Opinion | Trump the European Nationalist Puts America Last

Opinion | Trump the European Nationalist Puts America Last

ATHENS — President Trump, in concert with several European leaders, including those of Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy, is intent on dehumanizing immigrants and refugees. The aim is to equate them with terrorists and criminals ready to “infest” — Trump’s word — American and European civilization, defined as a threatened white Judeo-Christian preserve.

It’s a consistent policy buttressed by insinuation and lies about the supposed threat, and designed to manipulate fear and nationalism as election-winning emotions in a time of rapid technological change, large migrant flows and uncertainty. Vermin infest, not humans.

Every utterance of Trump on immigration is meant to conflate immigration with danger. This is a direct repudiation of America’s distinguishing essence — its constant reinvention through immigrant churn.

The immigrant brings violence. The immigrant brings terror. The immigrant’s humanity is lesser or nonexistent. These are tropes about “the other” whose capacity to galvanize mobs, and wreak havoc, was proved in the first half of the 20th century. Trump does not hesitate to use them.

Nor does Viktor Orban, the right-wing Hungarian leader, who has said that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk.” The Hungarian parliament has just passed legislation that would throw people in jail for providing assistance to asylum seekers and migrants.

It’s known as the “Stop Soros” law, a reflection of Orban’s obsession with the liberalizing work of the Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish. Orban’s propagandists have worked hard to whip up a frenzy over the “cosmopolitan” designs of this “speculator.” From here to words like “infest” is but a short distance, a quick sprint from 1933 to 2018.

Matteo Salvini, the rightist Italian interior minister who has turned away two rescue ships carrying more than 850 migrants since taking office this month, is pursuing a similar objective. Before taking office, he said Italy was packed with “drug dealers, rapists, burglars,” whom he wants to send home. The portrayal of Mexican migrants as “rapists” was, of course, a takeoff point for the Trump campaign in 2015.

It is critical to see Trump as a part of this wider phenomenon. One may debate the reasons for the phenomenon: the destabilizing impact of globalization on Western democracies; stagnant middle-income wages; growing inequality; fear of an automated future; the sheer scale of current migration, with some 68.5 million refugees or internally displaced people in the world; the failure of the United States or Europe to enact coherent immigration policies; the sense of vulnerability that jihadist terrorism since 2001 has propagated; the resultant spread of phobia about Islam; the ease of mob mobilization through fear-mongering and scapegoating on social media.

In the end it does not matter which factors weight most. What matters is to recognize that Trump is strong because of a global nationalist lurch; that his feral instincts make him dangerous; and that he may well win a second term, just as Orban has now won four terms.

To ridicule Trump will achieve little absent a compelling social and economic alternative that addresses anxiety. The Democratic Party, for now, is nowhere near that.

Eighteen months into a presidency during which Trump has shown contempt for the truth, Republican support for him is overwhelming. The fact that this is shameful does not make it any less politically significant. The zero-tolerance border policy that left more than 2,300 children separated from their parents — a policy Trump has now rescinded after coming under enormous pressure — had broad backing until children’s desperate cries delivered what no atrophied Republican conscience could summon: moral revulsion.

Trump likes to go for the jugular. He sees opportunity in a Europe that is split down the middle between nations like Hungary and Poland that make no attempt to sugarcoat their anti-immigrant nativism and states like Germany that have not forgotten that the pursuit of racially and religiously homogeneous societies lay at the core of the most heinous crimes of the last century.

In this split, Orban and his ilk are in the ascendancy. In fact, Orban is the most formidable politician in Europe today. It’s no coincidence that Trump called him last weekend. Their aims overlap.

Nor is it a coincidence that Trump tweeted this week that “Crime in Germany is way up” and that allowing immigrants in “all over Europe” has “strongly and violently changed their culture.”

Let’s put this bluntly: Trump (whose stats on German crime were wrong) backs Orban against Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the continuing bid to make racism and xenophobia the new normal of Western societies.

Le Monde, the French daily, had a banner headline on its front page this week: “The U.S. President Is Indifferent to Human Rights.” It’s true, of course; we’ve known that for a while. In fact, Le Monde was being charitable. Trump is hostile to human rights.

There are many flashpoints around the world today. But the greatest danger is within. A two-term Trump presidency would likely corrode American institutions and values to the point at which they could scarcely be resurrected. Then, even the screams of traumatized immigrant children torn from their parents may fall on deaf ears.

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