President Trump’s executive order limiting immigration from seven majority-Muslim counties reveals a chaotic, cynical administration—and a hysterical, hypocritical, self-aggrandizing liberal opposition.
The executive order was bizarrely rushed. What should have been obvious questions—about the status of green card-holders, dual-citizens, and foreign personnel who put their lives on the line for the United States—seem to have gone unasked. Even setting those concerns aside, the executive order seems to provide the least possible improved security to Americans and aid to persecuted Middle Eastern religious minorities, at the cost of maximum social abrasion. It is probably giving the Trump administration too much credit to think they planned it that way.
The executive order encapsulates the devil’s bargain that conservatives have made with Trump. Conservatives will get some short-term policy and personnel victories (the Mexico City policy on funding abortions overseas; a constitutionalist Supreme Court judge), at the long-term cost of having all their principles discredited by association with Trump’s combination of carelessness and malice. We can hope that the post-Trump rebuilding will be relatively swift—and that there will be something left with which to rebuild.
This is to take nothing away from Trump’s appalling left-wing critics. The same people who now fly into hysterics about Trump’s temporary restrictions had nothing to say about the Obama administration’s refugee-vetting procedures, which effectively barred Syrian Christians from entering through the refugee program. These people are apoplectic at the thought that the Trump administration would prioritize Syrian Christians (and Yazidis and Shia Muslims) as persecuted religious minorities.
It is also instructive to see how critics have responded to Trump’s reminder that President Obama had quietly suspended the Iraqi refugee program back in 2011. It was as if Obama had been revealed to collect postage stamps—surprising, but not alarming. There is certainly no concern that Obama’s delays might have harmed potential refugees.
There were certainly no crying Statue of Liberty memes for the Syrian Christian and Iraqi refugees who were effectively barred by the Obama administration. That is because, in this context, the Statue of Liberty is reduced to a Statue of Wokeness.
For many political activists, wokeness (being conscious of injustice) is merely a social-sorting mechanism. Wokeness isn’t about injustice, as such. It is about caring about the right people in a way that emphasizes your moral superiority over other Americans.
In a perverse way, indifference to persecuted Christians can be a sign of wokeness. For a person from a majority-Christian country like the United States, there is nothing superior or counterintuitive about caring about persecuted Christians. In fact, prioritizing “people like us” is what you would expect from the culturally insensitive and the insular. Deprioritizing Middle East Christians—saying that they and other persecuted minorities should not get special protected status—shows one’s broad-mindedness, even though such a standard would obviously be insane if the persecuted group were anyone other than Christians.
That is why the Statue of Wokeness responds to the moods of liberal activists, rather than to global horrors. The Statue of Wokeness didn’t cry when Obama allowed a marginalized al-Qaeda affiliate to metastasize into a genocidal lunatic-state spreading across two countries. The Statue of Wokeness didn’t cry when Obama effectively barred Syrian Christians from the refugee program. The Statue of Wokeness worries more about the small number of refugees who might or might not make it here, than about the far larger group who will never enter the U.S.
The refugees are footballs in our partisan scrimmages. We insist on certain standards of hospitality to refugees, making those standards a test of “who we are,” opportunistically—when it is useful to our side. The Obama administration sharply increased refugee admittances toward the end of his term in office. Returning admittances to the early-Obama levels would not be a test of “who we are,” if the issue were being discussed on its merits—rather than exploited for its political utility. But in that case, we would simply have conflicts about something else—because Trump and his liberal opponents both like it that way.
We can hope to do better. We can hope for an administration and a center-left opposition that understand that the way to help displaced persons in the Middle East would be to have the major regional powers destroy the most virulent forces in the area—rather than to resettle the populations of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and who-knows-where to the U.S. Of course, that isn’t going to happen. The argument about refugees will continue.
It would have continued, regardless of who became president. We aren’t really having a national argument about refugees. We are having a domestic culture war by other means. The culture war is important, but it should be fought in the open, rather than with refugees as proxies.
And no, I haven’t forgotten about Ted Cruz.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.