On June 26, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold a ‘travel ban’ targeting several Muslim-majority countries, put in place via executive order in September 2017 and immediately challenged through the courts. While the more liberal justices on the Court argued that this travel ban violated the First Amendment right to religious liberty and echoed the 1944 Korematsu decision that gave dubious legal backing to the internment of Japanese-Americans (even as the travel ban decision pointedly rejected this legal basis), arguments for executive authority won the day. As the New York Times put it:
[T]he court’s conservatives said that the president’s power to secure the country’s borders, delegated by Congress over decades of immigration lawmaking, was not undermined by Mr. Trump’s history of incendiary statements about the dangers he said Muslims pose to the United States.
This decision comes on the heels of a political crisis over child detention and family separation, enacted through a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to undocumented migration into the US, especially along the southern border with Mexico. The determination to try every undocumented migrant coming over the border as a criminal in the US immigration court system, including a large number of asylum seekers as well as those without any prior authorization to enter the country, has meant the separation of children from their parents, warehousing youth in detention centers separate from those in which adults are held, and the appearance of children as young as three years old in court by themselves. The Trump administration at first denied that family separation was occurring, then said it could not be stopped by an executive order, then quickly backtracked and issued an executive order suspending the policy; this has meant that children will be detained with their parents when crossing into the US without authorization. The policy did not play well with many Americans or in the media, punctuated by First Lady Melania Trump, on her way to visit a child detention center in Texas, photographed wearing a jacket that read on the back “I DON’T REALLY CARE. DO U?”
Many on the liberal side of the aisle seem to think this crisis might be one that actually sticks to the Trump administration and damages the president’s standing with his electoral base and ardent political supporters. Such views could not, I think, be more wrong. (Those arguing that all this might galvanize centrists and drive them left, however, might just have a point, but that remains to be seen). And they are wrong for a couple of particular reasons, one related to how proponents and supporters of the President see the US border in particular, the other related, more broadly, to how they see the state. It is not enough, first of all, to assert that (1) Donald Trump is dumb in general, or (2) ignorant of US history and government, (3) unaware of the realities of globalization and cross-border ties, or (4) that his politics are incoherent because he himself is incoherent and contradictory. The first two of these may very well be true, but they do not matter – Donald Trump is the President, and there’s no entrance exam required for the office. The third point is probably untrue given Trump’s global branding, though in casual conversation I have often made this claim myself, and there is little doubt that the nuances of economic globalization and trade policy elude him. The last point is more difficult to counter, as anyone who has read transcripts of recent interviews with Trump, or listened to his speeches on the campaign trail (including when he is stumping for other Republican candidates), or watched him oscillate between opposed positions on policy issues, even up to the moment of executive action, can attest to the fact that there is usually no straight line connecting thought to deed. Trump’s political principles often appear wholly self-serving and based more on avarice and personal animosity than on any recognizable ideological or partisan framework.
Yet there is some method to this madness, and while I firmly and totally disagree with it, it is nonetheless important to identify it appropriately rather than chalk everything up to Trump’s singular qualities and individual idiosyncrasies, and claim that he and his presidency are so far outside of historical norms and precedents as to be unrecognizable as American. In other words, we have to parse out what’s new about the Trump administration, and what is not. Is Trump a conservative, and if so, what kind and what does that mean for the trajectory of American conservatism? Is Trump breaking all the rules, norms, and precedents of liberal progress and good governance; if so, then how and with what impacts, and if not, then what does this blip on the radar mean and what will be its legacy? Is America already great again 500-plus days into the Trump presidency, or is it still the crime-ridden land of dupes and rubes that Trump imagined it to be on the campaign trail, overrun by immigrants, broken and poor, fleeced by its so-called allies and mocked by its enemies? If America and Americans are so deeply divided on the basis of partisan identification and ideological affiliation, and Trump is the harvest of white middle class anger and the harbinger of some cocktail of nationalism, populism, xenophobia, and cryptofascism as a ruling order, then what are the contours of that part of America?
To answer these, let me return to the conservative-as-Trumpian views of the border and the state I identified above. In short, my argument is this: Donald Trump, his administration, his most ardent supporters, likely the core of the contemporary Republican Party, and possibly a plurality of Americans generally, don’t actually care about establishing an effectively ‘secure border’ of impenetrable walls, or about the federal state as an effective or efficient locus and executor of good governance. Surely security and efficiency are watchwords in the political debates around the border and immigration and even trade, but much of this debate, at least as it occurs in and for the public eye, is vacuous at best, comprised of rehashed talking points, toxic rhetoric, and calls for walls or other forms of securitization that aim to seal what is seen as a dangerously porous boundary. Walls and other solid barriers on the US-Mexico border are an old dream, and in fact, walls, fences, and other barriers exist for long stretches along the southern US boundary. Trump inspects a series of wall prototypes and dabbles in the science of wall engineering (should it have holes so you can see through it? what if someone tosses a duffel bag of drugs over the top? what if it’s not a solid wall at all but a ‘wall’ of advanced surveillance technology?) and we wonder if he knows what the border actually is. But again, that doesn’t matter. The rhetorical work of all this border and wall talk emphasizes the real function of the border in the Trumpian worldview, which is to divide, and to continue dividing ad inifinitum, until the proper social order is in place, the social betters on one side of the wall, those inferior, to be exploited and reminded of their inferiority by the border’s constant presence, both mentally and physically. Such a border will never be finished, sealed and complete, because it will always need to be built and rebuilt as an ensemble of materials and as a mental construct.
The border is important for Trump as the imagined boundary between the inside and outside of the community of Americans who matter, but is also a very real place, or set of places and regions, in the sense of its physical location and infrastructural development, as well as decades of cross-boundary interaction and connection. To say that the border is imagined is not a simple idealist notion asserting that borders are somehow only in our minds and in our affective, emotional responses to others. This fear of others, expressed in an angry, fearful language invoking a range of threatening metaphors (invasion, crime, snakes) demands and builds from the border’s physical manifestation at the actual boundaries of the United States, and has expanded rapidly and widely the locations at which boundary-like infrastructure appears and enforces the inside/outside dichotomy: checkpoints on highways up to 100 miles from the US boundary line; rooms where ‘suspicious’ persons are pulled from customs queues at airports handling international flights; detention centers, custom-built, jerry-rigged, or borrowed from local levels of government or private contractors; workplaces where ICE raids are carried out against undocumented immigrant workers. All produce a border that is potentially ubiquitous in its geographical expression and authoritarian in its actual implementation, and reproduce the fearful imaginary of a national community under siege and in need of more defenses, more walls, more divisions. When the president responds to pointed critiques of family separations by bringing to a public stage the family members of individuals murdered by undocumented migrants, each carrying an oversized picture of their loved one that he had autographed (as I commented on Facebook shortly after the election in November 2016, if nothing else, this is going to be the tackiest administration in US history), then the border allows Trump to starkly differentiate between those who belong and those don’t, and to blatantly elide the difference between real victims of individual, violent crimes and the perceived collective victimhood of the nation-state besieged by immigrants. When Vice-President Mike Pence tells Latin American leaders “Just as we [the US] respect your borders and your sovereignty, we insist that you respect ours,” the border becomes a rhetorical device the US government can use to shirk responsibility for creating conditions that produce desperate people seeking escape from their homelands in the first place. Trump did not, after all, bring anyone on stage whose family had been murdered by US-trained death squads or brutal repressive governments backed by US diplomatic, military, and economic support.
Yet if Trump’s border policies demonstrate authoritarian tendencies, then these are weakly articulated in the domestic sphere – a series of tweets and a strong of lawsuits do not a tyrant make. While the political, legal, and moral failings of family separation and travel bans based on religious belief indicate that US-style authoritarianism can be exercised against travelers, migrants, and asylum seekers from the comfortable roost of the executive branch, backed by legal reasoning from the highest federal court and enabled by a passive Congress, this does not mean the Trump administration is or even aims to be authoritarian in every sphere. This brings me to the second point above, regarding how the Trump administration, its supporters, and its fellow travelers view the state. Saying that Donald Trump is hardly a conservative, especially one cast in the recent mold of the Republican Party, should hardly raise an eyebrow. Corey Robin’s excellent if episodic account of conservative thought, The Reactionary Mind, highlights the intellectual and political history of conservatism as counter-revolution, dating back to reactionary critiques and counter-movements against the French Revolution. Robin argues that conservatism is a dynamic field of thought and practice that is forward-looking, requiring an active and robust left movement or regime against which to articulate itself, and thus focuses on the real or potential loss of privilege, control, and hierarchy. Rather than a knee-jerk defense of traditionalism or an existing regime, the pinnacles of conservative thought and action over the last two-plus centuries have always advocated the shake-up of existing orders to preserve hierarchical relations, and have mobilized mass movements of society’s middle and lower social strata in defense of elite leadership and domination. This places Donald Trump and the current GOP on a longer historical timeline, and rejects the view that he is somehow without parallel or precedent, or the idea that Trump breaks all institutional norms and expectations. As Robin deftly shows, more often than not, the first targets of an invigorated counter-revolutionary right are the conservative radical’s own allies on that right. For evidence, look no farther than Trump’s presidential campaign, and how Trump and his insurgent compatriots across the contemporary GOP discuss their own party. They count the staid, tired, comfortable party establishment among their most important enemies and obstacles. But if Trump is leading a counter-revolution that upends the norms of liberal progress, then what is it that these conservatives wish to conserve, and toward what ends do they press forward?
It’s not the state, which is a field of institutional and social struggle that allows for the re-establishment of a hierarchy that has been lost, in the home, in the workplace, and in society more broadly. Thus one of the more important (but still likely unsuccessful) initiatives the Trump administration has undertaken so far, a far-reaching reorganization of large sections of the federal government’s structure, especially social safety net and public service agencies and human resource management more generally, is beginning to come into focus. Announced in late June, around the same time as media coverage of the family separation policy was picking up and the Supreme Court was finally ruling on the travel ban, the plan, still being worked out, would merge the Departments of Education and Labor, shrink the Office of Personnel Management, decentralize some services and functions both institutionally and geographically, and more strongly emphasize and facilitate public-private partnerships. This plan isn’t new in its particulars, it’s not some dastardly plan concocted by Trump to destroy the government, and it’s certainly not the first time a sitting president sought to put his personal and partisan stamp on the institutional arrangements that constitute the state’s day-to-day functions. In fact, as this article points out, the proposed plan “appears to be drawing from the playbook of House Republicans in the 1990s” (note the insistence on using the word ‘welfare’ as a pejorative in this political context), but with the approval of an uncoordinated, weak, and hyper-partisan Congress needed, it’s unlikely to get very far before midterm elections in November possibly change the balance of partisan power. If this is authoritarianism, it doesn’t look to have much authority. Yet if we pair it with former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s comments in 2017 about “dismantling the administrative state” and the slowness with which Trump has filled numerous federal government positions – including numerous diplomatic posts – then we see a view of the state that is steeped in the ideological waters of over a century of American conservatism. The state is here both an impediment to business and market efficiency, a workplace dominated by bureaucracy and public sector unions, but also the best way to get public assets into private hands on the cheap; it’s an enormous bureaucracy that provides handouts to the undeserving, but also the locus of brutal but necessary coercive force; it’s a bunch of bureaucrats in suits in DC removed from ‘the people’ and their real needs, but also a constant meddling presence in daily life; it’s a set of contradictions that must be fought and preserved at the same time. Under Trump, the longstanding Republican rhetoric of efficiency, markets, deregulation, and public-private partnership has perhaps finally reached its apotheosis and its collapse: the business-leader-as-warrior archetype so long lionized by the conservative right (and discussed at length by Robin in The Reactionary Mind) finally come to power, but unable to get a Congress in which his own party has a majority to restructure the inner workings of the executive branch for him. Thus the talk of efficiency and making the government ‘work like a business’ falls away to reveal little more than benign neglect for those parts of the state that don’t directly adhere to the political calculus of enforcing racial profiling at the border and whipping an aging electoral base into a frenzy. #Sad.
As you might be able to tell, I don’t subscribe to the view that the scandals that beset the Trump administration and inner circle are somehow a planned distraction from the real work of undermining democracy or ‘dismantling’ the state. The planning does not seem that forward-looking, coherent, or novel. Yet the combination of neglect in staffing some portions of the state apparatus and eagerness to deploy the state’s coercive force at the border should also be seen in relation to the economic populism that underwrote the Trump campaign and which he has pursued in office through a combative attitude toward major trading partners like the EU and China, the imposition of new tariffs, and threats to leave NAFTA and even NATO (note, primarily for economic rather than security reasons). It should also be seen in Trump’s personal affinity for right wing conspiracy theories and strands of white nationalism, which, combined with the shambling corpse of mainstream neoliberal governance, lend themselves to an emerging species of blunted capitalist authoritarianism that exists in one form at the border, according to religious and ethnic-racial difference, and in another form in the workplace. This is a big leap politically and spatially, and I will explain it more in my next post, but I say this because the kind of economic populism and white nationalism Trump endorses and pursues builds not only from a geographical imagination of closed borders and racialized threats from outside, but also on disciplining capital in service to this racialized and nationalist vision of America. In attempting to dismantle the liberal dream of an integrated, borderless global economic space, Trump reasserts the role of borders in exercising a nationalist impulse. This comes from the desire to place back in the hands of an American elite (or at least, some of them) control over labor and to exert greater influence over what has become a global system so decentered that American geoeconomic power has become a victim of its own success.