Immigration Isn’t What’s Killing America. Trump Is.

06 05 2020 | 08:10Umair Haque

A Pandemic, A Demagogue, and America’s Descent Into Authoritarianism.

Did you hear that? It’s the sound of a new Iron Curtain falling…not across the Soviet Union, but across America…in a strange, ironic twist of history. I say that because Trump announced he’s going to…stop immigration. By the way, did you know you can’t get a passport these days? Iron Curtains work both ways: they don’t just stop immigration, they also stop exit. Other nations are likely to retaliate in kind, and stop Americans from entering, now, too.

What is this move by Trump, really? It’s three things. Deflection, misdirection, and weaponization. It’s a quantum leap, in those three ways, in the growth of American authoritarian-fascism. Let’s take each of those in turn.

“Banning immigration” is pure deflection. From what? From a fact so horrific and nightmarish it defies belief. Fifty thousand people and counting have died during this pandemic. And yet 90% of those deaths were needless. They could have been averted with better testing, equipment, supplies, healthcare. That means that about 45,000 people have died needlessly — through sheer negligence, irresponsibility and malice. Whose? I think you know the answer to that question — the Presidency’s, and maybe Congress’s, too.

Fifty thousand people dead. 90% of them needlessly. Stop for a moment and reflect on that. It’s a catastrophe without modern parallel. It makes 9/11 shrivel by comparison. But even that’s inaccurate, so let me put it as accurately as I can. Five thousand people dead is a catastrophe. Another 45,000 dead…for no good reason? That’s disaster added to catastrophe. It’s a human tragedy at the scale of a massive genocide or war crime (which is precisely what the editor in chief of the Lancet called Trump’s defunding of the WHO.)

If I was the President, I’d want to deflect from that horrific, self-inflicted disaster, too. Wait — I wouldn’t, actually. I’d do my penance on a rocky island or something. But if I was Donald Trump — a man who knows no shame, conscience, or grace — then I’d want to deflect, as hard as I could. And having read my Mein Kampf beside my bedside, I’d know: the greater the tragedy, the bigger the lie that needs to be told to deflect attention from it. So I’d have to come up with something so ugly, so shocking, so total, that it’d steal away the attention of pundits and intellectuals and news anchors and so on. Hmm. I frown. I ask my white supremacist advisors. What can we say on that scale, that’s so outrageous, so scandalous, it diverts from 50,000 dead, a death toll on the scale of a major war? I know! We’ll ban immigration!

Sadly, the media’s fallen for it. The America media’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. It minimized the dangers of Trumpism during the last election — “but her emails!!” — then it erased the horrors of Trumpism as they began to emerge. Like I often point out, the average American probably has no idea that the last living Nuremberg prosecutor…the man who brought the actual Nazis to justice…calls Trump’s camps literal and actual bona fide crimes against humanity. Why don’t Americans know that? Because the media, the Ezra Kleins and Jake Tappers of the world, even the so-called good guys, are either too self-interested, cowardly, or arrogant to really inform and educate them. Hence, the dangers of Trumpism just keep growing — the deflection has worked every time to date, creating a pattern of escalating abuse of power, until today, finally, we’ve arrived at the Iron Curtain falling — an event that I and many who’ve lived through authoritarianism predicted when Trumpism emerged. Clang!

The second thing this “immigration ban” is misdirection. That goes a little deeper than mere deflection. The story goes that the ban is there to give jobs to good, hard-working Americans. Jobs that, by implication, dirty immigrants take. There’s just one problem with all that. The economic woes of of the average American are very, very real — but they have nothing to do with anyone else, especially immigrants. They are self-inflicted disasters, too.

It’s true that the average American lives a life of neo-poverty. 80% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, 75% can’t raise a tiny amount for an emergency, the middle class has imploded, incomes haven’t risen in decades, and a full three quarters struggle to make ends meet. America is the world’s first poor rich country. But Mexicans or Muslims or Jews didn’t make it that. What did? The foolish choices Americans themselves made.

You see, Americans are the only people — the only people — in the world, the entire world, who’ve voted, predictably, against improvements to their own living standards, year after year. Who else actually wants less healthcare, education, retirement, income, savings, childcare, elderly care, safety nets? The answer to that is: nobody on earth, but Americans.

The result is that Americans have caught themselves in a trap. They won’t vote for public healthcare — and the consequence is that they have to pay predatory capitalist prices for healthcare which are so high the rest of the world literally doesn’t believe them. When I tell my European friends that a simple operation in America can cost as much as a house, they chuckle in disbelief. Yet it’s true.

Now expand that. Americans pay prices for healthcare that bankrupt them already. Then they pay similar prices against for education. Then again for retirement. Then again for elderly care, childcare, food, and so on. Is it any wonder they’re broke? That the middle class imploded? That three quarter of people can’t make ends meet?

Let me add two points quickly. One, you might object: “not all Americans!!” And you’d be right. But not as right as you probably think. It’s not just dumb Trumpists who vote against better healthcare and retirement and so on — it’s also the majority of Democrats. Over and over again. The problem isn’t just one social group of left-behinds — it’s that Americans as a society have never really understood what being civilized means: investing together as society in public goods which raise everyone’s standards of living. The alternative is the capitalist’s deal: your money, or your life — a choice Americans make when they go to the hospital.

Two, you might summarize all that as “trickle down economics.” And again, you’d be right, but not as right as you think. Even the “good” economics in America doesn’t call for things like public healthcare or retirement or income. Ever. It never has and never will because it can’t. American economics — all of it — begins from the assumption that the only point of human existence is to maximize profits, at any cost. So of course you end up with a profoundly exploitative society, made of billionaires and the new poor, when that logic is all your institutions are built for and on. No American intellectual or paradigm challenges the basic logic of exploitation — hence, America just goes on collapsing. And Americans go on thinking that exploiting each other — denying each other healthcare and retirement and so on — is the sensible thing to do.

I say all that not for theory, but to make a pragmatic point. That’s why when Trump pushes this stupid, stupid theory which demonizes immigrants as being responsible for the woes of the average American — there’s no real pushback. Sure, some pundits trot out factoids which say immigrants create businesses, and so on. But by and large, there’s no questioning or criticism of the larger point.

Which is that the American economy isn’t really broken — it’s working precisely as intended. It’s making the rich super ultra mega rich, to the point that Jeff Bezos could have bought ventilators for the entire nation, or Bezos, Buffett, and Gates together could pay off the whole nation’s student debt — while imploding the middle and working class into the new poor. But that’s not a bug — it’s a feature. What does capitalism do? It gives those with capital…more capital. And it exploits those who only have their labour to offer. Hence, the rich get richer, and everyone else gets poorer.

In the middle is left a kind of grey zone. In which the average person thinks: “Wait. Is Trump right? Maybe he is! Maybe those dirty immigrants really are stealing our jobs. I mean there’s got to be a reason, right? So what else can it be?” And nobody enlightens this poor person that the only jobs which are really growing anymore are dead-end, go-nowhere, “low-income service jobs” — being servants to the rich, driving their cars, delivering their food, walking their dogs, and so on. Nobody tells the average American the problem is a badly, badly broken system — predatory capitalism failing, at the same implosive scale which Soviet communism failed.

The situation’s gotten so bad that nobody even educates Americans that “capitalism” isn’t your local friendly small business — which usually exists not to maximize profits, but to employ people, to follow a passion, to discover, create, imagine, build — that that’s a form of resistance to capitalism. Capitalism is Jeff Bezos piling up more money than a single human being could spend in a hundred lifetimes…for no reason…other than insecurity, power, vanity. But the result is that nobody else has enough money left to even pay the bills.

Do you see my point a little bit? Let me make it sharper. Without a systemic critique of the failure of American institutions, economics, and ideologies, the average American is left in a position where he never really challenges the broken system. Hence, the crazy “anti-lockdown protesters” want their “jobs” back — instead of more support from the government, which barely offered them any at all. Americans end up supporting, unwittingly, the very systems and ideologies which have wrecked their lives, future, society, and democracy.

That brings me to the third thing this ”immigration ban” is. Weaponization. I often say, a little too acerbically, something like this. What did you think a man like Trump was going to do with a pandemic? What did you think fascist-authoritarians of the kind who put kids in cages would do when a deadly virus swept through society? Save people? Ride in like white knights? Come now — that’s either denial or naivete, take your pick.

The pandemic is being weaponized to further authoritarian-fascist goals. That is, it’s being used to further the political goal of shredding basic democratic freedoms, values, and norms. Democracies do not “ban” people. They do not use catastrophes as political weapons. To do either of those things is to violate basic values of freedom, equality, truth, goodness, and justice.

One wet dream (forgive me for being impolite) of authoritarian fascists of course is an Iron Curtain, which keeps the impure out, and the pure in. It’s the stuff that fantasies are made of — at least if you’re a Gaddafi, Stalin, Taliban, Kim Jong…or Trump. Why? Because that way you have total control. If you can control who enters and exits a country, you have a genuinely terrifying weapon. Not only can you reward the loyal with exit visas — like Arab dictatorships do, to send their minions luxury shopping in Paris and London — but you can punish dissidents and critics by making it impossible to leave. Not only can you stop the impure from entering, but you can make sure that only the pure and loyal are allowed freedom of movement, association, and privacy, too.

Controlling flows of human capital abusively is one of the authoritarian’s greatest weapons. Tyrants even today use it with devastating effect. A Kim Jong Un uses it to keep his nation terrified. Arab dictators wield it expertly, creating system of modern slavery, as in Dubai. And so on. The latest nation, it appears, to join these ranks is….America. It’s now becoming a nation taking the last and final gasping steps in authoritarian-fascist meltdown: controlling human capital flows.

To understand just what a grim portent that is, think historically. Who else began by controlling human capital flows? The Nazis did, of course. First the Jews weren’t allowed to shop here and there, then to work here and there…then they weren’t allowed to live here and there…then they were sent to ghettoes…then to labour camps…and then the unthinkable happened. That is how the story of how the control of human capital flows usually goes.

You can see undertones of that in America, too. The “immigration ban” is part of a much larger pattern of controlling human capital flows. Concentration camps? Family separations? The paper-checking that now happens in broad daylight? The militarization and paramilitarization of everyday policing? All that is a pattern of abusive control of human capital flows. It is the birth of genuinely fascist institutions.

Yesterday, America had these fascist institutions: camps, Gestapos, raids, purges, demonization, demagoguery, brownshirts. Today, it adds one more — but a genuinely significant one: the ban. The Iron Curtain.

This is a moment when the authoritarian’s powers expand dramatically. Basic freedoms — movement, privacy, association — are now eroded down to their last few grains.

And there Americans are. While they understand, on some level, that this is dangerous, they still don’t quite just how dangerous all this is. I don’t blame them. It’s not like David Brooks and Ezra Klein are telling them. So let me.

This is how a democracy dies. This is how a fascist society, proud of its violence, ashamed of its goodness, devoted to cruelty, rises in its place.

This is how it ends.



22 April 2020