Civic Society


Many of us on the left have known that the immigration debate was never about illegal immigration, or terrorism, or crime, or lost jobs, or any other right-wing excuse. It was about race and xenophobia. The logical consequence is, as Atrios puts it, “ethnic cleansing”.

There’s a principle in science, known as Occam’s razor, that you should accept the simplest, most parsimonious theory that explains all the facts. The same applies to politics. What is the theory that most simply explains Breitbart’s, and by extension Trump’s, immigration politics? If you believe in the alternate explanations provided above – economics, terrorism, crime, etc. – read the following, from Benjamin Wallace-Wells at the New Yorker:

I feel strongly about this,” Donald Trump said a year before his election, on Steve Bannon’s radio show. “When someone’s going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats, and they graduate, and not only graduate but do great, and we throw them out of the country and they can’t get back in, I think that’s terrible. We’ve got to be able to keep great people in the country. We’ve got to create job creators.”

Trump told a story he had heard, about a young man who went to Harvard and wanted to stay in the United States but couldn’t, so he returned to India, where he started a “very successful company.” Trump said, “He wanted to do that here. We have to be careful of that, Steve. We have to keep our talented people in this country.” The candidate seemed interested in how his interviewer would respond: “I think you agree with that. Do you agree with that, Steve?”

Bannon did not agree. He volunteered an invented fact—that two-thirds to three-quarters of Silicon Valley C.E.O.s are from “South Asia or from Asia.” (They are not.) “A country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society,” Bannon said. There was a back-and-forth. “You gotta remember we’re Breitbart. We’re the know-nothing vulgarians, so we’re always going to be to the right of you on this,” Bannon reminded Trump.

This was an early exchange between the man who would become President of the United States and the one who would be named his chief strategist. Trump and Bannon were trying out their theories on each other; the candidate was measuring the nationalist right, which he knows only by intuition, and the know-nothing vulgarian was measuring the man who would be his champion. Many of Trump’s commitments were already plain: he was by far the most nationalist Republican in the race, the one who had built his candidacy on hostility to “illegal immigrants.” Even so, a real distance separated Trump’s position from Bannon’s. Trump described a person he considered a desirable immigrant, one the country needs—the young Indian-American entrepreneur who graduated from Harvard with a strong G.P.A. For Bannon, the question was not whether immigrants were making contributions but whether their presence altered “civic society.” Part of what is in question now, in the fallout from the travel ban, is whether the gap between their views still exists at all.

Is Steve Bannon concerned only with people who circumvent the process of legal immigration? The “young Indian-American entrepreneur” in question has played by all the rules. Is he afraid of terrorism or crime? Our fictional young man isn’t a terrorist or a criminal either. Is he afraid of jobs being lost? Entrepreneurs are “job creators”, aren’t they?

Bannon’s real fear is not the economy: as he says, “A country’s more than an economy”. It is instead euphemized in two words: “civic society.” No matter how well brown people speak English, how much money they make, how highly they achieve, how many jobs they create, and how well-integrated they become, they will never be viewed by Bannon as contributing to “civic society”. Indeed, they will be perceived as undermining or even destroying it. Like so many other right-wing phrases – “law and order”, “states’ rights”, “political correctness”, and “inner cities” – “civic society” is also racist code language. It means a society built on shared values and common bonds: in this case, the common bond being whiteness, and the shared value being white supremacy.

When I lived in Switzerland, I tried to follow their immigration politics attentively, despite the language and cultural barriers. If right-wing fears over immigration are caused by the impending loss of white status (As Bill O’Reilly complained on the eve of Obama’s reelection, “The demographics are changing…It’s not a traditional America anymore.”), then Switzerland in some respects represents a more acute case than the U.S. In the U.S., the foreign-born population constitutes 13% of the total population; in Switzerland, the corresponding figure is 28%. (Unsurprisingly, other developed countries ranked highly on this metric – Australia, Israel, Austria, and Belgium – also have toxic race and immigration politics.)

The Swiss political system is unusual in that many politically divisive issues are decided not by representatives, but by the people themselves, through direct referendum. In the past decade, the Swiss people have passed measures “against the construction of minarets”, “for the expulsion of criminal foreigners”, and “against mass immigration” (which violated its treaties with the EU, which caused it to later be toned down). The leading Swiss political party, a truly noxious entity known as the UDC (in French), promoted each of these referenda, and wasn’t even shy about their true purpose: to make non-whites leave Switzerland. You can see it clearly in the picture at the top of this blog post, which was one of their political advertisements. (Lest you think that that’s an exception, scroll through some of its other ads here, if you have the stomach for it.)

The UDC has repeatedly plunged Switzerland into controversy and division over race, but, like Trump, it welcomes the negative attention because it boosts their brand among racists. After the “black sheep” campaign, the party spokesman said, “We’ve had an unbelievably positive response. It shows just how necessary our campaign is.” His quote is reminiscent of Trump’s response to the backlash against the Muslim ban, “It’s working out very nicely. You see it in the airports, you see it all over.” In both cases, they meant that the politics of racial conflagration were working out nicely and positively for them, not the country.

Even successful racebaiters occasionally suffer setbacks. In the UDC’s case, it was a direct referendum in 2016, called “For the effective expulsion of foreign criminals”. If the referendum had passed, it would have caused any crime by a foreigner, no matter how venial, to be punished by expulsion. In advance of the vote, I remember thinking through its consequences with my German coworker. He pointed out that foreigners like us might want to abstain from even basic activities like driving, since a speeding ticket might constitute a deportable offense.

In other words, the point of the law was to make life in Switzerland for foreigners so miserable that they would deport themselves. Imagine living in a country where one small misstep is grounds for being kicked out, and as a result one has to forego life’s necessities out of pure fear. At that point, the attractiveness of a country as rich and beautiful as Switzerland begins to dim.

If any of this brings to mind right-wing immigration politics in the U.S., it should. One of the key figures is Kris Kobach, whom the New Yorker called “Trump’s Ideas Man for Hard-Line Immigration Policy”. Kobach is best known for promulgating the voter fraud myth, as well as for advising Mitt Romney to make “self-deportation” the centerpiece of his immigration policy. Kobach has often operated at the state level, steadily chipping away at what he perceives as the federal government’s laxity on immigration.

Like the UDC, Kobach has lost as often as he has won. But, as Jonathan Blitzer writes in the New Yorker, sometimes even losing is winning:

Still, Kobach’s long game may have had less to do with creating legal precedent than it did with sowing social discord. According to the Migration Policy Institute, between July, 2006, and July, 2007, a hundred and eighteen proposals similar to Hazleton’s came up for consideration in towns across the country. This was how self-deportation was supposed to become a reality—if you put immigrants in the center of a raging populist debate at every level of state and local government, life got ugly for them. Walczak told me that the policy fight in Hazleton prompted a number of violent incidents, including threats made against the town’s immigrant community. “It was all about scapegoating,” he told me. “Rocks were thrown through the windows of stores owned by immigrants. Eventually, the Justice Department had to get involved.”

Kobach is best known for co-authoring the country’s harshest anti-immigration law, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which passed in 2010 and inspired “copycat” bills in five other states. The law was an open invitation to racial profiling by local and state police: it required law-enforcement officers to ask individuals about their immigration status if there was a “reasonable suspicion” that they might be undocumented. The law also made it a crime for an undocumented immigrant to work anywhere in the state, or to go anywhere without papers. “Arizona really has been a trailblazer in discouraging illegal immigration,” Kobach told the Arizona Republic. When, a year later, Alabama passed a similar bill, Kobach took another victory lap. “Without question, Alabama’s House Bill 56 is the most comprehensive anti-illegal-immigration state law ever drafted,” he said.

Herein lies the key to understanding Bannon’s immigration actions. The point is not only to draft executive orders and pass legislation. The real point is to throw the immigration system into turmoil, to create such chaos for foreigners that they leave the U.S. just as I was inclined to leave Switzerland. For Bannon, it doesn’t matter how many lawsuits he loses, how many stays are granted against Trump’s orders, or how many people protest against him. What matters to him is heightening the discomfort that brown people feel living in these United States. That’s how he will achieve his dream of a white “civic society”, even without passing any legislation. That’s how he will win the war despite losing every battle. As protestors, as the resistance, we must remain ever-cognizant of this tactic. Our goal is not simply to defeat Trump, but also to prevent ethnic cleansing. To do that, we must ensure that immigrants feel that they are, and always will be, welcome here.


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