Politics

Incompetent President vs. United Front

Why Donald Trump is losing the battle to restrict immigration.

US President Donald Trump reacts after signing an executive order with small business leaders in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC on January 30, 2017.

President Donald Trump, after signing an executive order in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on Monday.

Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

Before executing a major policy, experienced and effective political operations lay the necessary groundwork to ensure that when they do have to fight, they will do so on the most favorable ground. First, they engage in extensive behind-the-scenes consultation to understand the landscape, with an eye toward learning about the array of potential consequences. They then investigate the political, legal, and practical obstacles to implementation, and figure out which tweaks can neutralize opponents and sidestep judicial challenges. They start narrow to deprive opponents of sympathetic plaintiffs and only broaden the policy later, when the high-profile battle is won. Then when the opposition is disorganized and demoralized, and its fear-mongering discredited, you come back for more.

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Basically, if you want to establish effective, lasting change, you do the opposite of what the Trump administration has done with its executive order imposing a 90-day freeze on the travel of nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. Had the White House done its due diligence, it might have proved its critics wrong. A new Rasmussen Reports survey, taken before this weekend’s protests, found that 56 percent of likely voters favored a temporary freeze, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. When respondents heard the executive order described as nothing more than a short-term measure designed to shore up security procedures, it’s no wonder most of them found the idea reasonable. There were many Americans willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt. But instead of depriving their opponents of sympathetic plaintiffs, they’ve made victims of elderly lawful permanent residents, refugees who’ve worked alongside U.S. military personnel, and many other hard-luck cases.

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Back in September, I argued that though Trump was the most explicitly restrictionist major-party candidate in decades, his candidacy would prove a major setback for the cause of immigration restriction. In May, when I still believed that the prospects for a Trump presidency were remote, I made the case that Trump’s rhetoric would drive public opinion in a more pro-immigration direction. And as Daniel Hopkins recently observed, early evidence suggests that since Trump first emerged on the political scene, Democrats and Republicans have turned against his calls for mass deportation. Far from reversing these trends, the controversy over Trump’s executive order and the ineptitude with which the order was rolled out will likely harden those positions.

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To understand why, consider one of the great puzzles of immigration politics in America. While those who favor reducing immigration levels consistently outnumber those who favor increasing them, advocates of higher immigration levels tend to win out over their opponents. Why is that? My very simple explanation is that one side of the immigration debate is more united than the other.

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In his 2001 book Dividing Lines, Daniel Tichenor offers a helpful typology for making sense of the immigration debate. Instead of just contrasting those who want to admit more immigrants (expansionists) and those who want to admit fewer (restrictionists), Tichenor adds another dividing line. The expansionist coalition, he writes, is divided between cosmopolitans—who view immigration in humanitarian terms and who favor incorporating immigrants into the welfare state—and free-market expansionists, who support bringing in low-wage workers while being less crazy about providing them with the safety-net benefits they’d need to lead decent lives. Despite the fact that cosmopolitans and free-market expansionists are at odds on fairly fundamental issues, they are united in their deep suspicion of the motivations of restrictionists, whom they tend to see as narrow-minded bigots. Restrictionists, meanwhile, are divided between classic exclusionists—who look at membership in the American national community in racial or ethnic terms—and nationalist egalitarians, who reject racial and ethnic prejudice and who believe lower immigration levels will better serve the interests of America’s multiracial working class, including struggling immigrants.

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While free-market expansionists and cosmopolitans work hand-in-glove—one supplies the prose and the other supplies the poetry—classic exclusionists and nationalist egalitarians are a different story. While classic exclusionists fret about preserving America’s white racial majority, nationalist egalitarians look forward to a more blended American future, in which the descendants of black and brown immigrants are just as likely to find themselves at the top of society’s pecking order as whites. To nationalist egalitarians, classic exclusionists are a noxious force. In modern America, the only way restrictionists can win is if classic exclusionists are marginalized and nationalist egalitarians take control of the agenda. If nationalist egalitarians had their way, the rhetoric of immigration restriction would be all about cracking down on unscrupulous employers who exploit unauthorized immigrant labor, not about villainizing unauthorized immigrants as dangerous predators.

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Which leads us back to Donald Trump. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump blended classic exclusionist and nationalist-egalitarian themes. While his defenders insisted that he was an egalitarian at heart, his detractors were just as convinced that Trump was appealing to racial chauvinism. Ultimately, Trump’s rhetoric did not prevent him from winning the presidency, but if the president and his advisers believe Trump can govern as he campaigned, then they’re in for a rude shock.

Trump won by outwitting and outlasting a crowded Republican primary field and then, in the general election, winning the votes of large numbers of people who believed him to be dishonest and possibly corrupt, on the grounds that they saw him as marginally less unacceptable than his chief opponent. To achieve this feat, he had to destroy a series of opponents—to make them look as bad as him or even worse. And when training his fire on opposing candidates, he was extremely effective. All-out war against his opponents has worked so far, so why stop now?

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But governing poses a different set of challenges than campaigning. Instead of destroying a series of opponents, it requires that you patiently build broad coalitions. At least, that’s how governing typically works. Over the weekend, a theory emerged as to why Trump’s executive order had caused so much chaos. Although it might seem as though the Trump administration was simply incompetent, this theory maintains that there was a more cynical thought process at work. What if some of his most trusted advisers—Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are the most widely cited suspects—actually welcomed the prospect of chaos at America’s ports of entry, as they believed saturated media coverage would polarize the electorate in ways that would benefit Trump’s immigration agenda?

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If certain people in the Trump White House really are spoiling for a fight, it’s a fight they won’t be able to win. Today’s very visible battle over whether America should welcome refugees, immigrants, and visitors from a handful of war-torn Muslim-majority countries will shrink the restrictionist coalition, not grow it. Cosmopolitans and free-market expansionists will be united and energized in their opposition to the executive order. Classic exclusionists—the people who care about preserving America’s white racial majority—might rally to Trump’s defense. And nationalist egalitarians—who worry more about immigration’s impact on the working class than they do about the supposed security threat posed by 70-year-old Iranian-born green-card holders who’ve lived in America for decades—will fall silent. For the Trump White House, that’s a losing formula.

Read more in Slate about the Muslim travel ban.

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