‘America First’ is the keystone to the Trump vision of geopolitics. Capitalising upon blue-collar American voter anger and disenchantment, as well as appealing to a segment of upper-middle class Americans, the Trump administration made good on its earlier campaign articulations. Most recently, Trump described places such as Haiti as being indicative of ‘shit-hole countries’ that were the source of unwelcome migrants.
Words matter, but so do actions. In January 2017, Trump signed an Executive Order calling for a travel ban on individuals from seven overwhelmingly Muslim countries such as Iran, Libya and Syria. In the Clinton era of the 1990s they would have been described as ‘failed states’, and under the George W Bush administration at least two (Iran and Iraq) were members of the ‘axis of evil’. What followed were protests at airports and major cities, coupled with a succession of legal challenges at state and federal level. A year later, the Supreme Court ruled that a revised travel ban (version 3) could enter into effect. The latest ban now includes individuals from North Korea and Venezuela, but the focus remains overwhelmingly on majority-Muslim countries.
Disturbingly, media reports suggest that official reporting by the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice might be skewed in favour of a particular ideological position. Fundamentally, the rationale for the travel ban is straightforward. A person’s origin or citizenship is a good predictor of the danger they pose in terms of terrorist offence. If you institute a ban, say, on Syrian and Iraqi citizens travelling to the US (perhaps as recognised refugees), then the US is safer. America’s immigration system is therefore seen to be to blame for undermining homeland security.
Prosecution data plays a critical role in justifying the travel bans. The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a 2017 report noting that 402 out of 549 defendants facing prosecution for terrorism were born outside the US. The figures refer to all prosecutions between 2001 and 2016. What campaigners and journalists noted, however, was that the total figure being cited (549) differed from other official lists which contained 627 names. The simplest explanation for the shrinking DOJ list is that official statistics are being ‘edited’ in order to over-emphasise the threat posed by foreign born individuals prosecuted for terrorist offences. Manipulating official statistics is not unique to any one administration. Trump’s domestic and foreign policy agenda is blatant – travel bans, security investment, suspicion of UN, scepticism over Iran and a nuclear deal, and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change agreement. If anything the Trump agenda is really a continuation of much of the post-9/11 agenda of the Bush administration. For all his much noted intellectual brio and public oratory, the Obama administration adopted much of the Homeland and War on Terror agenda of its predecessor. Presidential style may vary but as recent films such as The Post suggest, there are parallels to be drawn with the disgraced Richard Nixon administration.
How does the American public engage with the popular geopolitics of Trump? At the moment it is commonplace to read stories about Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election, bespoke news feeds that populate and personalise social media accounts, and communities that are divided between ‘territorialists’ and ‘globalists’. While both groups may embrace the need for national borders and homeland security, their attitudes towards the wider world differ in terms of cultural identity and commitment to the United States being engaged with the wider international political order.
Recent survey research led by the University of California suggests that Trump’s travel bans might have actually provoked public opinion shifts – but not in ways that the president might have hoped for. In effect, the study suggests that many Americans thought the bans to be ‘un-American’ and at odds with the egalitarian principles of freedom and liberty. The study focused on whether attitudes change when something high profile such as a ban is implemented. Photos of anti-ban demonstrations at public places such as airports often featured multi-racial Americans standing behind barriers with large American flags much in evidence. Placards calling for the deportation of Trump co-existed with other signs denouncing the ban as emblematic of Nazism. Social media was filled with hashtags such as #NotInMyName. It appeared that some Americans (including Trump voters) were more likely to change their attitudes if they thought the ban was antithetical to core American ideals and values.
If some citizens could not empathise with racialised minorities affected by the travel ban then an appeal to ideals and values possessed catalytic potential instead. The study also reminds us that if you want to affect change, there is plenty of scope and potential in protesting and campaigning in public and highly visible spaces such as airports. ‘Popular’ geopolitics can quickly become ‘unpopular’ geopolitics.
This was published in the March 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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