The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump’s chief strategist doesn’t understand what makes America great

Here's what you need to know about the man who went from being Breitbart News's chairman to Trump's campaign CEO and now to chief White House strategist. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Danny Moloshok/The Washington Post)

There's no such thing as a free lunch in economics, but high-skilled immigration is at least a heavily-discounted one.

Which is to say that letting smart, hard-working people into the country is the closest thing there is to getting something for nothing. These are people who pay more in taxes than they get in benefits, who boost the economy enough that everyone else tends to make more as a result, and who launch a lot of our biggest businesses. Indeed, just over half of Silicon Valley's current batch of billion-dollar startups have been founded by immigrants.

By this point, it's become a cliché to say that we should staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign-born STEM grads. Barack Obama has said it. Mitt Romney has said it. Hillary Clinton has said it. Marco Rubio has said it. And Thomas Friedman has spent the better part of a decade repeating it to anyone who will listen and even some who won't. Heck, even Donald Trump all but endorsed this last year, as my colleagues David Fahrenthold and Frances Stead Sellers report, on his now-chief strategist Steve Bannon's radio show.

About the only person, it seems, who disagrees is Bannon himself. "When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think..." he replied before trailing off. "A country is more than an economy. We're a civic society."

It's hard to imagine anything that would do more to keep America's economy from being great than this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment. I can't believe I have to say this, but here it is: It doesn't matter if a lot of Asian-Americans are tech CEOs. Asian-Americans are Americans. Nor does it matter if a lot of immigrants are tech CEOs. Immigrants are Americans. Someone born in Mumbai or Shanghai or wherever else who gets their citizenship is just as much an American as someone born in Massachusetts who can trace their ancestry all the way back to the Mayflower. That's what makes America America. It's not about where you're from, or a belief that some people are better than others. It's about where you're going, and a belief that all men and women are created equal.

Of course, we haven't always—or ever—lived up to this. But it's the ideal that we try to get a little closer to with each passing generation. And it's why so many people want to come here. More than anywhere else, America is the place where you can take an idea and turn it into a reality, where you can work hard and give your kids a better future than your own, and where if you play by the rules then you're one of us no matter language you might speak at home.

Bannon, though, is right about one thing. A country is more than an economy. These things would still be true even if high-skill immigration wasn't so good for our gross domestic product. It just so happens that it is.

Not that he'd admit that. If his "alt-right" website Breitbart is any guide, he'd probably say that tech companies abuse H-1B visas to replace native-born programmers with cheaper foreign-born ones. The only problem with that, as economists Giovanni Peri, Kevin Shih, and Chad Sparber found, is that it isn't really the case. The opposite, actually. Tech companies that lost out on the H-1B lottery in 2007 and 2008 didn't respond by hiring more native-born programmers, but by hiring fewer. That's because high-skill immigrants and high-skill native-born workers can complement each other—having less of one means you need less of the other too.

But the biggest tell is that Bannon isn't just worried about immigrants "stealing" jobs from Americans. He's worried about immigrants creating jobs for Americans too. About people coming here and starting companies. Which means that he must have a problem with 40 percent of the Fortune 500. That's how many of them have been founded by immigrants or the children of them. Companies like Apple, Google, and Oracle, just to name a few.

This is the kind of bias that doesn't even have anything to do with economics. It's the kind of bias that Breitbart regularly traffics in with its not-so-coded attacks on blacks, Jews, and immigrants. And it's the kind of bias that shows Trump's ideological consigliere doesn't understand what made America great in the first place: E Pluribus Unum.