Here is a brief summary of the first week of the Trump administration. The President of the United States stood before the intelligence community and lied, then sent out his spokesman to lie to and berate the press, then subsequently he lied repeatedly in his first interview since his lie-ridden inauguration speech. Consequently, all of this presidential lying introduced the concept of “alternative facts” to the general public. As he has throughout his professional career, President Trump continues to demonstrate a petulant narcissism that leads him to focus his energy on seeking adulation and redressing perceived slights, rather than on conducting thoughtful research and assembling sophisticated policies based on verifiable data.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the flurry of executive orders and bizarre claims emanating from the White House. Despite no indication that there is an illegal immigration problem in the United States, and in a manner completely oblivious to the diplomatic and economic consequences, Donald Trump has committed to building a wall between the United States and Mexico, and to dramatically increasing the size of our border and immigration agencies. This is particularly odd since illegal border crossings are the lowest they have been in fifty years, roughly ten percent of what they were sixteen years ago. Perhaps he hopes the wall will keep immigrants in, since we had a net loss of 140,000 Mexican immigrants from 2009 to 2014.
In addition, despite no indication that the people affected pose a threat, Trump has ceased accepting refugees and blocked the visas and immigration of people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, initially including green card holders whose lives, jobs, and families are in the U.S. In a twist of Orwellian logic, the Trump administration is trying to keep out vetted visitors from countries whose citizens have not been our primary aggressors, while allowing in those from countries whose citizens have actively attacked us. The Trump executive order seeks to promote “extreme vetting,” while failing to note that people from these countries are already subject to vetting in the extreme (Infographic), and that said vetting is working extraordinarily well. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel explained to Trump, another inconvenient fact that Trump’s order ignores is the Geneva Conventions’ requirement that signatories take in war refugees. The White House has chosen instead to create a constitutional crisis, through what one expert identifies as both “incompetence” and “malevolence,” because Trump claims that, all appearances to the contrary, this will keep us “safe.”
Trump is also willing to violate U.S. and international law to keep us “safe.” Despite the clear consensus of those of us who actually understand how interrogation and intelligence collection work, Donald Trump expressed his support of waterboarding to collect information. In so doing, Trump’s claims run explicitly counter to the views of his incoming Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, and the views of his incoming CIA Director, Mike Pompeo. As with his executive orders, Trump’s rhetoric and policy ignores his own experts and the fact that his proposed solution demonstrably and unequivocally does not work. The pattern is the same. Regardless of what the experts say, Donald Trump offers a “plan” that is rooted in neither the realities of the problem nor in any realistic expectation of gaining positive results. The same could be said for Trump’s expression of regret at the United States’ unwillingness to commit the war crime of stealing Iraq’s oil.
It’s as if Trump is getting his policy guidance from people whose primary understanding of the geopolitical situation is rooted in racism, ignorance, and propaganda rather than a cogent understanding of the reality of these complex issues. It seems that way, because it is true. Trump has placed a man – one whose only policy credential is his time editing a website dedicated to fanning the flames of extremist hyper-nationalism, racism, misogyny, and conspiracy theories and who is already trying to silence the media – in a permanent seat on the National Security Council. Meanwhile, Trump has sidelined actual intelligence experts, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence, to an as-needed role there.
Intelligence and counter-terrorism experts, myself included, understand that the solutions to global terrorism are complex ones involving diplomacy, economics, pluralism, covert intelligence collection and analysis and, sometimes, the selective use of military force. Petulant children, fascist egomaniacs, and third-world strongmen, on the other hand, confuse reality with action movies. They think the solution must be flexing as much military might as possible, and punishing those who disagree with them. Consequently, our new Ambassador to the United Nations is making veiled threats to those countries who question our new cowboy diplomacy. Concurrently, Donald Trump has issued a bizarre executive order promising a “great rebuilding” of what is already the most powerful military in the world. Apparently he hopes to further bolster a military budget that already exceeds that of China, Saudi Arabia, the UK, India, France, and Japan…combined. He also makes the insulting and surreal claim on the White House website that our current military is somehow weak and in need of “rebuilding.”
As Trump investigates ways to spend more money on what is already the most expensive military in the world, he is also silencing scientists, ignoring scientific consensus, and making plans to cut programs that benefit the environment, the arts and humanities, women, the sick, and the poor. There is, apparently, plenty of money to fund ineffective solutions to problems that do not exist, but not enough money to fight the real threats of poverty, ignorance, and environmental devastation we currently face.
None of this is sane policy rooted in reality. Building a ridiculously expensive and completely futile wall to keep out people who aren’t posing a problem; denying entry to the U.S. to people who have already been vetted or who already live here because they have brown skin and a different religion from the dominant one here; giving neo-Nazi news editors a voice and sidelining people with actual expertise; advocating for war crimes; over-inflating the most massive and powerful military in the world; silencing scientists; pulling money away from the programs that can actually help our citizens – none of this makes sense.
None of it makes sense, unless you have been fed a steady diet of fear-mongering pablum by a conglomeration of media sources with a vested interest in getting you to vote irrationally based on an inaccurate presentation of both our problems and our solutions. Sadly, this is exactly what organizations like Fox News and Breitbart has accomplished, with the end result that Trump’s actions on immigration, which in no way make us safer, are viewed by the electorate as necessary, because they “fix” problems with the vetting of immigrants and refugees that don’t actually exist. The actual, human cost of families split apart, lives ruined, fellow humans sent back to places of violence and death, and even loyal allies thrust back amongst our enemies is completely ignored because some people believe the lie that the threat is so great that no price is too high to pay to fight it.
This leads me to two questions, the answers to which will define whether or not our republic can survive the threat posed by a Trump presidency. The first is: “Who benefits from lying to the American people about the threats we face and the solutions that address them?” There is no single answer, but the valences of the answers do overlap. Corporations and leaders who profit financially (e.g. defense contractors) and in terms of political power (i.e. Republicans) benefit, because their literal and metaphorical stock goes up when people are afraid. Also, there are other business and corporate interests who benefit from a climate of irrational fear and unrealistic “solutions.” If the electorate is distracted by the specter of non-existent threats, they are less likely to focus their energy on regulating the “lesser” threats of the exploitation of workers and the environment. Shallow, venal racists and bigots also benefit, because fear incites a violent tribalism in primates like us, and fascists have long capitalized on that to serve their agenda. Finally, Donald J. Trump benefits, because pushing meaningless solutions to manufactured problems creates the illusion that he is actually governing, and the illusion of competence is his brand.
Recognizing who is helped by a climate of fear, mis-information, mis-trust of science and expertise, gratuitously ignorant propaganda, and outright lies also points to who is harmed by the same, shameful circumstances in which we now find ourselves. First and foremost, obviously, immigrants and minorities suffer because an irate and terrified populace is eager to deny them their rights. The nation as a whole suffers, not only because we are denied the cultural richness and vitality which immigrants bring to our country, but also because our real needs are ignored in favor of transparently useless security theater. Our economy also suffers, because the isolationism preached by the fearmongers fails to take into account the global interdependence of the twenty-first century.
Finally, ironically, our safety suffers as well. There are real threats to our safety as Americans, the majority of which are domestic, but many of which are foreign in origin. Implementing obviously racist and effectively random policies only perpetuates the xenophobia that alienates us from would-be allies and inflames our enemies. It also misdirects our attention away from the reality that a U.S. citizen is thousands of times more likely to be killed by a fellow American than by a foreign actor. We need to be building economic and diplomatic relationships with our neighbors. We need to be fostering the diversity that makes us an engaged, rather than an imperial, player on the world stage. We need to be focusing our resources on actionable threats identified by experts, not on perceived ones highlighted by ignorant bigots. By ignoring these priorities, the bumbling incompetence of the Trump administration not only fails to make us any safer, it actually endangers us all.
Which leads to the second question: “What can we do about it?” The simple answer is that every American who feels competent to vote, and to weigh in on these issues anywhere from Facebook to the Well of the Senate, must learn to vet every policy claim as closely as the Trump administration wants to vet Syrian refugees. We must ask, “Does the data indicate that this is actually a problem?” If it does, we must ask, “Is there research to reasonably conclude that this is the best solution to that problem?” Finally, as with all kinds of threat assessment and risk analysis, we must ask, “Is the potential gain worth the cost?” For instance, “Is putting tens of thousands of refugees’ lives at risk by sending them away worth eliminating the risk that one of them might commit the sort of crime that, historically, they have never committed in the U.S.?”
Are we capable of this as a society? I wish I knew. The actions of the Trump administration are demonstrably wrong by any objective, rational criteria. Millions of Americans understand this. For the reasons I have outlined above, however, millions of Americans do not. Despite the evidence of both their own eyes and the research of reliable, peer-reviewed experts, millions of Americans have accepted irrational and inflammatory rhetoric of fear. In equal doses, they also support “solutions” that only make sense if someone understands neither the nature of the problem nor the reality of the solution. The safest people on earth, leading lives of unimaginable prosperity, are behaving as if they are living in squalor, under the constant threat of violent attack from vetted immigrants and hard-working neighbors.
How do we persuade people who ignore science, expertise, and even the reality of their own terrorism-free lives to pay attention to facts and real threats rather than distracting propaganda? What brighter spotlight could we possibly shine on Trump’s blatant lying, transparent narcissism, and whining petulance? How do we make America think again? I do not know, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the fate of our republic, and perhaps of the whole democratic experiment, hinges on our ability to find an answer. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people is doomed to fail if the people are not capable of thinking critically past charismatic bombast, unapologetic bigotry, and blatant misinformation.