The “Debt” Immigrants Can Never Repay

Rep. Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on July 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In July, Donald Trump told a story about how he coerced a wealthy businessman he didn’t like and who didn’t like him into praising him. The story focused on the pleasure Trump took in watching that man grovel and tell him he was “doing good.” In Trump’s hands, it was a parable about debt and gratitude. “You know,” Trump says he told this nameless enemy, “you don’t like me and I don’t like you. I never have liked you and you never have liked me—but you’re gonna support me because you’re a rich guy. And if you don’t support me, you’re going to be so goddamn poor you’re not going to believe it.” Trump describes the man as acquiescing and praising him, closing the story with: “And maybe we didn’t get along, but it’s not like he has a choice. He has no choice.”

To Trump, this is the story of an excellent “deal.” The best deal is one where the other party, who has something you want (like “a wealthy businessman’s grudging approval”), has no choice but to give it to you. It doesn’t matter if the praise is genuine as long as it costs the businessman something to give it. This calculus may seem pragmatic, but it ends up having a long-term price of its own: “You lose all your friends when you’re president,” Trump laments later in his monologue, one of his part-joke, part-confession asides. When the “deal” is your only framework, your universe shrinks and shuts out bonds over things like (for example) shared principles. It also makes nontransactional feedback—or any truly independent judgment untainted by bribes or threats—implausible. Some consequences of this approach are as old as they are obvious: Choosing to exert control through coercion, insincere praise, or veiled threats frays relations into the kind of exploitation on the one side and lying obsequiousness on the other that Shakespeare’s fools spent every play mocking. More worrying, for a democracy, is that there is no aspiration to anything resembling the ideal of equality here: Trump’s “deal” is about supremacy. He applies it to everything, and his most ardent support (and much of his administration) draws power by championing this worldview.

Trump’s story may have been apocryphal, but it’s also clarifying. Though no friend to the poor and marginalized, his priorities remain clear even with his ostensible equals; these priorities consist largely of making his deal partners lose. The story also offers one of the better examples of the gratitude tax he tries to exact from those with whom he interacts. This is a particular kind of American paternalism at its finest, a framework where the weaker party is not only forced into social or financial debt—they are humiliated and made to feel it. The paternalist values getting the better end of a deal over pretty much everything else. And that’s what a particular subset of Trump supporters—striving to “win” this way themselves—like about him.

Absent an arrangement where he profits financially, the paternalist deal-maker makes sure to profit socially. That’s crucial to understanding some of the less-obvious gears powering Trump’s worldview. Yes, he’s racist; yes, he’s classist. But he’ll make exceptions for poor people (or people from marginalized communities) if they’ll grovel and praise. Sen. Lindsey Graham argued that Trump’s dislike of Somali immigrants like Rep. Ilhan Omar is not based on race. The reason he’s demonizing her to his followers, Graham argued—as if this weren’t racist and above all slimy—was that she didn’t like him. “I really do believe that if you’re a Somali refugee who likes Trump, he’s not going to say, ‘Go back to Somalia.’ ” You’ll recognize the currency Graham’s identifying here: The only nonwhite migrants worth tolerating, to this way of thinking, are those willing to pay—and they’d better give more than they got, whether in dollars or in gratitude.

This bleak standard is symptomatic of a larger pattern of American paternalism that has always existed but is now flourishing under Trump as other national ideals wither. The American paternalist in the Trumpian mold thinks he’s generous and even-keeled. In practice, he tends to be paranoid, erratic, and consumed by the pursuit of “deals” that put him ahead of the other party in an imaginary ledger he curates with obsessive care. People with less material wealth than him are suspect; as he cannot imagine other motives for them, they must be out to take advantage. He is therefore on guard with them and keen to maintain his advantage by any means. This has obvious consequences for immigration policy: Such a person sees nothing meritorious in courageous dreamers filled with human potential traveling to a foreign country to make a better life. In his ledger, their arrival (and indeed, their existence) appears as a debit.

These habits of mind are worth examining if we want to understand the lurid enthusiasm Trump’s paternalistic supporters (and they are a powerful subset) display for his anti-immigrant crusades. A deal-obsessed outlook codes brown and black immigrants and children of immigrants as a “bad deal” on the one hand, basks in the legend of American generosity on the other, and praises the American dream while refusing to credit people of color with achieving it. (Recall how frequently Republicans bring up Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s background in bartending in an effort to humiliate her for doing precisely what they’d praise as heroic bootstrapping if a white man did it.) The paternalist doesn’t just look down on people who have less than him. He congratulates himself on his country’s largesse while refusing to credit parties he sees as lesser with much of what they’ve actually achieved. In short: Exacting a “gratitude tax” will never be enough. The paternalist sees certain populations as eternally, and irretrievably, in his debt.

Here, for example, is how Tucker Carlson framed his attack on Ilhan Omar on his July 9 show: “The United States is the kindest, most open-minded place on the planet. The U.S. has done more for other people and received less in return than any nation in history by far.” (A bad deal, Trump would say.) Carlson goes on: “Americans like to help. It makes us feel good. Some of our deepest satisfaction as a country comes from watching penniless immigrants arrive on our shores, buy into our values, and thrive. We call it the American dream and nothing makes us prouder.”

But the trick of the paternalist framework is that it doesn’t actually allow for certain Americans to ever be self-made. If you listen to Carlson’s rhetoric, the more Omar and her family accomplish, the more their achievements become evidence of their debt. “Omar’s father drove a taxi at first, then got a job at the Post Office working for the government. Omar, meanwhile, grew up free in the world’s richest country with all the bounty that that implies,” Carlson says—nimbly turning the story of her father’s hard work earning a living in a foreign country into the story of the United States’ “bounty.” His labor becomes a gift he received. Carlson continues: “She became a citizen, then went to work for the State University. A few years later, she became a member of Congress elected by voters who are proud to see an immigrant succeed.” Carlson seems to celebrate this development, but he finds the concept of a member of Congress with clear ideas about how she can improve the country she serves truly offensive. The only affect he actually wants her to express is—you guessed it—gratitude. “Ilhan Omar has an awful lot to be grateful for, but she isn’t grateful. Not at all. After everything America has done for Omar and for her family, she hates this country more than ever.” Alabama GOP state Rep. Tommy Hanes, who proposed a resolution calling for the expulsion of Omar from Congress, stated as reasoning, “Rep. Omar is ungrateful to the United States and the opportunities that have been afforded to her.”

In these formulations, the immigrant is forever on a scale, and weights are placed and removed accordingly. She may be a citizen, but in the paternalist’s eyes, she will never be equal. Instead of accepting her position of having “no choice” but to support her ostensible benefactor, she has the temerity to insist on her own views as a citizen and elected representative in the United States government. In refusing to agree with the paternalist, she’s refusing to pay the gratitude tax he believes he’s owed.

Here’s the crux: To the paternalist, Omar is in a state of eternal debt, because any accomplishment of her own will be re-narrated as a gift Americans gave her. To fail to respond to these gifts—as American Jews have failed to respond to Trump’s ingratiating pro-Israel moves—is to be “disloyal.” Whether to Israel or to America (or, more accurately, either as proxy for Trump himself) doesn’t much matter; the point is that loyalty was purchased and the offense is that it turned out not to be for sale. Nothing offends the paternalist more than a refusal to enter the deal’s debased terms. (See also Trump’s reaction after the “sale” of Greenland was dismissed by Denmark’s prime minister.)

For Trumpian paternalists, it is a problem that immigrants have nothing but are getting more than nothing. Absent a way to directly profit off them (though some private detention centers are doing so) the best way the administration can keep them from getting the better of the deal, whether as deterrent or punishment, is to subtract from what little they have: They have nothing, so take their freedom. Take their children.

Under Trump, conservative ideals have shrunk to deals. It’s hard to overstate the extent of this base contraction, or the risk the paternalist deal-maker poses to a social fabric that’s already dissolving. The problem isn’t just that the paternalist is fundamentally paranoid and ungenerous; it’s that his outlook is a never-ending font of aggrieved resentment. Because he’s set up a devil’s bargain—because he trades in coercive structures of transactional feeling—he feels eternally abused, put-upon, and suspicious of those on whom he believes he may have conferred something of value. And this is the crux of what it means to be an immigrant in America today who hasn’t arrived directly from Norway: Because they are not given credit for what they achieve in this country—because their contributions are reframed as America’s gift to them—by definition they can never be seen as benefiting the United States in a way that the paternalist will recognize.

With this as a working premise, it seems inevitable that the notion of the U.S. as a nation built by striving immigrants would see its signifiers come under assault. Hence: Ken Cuccinelli’s announcement, in his role as acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, of changes that would punish legal immigrants seeking permanent status for accepting housing vouchers, Medicaid, food stamps, or other public services during their stay. (Anyone who accepts “free stuff” to which they have a legal right will be punished—the price must be paid.) Hence: Cuccinelli’s reinterpretation of the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Hence: the University of Pennsylvania’s Amy Wax making the case in July, and weakly defending it in an interview with Isaac Chotiner, for using “cultural-distance nationalism” to argue that nonwhite immigrants might have cultural difficulty adapting to a “modern advanced society” like the United States. It brings one no joy to realize that if this is because their countries of origin suffered from “kleptocracy, corruption, lawlessness, weak institutions, and the inability or unwillingness of leaders to provide for their citizens’ basic needs,” such an immigrant might in fact be uniquely well-adapted to the United States as presently constituted.