After some back and forth, much to the dismay of both Democratic and Republican leadership in congress, the Trump white house settled on wanting border security funding (upwards of 25 billion) and the ending of lottery visas in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for the 800,000 dreamers. This is in spite of polling that shows 87 percent of all Americans favor allowing immigrants who were brought to America as children to stay in the country. The same CBS poll also shows that 79 percent of all those that belong to the president’s own party are in favor of allowing immigrants who were brought to America as children to stay in the country. This doesn’t make sense. Why hold childhood arrivals in limbo? Trump didn’t have to revoke the executive order signed by Obama that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. However, doing so created a crisis (the dooming deadline) and brought into question who is an American. Both of which are mainstays of the Trump brand that has won the presidency.
Jan-Warm Muller describes this particular populist behavior, “’crisis’ can be a performance, and politics can be presented as a continuous state of siege.” This constant creation of crisis, which is not limited to the topic of immigration, is done through not only the much-discussed distortion of facts but also through the use of the legitimate powers bestowed upon the presidency. For example, the president does have the power to revoke an executive order. The terror that revocation causes to DACA recipients and the ensuing public discourse, is nonetheless the goal.
Immigration was a key campaign topic during the election of Donald Trump. Immigration, specifically of the “illegal” variety, has Donald Trump’s base energized. Trump used this time and time again during his campaign. Trump portrayed the immigration system as not only broken but the cause for the crisis, an ambiguous one whose parameters he never once clearly defined, America is in.
Immigration is particularly useful to Trump as it can not only cause crisis and political paralysis but it also affirms to his base that they are true Americans. During his campaign, his choosing to highlight specific murders of white Americans committed by Latino assailants who happened to come to the US through illegal ways, shows Trump had a certain goal in mind: get elected by any means necessary. Unity was clearly not the goal. This dog whistle rhetoric serves to divide Americans by pushing a certain segment towards Trump to fulfill his political ambitions.
It turns out that a successful populist presidential candidate implores the same techniques used to win an election to govern. Muller describes this phenomena by stating that populist presidents don’t really stop campaigning once they are in office. Interestingly, this trait is not unique to populists.
A year into his presidency, the feeling that America is in crisis seems to have become the new normal. Headline fatigue related to the Trump presidency seems to be widespread. Trump’s administration seems to be working from right out of a populism handbook. The myth of the threat caused by the “overwhelming” number of foreigners living amongst us is not rhetoric exclusive to the campaign trail.
Does this question of who is an American and deserving of rights hurt our democracy?
It weakens our democracy greatly. America’s demographics have changed dramatically. Pew Research reports that 13.1 percent of the United States’ population is foreign born. According to the Forum on Child and Family Statistics, from 1994 to 2016 the percentage of all children living in the United States with at least one foreign-born parent rose from 15 percent to 25 percent. To have your presence or your parents’ presence in the country you call home discussed as public discourse can feel alienating. This alienation does not foster the inclusivity that successful democracies sit on.
The Preamble to the Constitution of the so-called-United States of America begins with the words “We the People”. America’s progressions and regressions from a full democracy can be traced by how its citizens have defined said people. In times that the concept of the people has expanded to include a broader sector of society the democratic experiment has flourished. Conversely, in times that the concept of the people has been contracted in the public zeitgeist America’s democracy has weaned. We, if I may use the term, are in a time that the questioning of who is included in the people can lead to presidential victory. The concept is contracting. Only time will tell, the degree to which this will lead to democratic backsliding.
PHOTO BY ROBYN BECK, CREATIVE COMMONS ZERO LICENSE