The Mexico-California border fence (Tony Webster)

Opinion

Our country is changing, and there’s nothing we can do about it

The U.S. is exposing its insecurities, provincialism and prejudices in ways that won’t be easily forgotten.

Around the height of the right-wing populist Tea Party movement, I was covering politics for the local newspaper in Naples, Florida, one of the wealthiest and most Republican cities in the country. In 2010, the mass of Tea Party voters there helped send Naples resident and hospital magnate Rick Scott to the Florida governor’s mansion, and they sent a state legislator from Miami named Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate.

By 2012, the Tea Party influence in Naples was still dramatic. They held protests and were a fixture at rallies for Republican presidential candidates campaigning and raising money in Naples ahead of the crucial Florida primary vote. On Jan. 24, Newt Gingrich, hot off a South Carolina win, held what was perhaps the largest political rally the city has ever seen. Around 6,000 people jammed a downtown park, but not because of Gingrich. Mainly they were there because of Barack Obama.

“We have an answer to the president of class warfare: Go to Europe. That’s where they like that kind of politics,” Gingrich said, calling Obama “the food-stamp president,” his signature phrase. “We’re really getting the sense of the grass roots, populist movement that’s out there,” he told the crowd.

The Tea Party grew because conservatives were alarmed by the direction their country was headed. What would the first black president do? Will we turn into a heavily taxed, socialist-style country, like Sweden or Denmark? Are we going to maintain the character of America? Their political response was to obstruct at all costs, to challenge his policies in the courts and in the streets, and to never allow Obama a moment’s rest. They sent unrepentant radicals like Ted Cruz to Congress to lead the resistance.

I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party lately because I know how they feel. What will the first reality television star president do? Will we turn into an authoritarian-style country, like Turkey or Russia? Are we going to maintain the character of America? To those on the left and many moderates and independents (and some Republicans), the only political response available now is to obstruct at all costs, to sue the White House often, to keep Trump under pressure.

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I thought the Tea Party was overreacting when they called Obama dangerous. That impression has been validated. There wasn’t a single foreign terrorist attack on U.S. soil during his presidency. (The only terrorist attacks were homegrown, enabled by the Republican-supported ease of access to guns.) The economy improved, more people became employed and, in fact, Obama continued many objectionable Bush-era policies. He compromised on tax increases for the wealthy and on his healthcare overhaul, ultimately adopting a Republican-devised plan and alienating some on the left. Obama was not dangerous or revolutionary; on the contrary, he maintained so much establishment continuity in Washington that Trump’s outsider argument remained potent. America is largely the same as it was eight years ago, plus a few more civil liberties.

So, am I overreacting, too? The story we broke last night suggests not.

Living abroad, I’m frequently in a position to explain American actions, and sometimes I take the defensive. There’s much I’m proud of about my country. We’re a nation built on the aspirations and hard lessons that immigrants carried with them from dysfunctional countries to our shores. Our diversity has been a source of pain for us, but it’s also beautiful and unprecedented. At the airport, you can never be sure who’s an American because U.S. passport holders come in all colors and speak all languages. The United States is a model of responsible internationalism*, and at this moment our leadership in the world should not be replaced, least of all by those most eager now to do so. (*Disagree if you like about our benevolence abroad—you wouldn’t be wrong—but the fact remains the U.S. is the largest donor to everything from the U.N. refugee agency to the Green Climate Fund, it resettles more refugees than anyone else and its soft power diplomacy has quietly, if inconsistently, helped to hold foreign nations accountable on human rights.)

All of that is dissolving before our eyes. Trump is dimming America’s beacon and closing its doors. As Jesuit Refugee Service observed, instead of accepting refugees based on a hierarchy of need, we’ll soon judge a refugee’s worthiness on a hierarchy of religion and nationality, with Muslims at the bottom. These executive orders will engender a hatred of America and Americans that cannot be predicted or overestimated. Trump’s policies will almost certainly make the world less safe.

Trump will also begin to construct his wall today, The New York Times reported. It’s hard to say what will be more harmful: the message the wall sends about our country or the impediment it will be for Latin Americans fleeing gangs and intolerable poverty. Obama’s policies of mass deportation and border patrol were already devastating to families and fatal for those forced deeper into the desert to evade authorities. The wall will only force Central American refugees to seek more dangerous alternate routes. It will also be an expensive boondoggle for American (or Mexican?) taxpayers. Most of all, it will become a shameful emblem of the U.S. that we may never live down, something akin to the Great Firewall of China or the Iron Curtain. The U.S. is exposing its insecurities, provincialism and prejudices in ways that won’t be easily forgotten.

One of the unfortunate things about an executive order is that there’s almost no way to challenge it before it happens. Citizens can only fight it in the courts after it’s already been issued. Latterly and Reuters were the first to report that Trump was readying executive orders on immigration and refugees less than 24 hours before he was expected to sign them. American voters, who overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton in the November election, had virtually no opportunity to voice their opposition to the measures.

As I write this, Trump has still not signed the orders. Maybe there’s still a chance to save the character of America as a place of diversity, optimism and internationalism. Unfortunately, that decision is Trump’s alone. There’s nothing we can do until 2018.

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