a potential policy, provided lawmakers choose the right origin countries.
The other common refrain on the executive order comes from the often self-appointed national security analyst crowd: the Muslim Ban will actually increase terrorism, not decrease it. This is so evidently accurate as to be a truism.
In an article on his Brookings Institution page, hawkish national security and counterterrorism expert Daniel Byman articulates, “Trump is also sending a message to Muslims at home and around the world — America does not like you. This vitriol makes it easier for the Islamic State and other groups to recruit.”
Backing this up, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a well-respected think tank in the social sciences, performed a robust study about the impact of poverty and political repression on terror attacks. The study concluded that democratic or authoritarian governments effected a rise in terrorism when they were moderately politically repressive. In the United States, it should be immediately evident that these criteria apply to the current administration and the Bush and Obama White Houses’ policies on Muslim residents. From countless unconstitutional FBI entrapment schemes in mosques to so-called “random” extra airport screening, Muslims undoubtedly fit the model of a moderately oppressed underclass.
These articles miss the point, though, which is that a terror attack would be the ideal event for the Trump administration or any administration looking to expand executive authority. Donald Trump is the most deeply unpopular president in American history at this point in an administration. Traditionally presidents have thought of attacks as potential challenges to their tenure, but Trump has stacked the odds perfectly in his favor on multiple levels. On one hand, if a terror attack happens, he has already set up a narrative that articulates it was the courts and the media who facilitated the attack. On the other hand, he can and will take credit for an absence of attacks.
More poignantly on the political side, it should be readily apparent that the Muslim ban is not about combatting terror attacks.
The executive order is about fomenting a sense of unease, isolation, and fear among the American Muslim community. As Daniel Luban articulated so eloquently, “If we view a central goal of the policy not as preventing terror but as sowing terror, many of the seemingly irrational or incompetent features of its rollout begin to make more sense.”
Many Americans have good reason to cheer the federal judges suspending provisions of the executive order affecting current visa-holders and permanent residents, but the damage is already done. Even though the ban was deemed unconstitutional by the appellate court and will be unchallenged in its current iteration, the intended effects of destabilizing communities, families, and a sense of place in America for Muslims have been irreparably put into place. The White House’s fighting on behalf of executive order so vociferously in court on signals their willingness within the boundaries of presidential authority to oppress Muslim communities, including those who have lived here for decades on green cards. Even more, in his news conference today, if the kayfabe spectacle of a former WWE executive performatively combating a bunch of debate nerds qualifies, Trump reaffirmed his commitment to the ban and announced that he would release a new executive order at some point next week.
At the same time, as others have pointed out, the executive order has turned xenophobia into a partisan fence buster. No longer can Republicans and so-called “moderate” Democrats pass Trump off as an aberration of some historic “compassionate conservatism.” The gutless #nevertrump and libertarian crowd who opposed Trump solely on the grounds of rhetoric and boorishness masquerading as loyalty to a lofty libertine Edmund Burke-brand conservatism have been exposed for what they really want: power at any expense, including the social liberties they pretend to hold so dear. For Paul Ryan, who describes himself as a libertarian, to receive his long-held ideal outcome of privatizing Medicare, Social Security, and doing away with Medicaid, he needs to support the expansion of state terror towards a disempowered minority. Thus, as we approach the 2018 midterm elections, the oppressing of American Muslims will no longer be a priority of a fringe Right, but a central platform in the Republican Party, while Americans’ post-9/11 fears are hardened by the continued social media and news coverage of the Muslim Ban.
To fight this, the Left is going to need to provide a coherent vision of the future that presents an alternative to the Republicans’ America, which cannot be differentiated from Trump’s. The DNC has leveraged people’s fear to perpetuate the civil liberty forfeitures outlined in the Patriot Act and in the Defense Reauthorization Act, which, among other things, allows the military to suspend the right of habeas corpus to American citizens, in order to strengthen the executive under Obama. Now is the time to have a broader discussion of executive authority that was so sorely needed over the last eight years and sketch a comprehensive vision for the future that reaffirms the American ideal: equality for all. The midterms will be a litmus test on the kind of America liberals want to create and the stakes are very real.