California Forum

As Trump battens down the hatches, a disgraceful swan song to the American Century

Young girls in San Antonio take part in a vigil for immigrants who died earlier this month after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked in the July heat outside a Texas Walmart. Authorities called it an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Young girls in San Antonio take part in a vigil for immigrants who died earlier this month after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked in the July heat outside a Texas Walmart. Authorities called it an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) AP

There’s so much bad, ugly, cruel news these days that at times it’s tempting to just lump it all together as a bad dream and try to ignore it.

Yet, the consequences of Donald Trump’s ascent to power are too dire, and too long-lasting, to allow us the luxury of tuning out. Witness his extraordinary and inflammatory statements in Ohio this week, in which he accuses immigrants of seeking to slowly torture American (presumably, read “white”) girls to death. America’s image globally is now tanking – only 22 percent of respondents to a global Pew Research survey trust the Trump leadership, and fully 74 percent have no confidence in its ability to make good policy decisions.

That might suit the goals of an ethno-nationalist such as Steve Bannon, who seems to want nothing more or less than a closed America, cut off culturally and politically from traditional allies and long-standing notions of liberal, open, pluralist society. But it augurs terribly for the country’s future in a world that faces challenges and changes that can only be addressed trans-nationally.

America’s image globally is now tanking – only 22 percent of respondents to a global Pew Research survey trust the Trump administration, and fully 74 percent have no confidence in its ability to make good policy decisions.

Over the last few months, a raft of reports have shown that even absent legislation to fund the border wall or tamp down on immigration, and despite the courts having limited Trump’s “Muslim ban,” the country has begun battening down its hatches. Politico has reported that, with an array of “extreme vetting” strategies now in place (including giving embassy officers the right to demand that applicants for visas produce five years worth of social media postings and job histories) the number of visas issued each month to would-be visitors and migrants from Muslim majority countries has declined by 20 percent since Trump took office, and the total number of visitors’ visas issued globally has sunk by about 15 percent.

As for the seven countries targeted by Trump’s initial executive order banning visitors from select countries and suspending the country’s refugee program, the number of visas granted has halved in the few months since Trump assumed the presidency. And, as the extreme vetting process kicks in, one has to assume these trends will be magnified.

On the southwest border, the Customs and Border Protection service has reported declines of more than 50 percent in the numbers agents have apprehended trying to cross the desert land border illegally.

Other reports suggest huge decreases in the numbers of international students applying to American universities. A survey of 250 U.S. colleges released in March by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found nearly 40 percent reported overall declines in applications from international students, with the biggest declines from the Middle East, China and India.

All of this impacts not just migration, legal and otherwise, but the more fluid interplay of visitors coming into and leaving the country. A day after the last election, the National Travel and Tourism Office released a six-year forecast predicting that between then and 2021 each year 3.3 percent more tourists would visit the country.

Those tourists generate huge amounts of revenue for cities, for states, and for private businesses, and they also both expose Americans to people from overseas and take back home with them images and stories of a country that, for well over a century, has occupied an almost mythological position in the global imagination. In other words, they are a vital part of the fabric knitting the United States into its central position in global cultural and economic webs.

Now, six months into the Trump administration, with near-daily stories of immigrants and visitors being harassed, attacked, and humiliated, global impressions of the United States have plummeted. The organization Tourism Economics has forecast that the country will actually host 4.3 million fewer visitors in 2017 than it did in 2016. New York City’s tourist board is expecting between 2 and 3 percent fewer international visitors this year. The British travel website Kayak.co.uk reported that there has been a more than 50 percent drop in flight searches for Miami. While some parts of the country have seen increased tourism in 2017, and while the number of tourists from some visa waiver countries continues to increase, in the long run Trump’s rhetoric and policies represent a deep threat to the American tourism industry.

Trump can tout all of this as a success in securing the country’s borders. But driving vulnerable undocumented immigrants ever further out into the desert doesn’t fix the country’s broken immigration system. It simply makes it more likely that desperate, poor, vulnerable men, women and children will be driven ever further into the margins, will make ever riskier crossing attempts, and will exist ever further removed from society’s protections once they reach America.

Similarly, humiliating Muslim applicants for tourism, student and immigration visas doesn’t make the country less vulnerable to terrorism; but it does make many millions of people feel that they are being targeted because of their nationality or their religion.

And giving the middle finger to the global community, as Trump has repeatedly done over the past months, doesn’t make the country stronger; rather it isolates it on the world stage, makes it more likely that talented students will choose other countries to study in, makes it less likely that tourists will choose to spend their money holidaying in America.

This violent, bigoted, nationalist stew that Trump is unleashing on the country is a recipe not for national strength but for utter decline. It is a tragic, shameful and entirely self-destructive swan song to the American Century.

Sasha Abramsky’s 2013 book,“The American Way of Poverty,’ was listed by the New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year. His new book,”Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” will be published by Nation Books in September. He can be reached at sabramsky@sbcglobal.net.

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