By Robert Navarro
With the rise of nationalist hatreds, exclusion and secession, what we are witnessing is a panic reaction to the clearly approaching chaos—the inevitable result of neoliberalism’s free reign—of immense poverty and dislocations as governments and economies grow incapable of providing the necessities of life itself while permitting the upper levels of inequality to remain in the stratosphere, beyond which nothing lives.
This authoritarian response coheres in the idea that democracy must be disabled for the many and reserved for the few, in part by redefining citizenship and human rights, so as to separate the victims and critics of the new order from the means to resist. This leaves only the extralegal path of revolution, which rarely leads where one wants it to go.
The battle the Trump regime is waging at America’s borders, if given the opportunity of time and the permission of acquiescence, will soon be turned inward. The proverbial turrets will turn with the cannons aimed at us. The targets: The folk who were never invited to the party, and those invitees disloyal enough to criticize the celebration and the fare.
At some point, it will be made clear by decree or violence or both that there are those among us, native or not, who inherently do not belong, and that the otherwise inherently admissible who betray their privilege and resist are to be newly excluded. Citizenship in the regime will be for adherents only. (The term regime is used in the context explained by Michael Tomasky, editor of the journal Democracy, who notes that “competitive authoritarian states” are “civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist” but are used primarily to gain power and disadvantage opponents” [New York Times].)
Without apology or a feint at rationality, the Trump regime is making clear that the exclusionary determinants of the new citizenship will be race, poverty and “disloyalty.” Passports will be for “winners,” in other words, regime collaborators, who are mostly the enthusiasts of a supremacist ideology claiming dominance over all social and economic relations.
After the collaborators will be those whose economic self-interest defeats their own conscience, and finally down to the fearful who will obey if ordered and grumble under their breath. (The term collaborators follows from the conclusion that Trump is an illegitimate president put in power only by the help of a foreign power, just as former President Jimmy Carter has said [The Guardian]), leading to my belief we are in a form of “Occupation.”)
The excluded, who will be denied passports but might be required to carry “papers,” will be first persons of color (unless they rich and loyal), then those among the poor and middling classes that have not yet succumbed to Trump, and the unforgivable apostates of his regime, finally to down-right resisters, those nostalgists for ethics, law, science and a proper fact.
The result will turn on its head neoliberalist Friedrich Hayek’s claim of the coming serfdom of the enlightened but unduly constrained free marketers yearning to be free (to profit); rather, the new serfs are those who refuse to board the neoliberal train or join the circus caravan of invective, incompetence and incoherence that is Trump’s regime.
“Farfetched histrionics” might be your response to this hypothesis. But farfetched is the country we live in, and the road signs to hell are everywhere present.
The southern border is one dividing line for the new citizenship. “Borders are central to sovereignty. They establish the category of citizen and alien” (Kurt Mills, Global Society).
Although citizenship has been illiberally barred based on racial and religious bias, it is both the ethos and custom of the United States to liberally permit immigration and for those immigrants to dignify their status by securing citizenship. And the Right’s cry that a closed border is essential to sovereignty fails to realize how worn out a concept it is.
The worst violators of sovereignty have been the Western powers in the more than 400 years of colonialism when other peoples’ borders were not allowed to deter the march of “progress.” More recently, neoliberalism pays little mind to the quaint notion of the nation-state, and champions instead the free migration of labor as necessary for the benefit of underregulated markets and profits (see Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism [globalization has led to “the lost horizons of the nation-state”]).
The juggernaut of laissez-faire capitalism renders all countries insecure, especially poor and poorly ruled ones. All to say, sovereignty ain’t what it used to be and claiming it in justification is suspect.
Yet in the name of a discount sovereignty Trump descended the escalator to declare the border impermeable for Brown-skinned people who, he claims, are constituted to commit violent crime (“I know it and so do you”) and generally incapable of being “best.” Of all the issues Trump could pick to announce the cause that would ascend him to the presidency, he chose race, poverty and lack of citizenship, not as ills to be ameliorated, but as criteria for exclusion.
Race. Perhaps Trump’s wager was that if he opened his campaign with blatant racism and survived the first wave of outrage, he was home free (as in “free, White and 21”). He made Mexicans as “rapists, murderers” the lodestar of his crusade, and it has guided him ever since, knowing it would unleash the deep reservoir of American racism from which he rose dripping wet. Among serious people, there can be no denying the searing racial hostility in such a remark.
Once in power, he backed up insult with injurious policies lending credence to his racism and cementing his stand among Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” the David Dukes of the United States.
An August New York Times editorial explained that the migrant centers are “health hazards” because the conditions of extreme overcrowding, concentration camp–style deprivation of basic hygiene, nutrition and healthcare foster rampant disease among its inmates. But, the intent of this treatment of Brown people is, most of all, to foster the idea that an entire people are unworthy of human decency as a matter of course and are suitable subjects of cruelty, neglect and exclusion from normative social relations. To add heft to the bona fides of his racist regime, Trump casually dismissed an entire continent as home to “shithole countries.”
Immediately upon entering office, the other Yankee Doodle pony he rode was the Muslim ban (excepting persecuted Christians). Witness his denigration of the benefits of immigration except that more “Norwegians” would be good.
That tiki torch–bearing White supremacists include “good people” too. That urban centers are lost causes of crime and why would anyone live there. That paper towels are relief enough for Puerto Ricans. That women of color—if they are painfully articulate—should go back to where they came from. That every critic of any color happens to be “not very smart,” a “show boat,” a “con man” or has a “low IQ.”
The reversal of a century of liberal immigration has been facilitated by a cadre of collaborators in the Department of Homeland Security, ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Trump has squeezed out the queasy-at-heart technocrats, who possess an astonishing shamelessness as exemplified by DOJ attorney Sarah B. Fabian’s argument to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that soap and toothpaste are not required provisions in the border detention camps.
The Vichy Regime, which enthusiastically cooperated with the Nazi government at the fall of France and was administered by longtime French anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists from 1940 to 1944 revised the naturalizations that had occurred over a decade of more liberal French immigration policy, resulting in more than 15,000 French citizens becoming foreigners, 6,000 of whom were Jews who were denaturalized and largely deported to Germany (European University Institute).
Julie Orringer noted in the New York Times that as miserable as conditions were in Vichy’s detention camps (but where children were not separated from their mothers), our southern border camps are qualitatively worse. And, in an utterly cynical move in August 2019, the regime made asylum migrants’ detention indefinite.
By what logic could one believe the regime will not be empowered by Trump to exclude to the furthest degree possible Black, Brown and other non-White and non-Christian citizens and legal residents in the United States? To say Trump would not do it because it is unconstitutional is to think that Trump has ever been beholden to the Constitution. He has not.
Trump constantly claims powers that are not any president’s. He tiresomely “jokes” that he will stick around for a third term or is owed more years because of the “bogus” Mueller investigation. This is Trump kidding on the square, and as he has no sense of humor, he is not kidding.
Poverty. Immigration again is the showcase for what will be a citizenship barrier—“the public charge.” The regime introduced an immigration reform in August directed at both people seeking immigration into the United States and those already in the United States seeking legal status and warned: Do not be poor or even of middling means, ever. Thus, aspiring citizens who receive public cash, or some non-cash benefits, at amounts so minimal they never before hurt an applicant’s chances, will be denied entrance or legal status.
“Public charge” traditionally has meant a person so incapable of self-care that he or she is institutionalized on the public purse (see City and County of San Francisco, et al., v. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, et al., USDC, Northern Dist. of CA, 3:19-cv-4717).
“We want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient” is the official rationale (San Francisco Chronicle). Never mind the evidence that few immigrants become a “public charge.” The level and duration of use of benefits is now set so low that millions of immigrants will drop from the rolls of healthcare assistance, and they will not seek it even for acute conditions for fear of losing their status (Kaiser Family Foundation fact sheet).
More broadly, the regime’s only significant legislative accomplishment to date is the tax cut. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, one year out from passage, found the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will substantially increase income, wealth and racial inequality. Thus, poverty is not an unforeseen result of the regime’s own tax agenda.
Even when declaring to act on behalf of the poor, “President Trump has portrayed America’s cities as wastelands, ravaged by crime and homelessness, infested by rats. But the Trump administration’s signature plan to lift them—a multibillion-dollar tax break that is supposed to help low-income areas—has fueled a wave of developments financed by and built for the wealthiest Americans” (New York Times).
This is the algorithm of inequality; it solves a problem by ignoring it. Political economy scholar Geoff Mann explains that “poverty…is not the opposite of abundance or riches, but of freedom.” And if, as is commonly held, “citizenship implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities” then the unfree American poor, native or immigrant, in the regime’s eyes, are deserving of neither holding citizenship nor the right to claim it.
Poverty is the detritus of liberal capitalism for which it never has and never will “hold itself responsible,” according to Mann. As the regime attempts to disappear every inconvenient issue, because to recognize that it might exist sets up a “loss” rather than a “win,” so too with poverty. If the poor are disenfranchised from rights, even from the necessities of life (as in Flint or Puerto Rico), their arguments for relief will have no legitimacy as a matter of law or policy, and they will be left to those dim and distant “thousand points of light” of charity another purblind president envisioned.
Loyalty. The Brookings Institute reports that as of August 2019 the regime’s turnover of “A Team” positions of senior advisers (not counting the Cabinet) has been 75%. The turnover for Cabinet posts to date is the highest of any of the last five presidencies (Time).
Although Trump demands “extreme vetting” expressly “intended to bar individuals from the United States based on their attitudes toward this country” (The Guardian), it is fairly obvious that little, if any, vetting has occurred for his top appointments. Clearly, competence has never been a prerequisite.
The turnover has followed two tracks: indefensible levels (even by Trump standards) of exposed corruption and self-aggrandizement, and “disloyalty” seen as actual criticism (mostly among “his” generals) and an inability “to get the job done,” in other words, the failure to accomplish a task that is either impossible or illegal or both.
But the true intent in discarding one appointee after another has been to fill posts with zealous loyalists, as exemplified by the most important one, attorney general, with the clearly zealous William Barr. To be clear, being obsequious is not enough. Jeff Sessions was Pavlov’s dog salivating to Trump’s every buzzer, but he made the mistake of following actual policy and recused himself from the Mueller investigation, leaving Trump to lament “I don’t have an attorney general” (The
Hill). Barr got the job by writing a paper arguing Trump’s case against Mueller.
Thus far, Barr has shown no inclination to let policy or law interfere with his job as “Trump’s” attorney general, to the point of openly ignoring the emoluments clause of the Constitution by booking Trump’s hotel for a $30,000 private party. Recently, the Vice President and the military were made to bend a knee to the regime (to pay for his sinking golf properties), and even the weatherman knows which way the wind blows (and don’t argue with Trump’s storm forecasting).
Trump is obsessed with loyalty, recently chastising American Jews for being disloyal to Israel (and him by extension) in their support of Democrats. Michael Cohen was his long-suffering personal lawyer until he was “disloyal” as labeled by Fox & Friends. He sacked Janet Yellen and appointed Jerome Powell to the Federal Reserve, but Powell is now an “enemy” as the Fed has not lowered interest rates to Trump’s satisfaction (and personal benefit) (New York Times, Washington Post).
As Trump’s recently ousted personal assistant learned, “You can do anything. But never go against the family” (Don Corleone in The Godfather). But the Republican Party has always been fond of loyalty oaths (Arkansas Times, 2007, “Kansas Republicans will demand loyalty oath”; Los Angeles Times, 2008, noting that under [then Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger California attempted to require a loyalty oath from state public employees.)
Personal disappointments are one thing, but with Trump the personal is everything. That is the worldview of a narcissist. He views the federal government as a totality that he has power over, that his very personhood is the embodiment of the nation, and he chafes when confronted with the separation of powers and the limitations on the executive.
Rather, he is but a mere embodiment of the politics of resentment that fuels the ambitions of the far right wing where “rancor, grudges, barely concealed victimization [and] reaction” exhibited by tweets, trolling and right-wing rallies are “a striking feature of Trump’s own demeanor” (Wendy Brown, Authoritarianism).
Recall the march in Charlottesville and the resentment so evident in the Unite the Right’s cri du couer—“You will not replace us.” Trump’s agoraphobia does not admit the many, especially the stranger, and there is no reason to believe he views citizenship with anything but suspicion—unless extremely vetted.
The new citizenship. “Trump Says ‘Adios’ to Birthright Citizenship” (headline on Conservative Daily News (CDN), November 2018). Of course, the news is welcomed under the rubric of ending “anchor baby” citizenship by immigrants.
The Center for Health Care Statistics notes that “birth tourism” amounts to a small fraction of total births. But, as the above CDN article notes, even former House Speaker Paul Ryan argues against Trump because implementing it would require a Constitutional amendment.
In August 2019, Trump again said, “We’re looking at that very seriously, birthright citizenship,” without mentioning any rationale such as anchor babies (CNN). What better way to refashion citizenship to the liking of a small, threatened, often wealthy and privileged, minority? All of the concerns discussed above—race, poverty, loyalty—can come into a comprehensive focus with the elimination of birthright citizenship. In these times, to reject the idea of the ridiculous is to abet it.
Also in August 2019, the Trump regime changed longstanding immigration policy so that children born to U.S. employees and service members while living overseas “will not be considered to be ‘residing in the United States’ for purposes of acquiring U.S. citizenship,” and will have to make a separate application to naturalize the child (CNN). The method here is obvious; victimize the most vulnerable and the rest will sleep on their rights.
Furthermore, the odious Census “citizenship question” remains. The DOJ lawyers originally arguing the regime’s case have dropped out, replaced by an apparently more ardent lot, and Trump still believes he can insert the question by executive order (Washington Post).
The United States has endured decades of revocation of citizenship without resort to changing the Constitution: suppression of the right to vote. As British scholar Richard Bellamy succinctly puts it: “The crucial mark of citizenship is the right to vote.”
Since Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act sent the Dixiecrats into the ranks of the Republican Party, the GOP has been hellbent to deprive the vote to millions of Americans and is actively engaged in the practice across the South and everywhere they feel vulnerable, thus depriving citizenship one vote at a time.
Among world leaders, whom does Trump admire? Narneda Modi, for one. At the recent G7 meeting, he congratulated Modi as an “incredible man” who had just won a “tremendous election victory” (Voice of America).
In the last month, Modi has unilaterally ended Kashmir’s longstanding autonomy, leaving the status of its Muslim majority at risk. Also, his administration has revoked the citizenship of 1.9 million Indians in the state of Assam, most of whom are Muslims of Bengladeshi ancestry (New York Times). They are not yet stateless de jure, but the prolonged process and costs of appeal on an already burdened population will effectively leave them so (BBC).
And in its hard-right turn toward Brexit, Trump doppelganger Boris Johnson’s regime has left the “settled status” of 2.5 million EU citizens in Britain, some residents for decades, completely at risk.
In China, President Xi Jinping, with whom Trump has a love-hate relationship, has detained hundreds of thousands of Islamic citizens in order to render them more “Chinese” (Council on Foreign Relations). Trump criticizes China’s trade and currency policies but never the oppression of its citizens.
Politics may rely on constitutions, laws and rules, but it is primarily a practice. What is described herein is a confluence of practices, calling to mind Theodore Roethke’s “moving forward/As of water quickening before a narrowing channel.” The entwining practices are various, but they are “descending to the alluvial plain” forces empowered by the regime to limit to ever-fewer subjects the possibility or possession of citizenship.
A stateless person is impotent to act, and one is not free if she cannot act: turning the migrant, the abjured races, the betraying class of critics into mere abstractions. “It is clear that not only can ‘humans exist in a place called nowhere’ but, once they have lost their position in the political community, they can never be certain of regaining it” (Masha Gessen, quoting Hannah Arendt, The New Yorker).
As Timothy Snyder advises in his pocketbook On Tyranny, “practice corporeal politics” and “listen for dangerous words.”
Robert Navarro is an attorney based in Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.