Trump’s Crusoe Wall Goes Up in Airports

Baron de Myrbach-Rheinfeld, “Robinson Crusoe Building his First Dwelling”


I’m so concerned about President Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigrants—or rather, President Steve Bannon’s orders—that I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about my joy at Roger Federer’s Australian Open victory. Since Federer is my favorite athlete of all time (well, along with Peyton Manning), his sublime match with Rafa Nadal provided momentary relief from our Trumpian horror show.

My go-to literary work when dealing with Trump’s wall—a metonym for his desire to wall out anyone who doesn’t look “American”–has been Robinson Crusoe. I have written about how Crusoe’s fence works as an instructive parable: while Crusoe builds it to protect himself from external threats, it can’t save him from internal ones. At one point, an earthquake buries him in his cave, and a torrential downpour nearly drowns him because his impregnable fence keeps the water from escaping. Walls can create havoc.

We are getting our Trump wall faster than anyone anticipated, thanks to an executive order inaccurately entitled, “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Here’s Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

Yesterday President Trump made good on his campaign promise to halt immigration of Muslims into the United States “until we know what’s going on.” An explicit ban on Muslims would be illegal, of course, even considering the president’s broad authority over immigration, so instead he picked seven Muslim countries and banned their citizens from entering the US for 90 days—by which time, presumably, Trump will have figured out what’s going on. He also banned refugees from everywhere for 120 days. The result has been rampant chaos and pointless suffering because no one knows precisely who this applies to or how it’s supposed to work.

You’ve probably seen pictures of some of this chaos. Here’s Drum again:

The refugee ban is heartbreaking, especially for folks who have sold everything and were literally in the airport waiting to board a plane when they were turned back. But the order also applies to green card holders. These are legal residents. If they were overseas at the time the ban went into effect, they can’t return home.

There’s no excuse for this. The EO could have exempted green card holders. At the very least, it could have gone into effect for them after a warning period. But nobody in the White House gave a damn. So now airports are jammed with legal residents who are trying to return home to their families but are being denied entry.

Defoe speaks to the hysteria behind the ban in Crusoe’s response to the footprint in the sand. He is so freaked out that he considers destroying all the structures he has built. Think of it as an instance of how people in the grip of panic are willing to destroy institutional foundations, which in our case is the Constitution. That’s what we saw over the weekend as the Trump administration engaged in illegal targeting, even after a judge intervened with a temporary restraining order declaring the orders to be unconstitutional. Here’s Crusoe:

Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear! It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief. The first thing I proposed to myself [after encountering the footprint] was, to throw down my enclosures, and turn all my tame cattle wild into the woods, lest the enemy should find them, and then frequent the island in prospect of the same or the like booty: then the simple thing of digging up my two corn-fields, lest they should find such a grain there, and still be prompted to frequent the island: then to demolish my bower and tent, that they might not see any vestiges of habitation, and be prompted to look farther, in order to find out the persons inhabiting. These were the subject of the first night’s cogitations after I was come home again, while the apprehensions which had so overrun my mind were fresh upon me, and my head was full of vapors. Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…

The other passage that comes to mind occurs late in the book when the island is visited by mutineers preparing to kill or maroon their captain. Crusoe can’t bring himself to believe that they are fellow Englishmen, but so they turn out to be. Our own version of this is the Right refusing to believe that most of our terrorists are domestically homegrown.  In fact, mass shootings are as likely to be the work of Christian terrorists as Muslim. As Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald reported a year ago, rightwing extremists are the major terrorist danger we face:

These Americans thrive on hate and conspiracy theories, many fed to them by politicians and commentators who blithely blather about government concentration camps and impending martial law and plans to seize guns and other dystopian gibberish, apparently unaware there are people listening who don’t know it’s all lies. These extremists turn to violence—against minorities, non-Christians, abortion providers, government officials—in what they believe is a fight to save America. And that potential for violence is escalating every day.

Bannon & Co. won’t acknowledge this, however, making them more extreme than Crusoe. He at least learns to make distinctions, as in the following passage where he finally admits that the European sailors he is witnessing are bad people:

I cannot express the confusion I was in, though the joy of seeing a ship, and one that I had reason to believe was manned by my own countrymen, and consequently friends, was such as I cannot describe; but yet I had some secret doubts hung about me–I cannot tell from whence they came–bidding me keep upon my guard. In the first place, it occurred to me to consider what business an English ship could have in that part of the world, since it was not the way to or from any part of the world where the English had any traffic; and I knew there had been no storms to drive them in there in distress; and that if they were really English it was most probable that they were here upon no good design; and that I had better continue as I was than fall into the hands of thieves and murderers.

His doubts appear to be well-founded although it’s still a wrench for him to admit that all the men are English:

When they were on shore I was fully satisfied they were Englishmen, at least most of them; one or two I thought were Dutch, but it did not prove so… 

As he and Friday watch the mutineers handle their captives, it is Friday who notes that they appear no better than the cannibals Crusoe has been fighting:

Friday called out to me in English, as well as he could, “O master! you see English mans eat prisoner as well as savage mans.” “Why, Friday,” says I, “do you think they are going to eat them, then?” “Yes,” says Friday, “they will eat them.” “No no,” says I, “Friday; I am afraid they will murder them, indeed; but you may be sure they will not eat them.” 

Religious-based bans see people of color as cannibals and miss the white Christian threats. White nationalist Bannon doesn’t care that he is actually making America less safe.

Update: Two days after I posted this essay, Reuters reported the following:

The Trump administration wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism, five people briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The program, “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE, would be changed to “Countering Islamic Extremism” or “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism,” the sources said, and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.

Chauncey DeVega of Salon connects the dots:

The Trump administration’s decision to shift resources away from investigating white supremacist hate groups and focus exclusively on “radical Islam” leaves America less safe and less secure. As president of the United States, Trump is the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. He is supposed to ensure that the Constitution’s promise of “equal protection under the law” is properly fulfilled.

For Trump, those obligations do not appear to apply to African-Americans, Arab or Muslim immigrants and other people of color. As he suggested he would do all along, Trump is targeting Muslims and African-Americans. Now he appears to be rewarding his white supremacist supporters by extending them special protection.

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