The chaos of Donald Trump’s opening weeks should not come as a total shock. The first president with no experience in government, surrounded by a chief of staff, a chief strategist, and a son-in-law who also lack any government experience and who seem to be competing ruthlessly with each other for power, is not a formula for quick success. The administration’s incompetence manifested itself most visibly in the rapid execution of a cruel, overbearing immigration restriction that provoked protests nationwide and even grumbling from some Republicans in Congress.
At another level, though, the travel ban might be seen, from the ideological perspective of the people who crafted it, not necessarily as a failure at all. Despite its ostensibly narrow scope, the operation was extraordinarily ambitious, designed to send a message to the world about who Americans are, who can become American, and, most especially, who cannot. The mayhem, inconvenience, and heartbreak it caused were in fact its very intent.
There are three different aspects of the Trump presidency at play. One is simply characterological: The president’s distinct troubled-adolescent behavior pattern, which, via regular bouts of insult-spewing, braggadocio, ignorance, extravagant promises, wild lies, and absolute intolerance of criticism, frequently throws the policymaking process into disarray. The second component, and the largest, is standard Republican policy, developed in Congress and conservative think tanks for decades, which Trump has begun to implement fairly smoothly. The administration has already nominated Neil Gorsuch, an orthodox movement conservative, to the Supreme Court; it has frozen regulations and green-lit pipelines and snapped back government support for foreign organizations that provide abortions.
The final and most mysterious element — the one that created the travel ban — is Trumpism. This is the ethno-nationalistic aspect of the president’s governing ideology, which springs both from Trump’s own impulses and from ideas nurtured by a handful of his closest aides, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and several staffers brought over from the alt-right publication Breitbart. Trumpism combines an instinctive belief in zero-sum relations between countries with a narrow and retrograde definition of American identity. And a key aspect of Trumpism is surprise. This is partly due to circumstance: There are no off-the-shelf Trumpist agendas that the White House can immediately translate into policy. But in developing their plans, Bannon and Miller have cultivated a maximum amount of secrecy, reportedly conscripting GOP legislative aides who hid their work from their own bosses and shielding most of Trump’s own Cabinet from their plans.
The executive order halting admission of refugees and cracking down on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was a narrower codification of the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” that Trump had promised during the campaign. The implementation was a fiasco. Tens of thousands of travelers en route to the U.S. found themselves blocked, detained, or even deported by Customs agents. Families were separated, children and elderly people terrified. Parents of a 4-month-old with a serious heart condition had to cancel their baby’s planned heart surgery in Oregon. On and on the tragedies mounted. Beyond the humanitarian costs, the toll on business and intellectual life was immediate. A Danish archaeologist was allegedly denied admission to the U.S. because he excavates ancient sites in Iraq. A computer-science-department staffer told one reporter his university had lost 11 Ph.D. candidates to the ban.
The confusion spread worldwide and made a statement of its own. A pillar of Trumpism is the refusal to distinguish between peaceful and violent Muslims. Trump has said “Islam hates us,” and when asked if he distinguishes between radical Islam and the religion as a whole, he brushed off the distinction: “It’s very hard to separate, because you don’t know who is who.” Bannon has repeatedly emphasized his belief that Islam as a whole poses an existential threat to Christianity. (“Islam is not a religion of peace,” Bannon has said. “Islam is a religion of submission.”) Trump has falsely implicated the entire Muslim-American community in the terrorist attacks of domestic radicals in San Bernardino and Orlando. Trump advisers have depicted the threat of radical Islam as “multidimensional and multigenerational” — that is, pervasive and intrinsic to all Muslims. From 1975 to 2015, immigrants from the seven excluded countries killed a total of zero Americans in terror attacks on U.S. soil. And yet Trumpists see terrorism as a pervasive, invisible threat that spreads within Muslim communities. Punishing innocent Muslims for the threat posed by terrorists is not a side effect of their policy but an expression of its tenets.
The collateral damage to academia and tech firms from the ban may, too, have been part of the point. There is a plausible argument that low-skilled immigrants depress wages for workers in blue-collar fields and that their numbers should thus be reduced. But leaked memos suggest the administration is designing crackdowns on highly skilled immigrants, despite mounds of evidence showing that such immigrants increase incomes for Americans of modest means. Bannon has denounced what he calls “progressive plutocrats in Silicon Valley” and complained that “engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia and East Asia.” Describing his vision for Trumponomics after the elections, he enthused, “It’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up.” There is no economic analysis identifying shipyards and ironworks as promising sectors for public investment. His mind simply runs automatically toward nostalgia for the manly work of an older generation.
Trumpism is a culture war sold through chimerical economic and security gains. Michael Anton, a national-security staffer in the administration and a key Trumpist intellectual, wrote an anonymous essay during the campaign predicting that Trump’s election would stanch what Anton called “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” America has long been defined — unlike France or Germany or Japan or Russia — as a country lacking a singular race. The ambition of Trumpism seems to be to create a blood-and-soil American nationalism, an identity from which Asian, Muslim, and Latin American immigrants are excluded permanently.
It is widely known that very few Republican elites share this Trumpist vision. What’s grown clear since the election is how little this matters. Traditional Republicans would prefer to build a coalition for their small-government policies that would attract immigrant communities, but they will take any coalition that presents itself. Paul Ryan’s professions of love for tolerance and openness before the election reflected the calculations of a politician who expected his nominee to lose and was planning to repair the anticipated damage to his party’s brand. The ideas that deeply troubled Ryan when articulated by a losing presidential candidate sound far more acceptable when articulated by a sitting president who promises to sign his fiscal bills. “People close to Ryan and the White House say the Speaker shares an easy rapport with Steve Bannon,” reports Politico.
Trumpism’s greatest vulnerability lies not in the buried qualms of his Republican partners. It is in the American public. January was a month of citizen protest unlike anything this country has witnessed in decades. After the travel ban was announced, mass outpourings at airports — many spontaneous — beamed around the world a message perhaps just as potent as the one the president delivered. Previous American presidents have espoused America’s openness and belief in harmony, but it took Trump to inspire Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to join together in demonstrations of patriotic, ecumenical solidarity. At the moment, they are the strongest defense of the American idea against an ideology determined to thwart it.
*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.