On Monday, the Trump administration will double down on its counterproductive Make America Less Safe executive order on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. This is merely the latest effort by the Trump White House to let the Customs and Border Protection (CPB), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and every other Department Homeland Security-affiliated agency do whatever they want when it comes to border control. And they’ve already done a great deal that seems awfully illiberal.
The aggregation of these efforts seems to make it clear that the administration is doing whatever it can to make a certain category of immigrants feel as unwelcome as possible.
Reasonable people can disagree about the appropriate ways to enforce the border, but there are times when the Trump administration seems bound and determined to execute its policy aims in the cruelest and most inhumane way imaginable.
Every time a story like this pops up, I am reminded of Masha Gessen’s NYRB immediate post-election essay, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” Gessen served up a stark primer to Americans about what life under the Trump regime might look like. As she noted:
Trump is anything but a regular politician and this has been anything but a regular election. Trump will be only the fourth candidate in history and the second in more than a century to win the presidency after losing the popular vote. He is also probably the first candidate in history to win the presidency despite having been shown repeatedly by the national media to be a chronic liar, sexual predator, serial tax-avoider, and race-baiter who has attracted the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. Most important, Trump is the first candidate in memory who ran not for president but for autocrat — and won.
This all sounds very melodramatic, until you see something like this.
The thing is, as comparative politics scholar Tom Pepinsky noted in a January blog post, it’s easy to over-dramatize life in an authoritarian country:
The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family.* There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. …
It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government, it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority. The answer to the question “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?” is yes, absolutely.
One of Gessen’s tip was “Don’t make compromises.” But Pepinsky’s words kept running through my head as I was returning from an overseas sojourn late last week. I had read up on CPB’s uncontested-to-date authority to search any citizen’s phone at border control. This authority predated the Trump administration but reports of this kind of search have mushroomed in the past 40 days.
Having read up on the law, I knew that as a U.S. citizen I could refuse to open any electronic device and would still eventually be let into the country. CPB could seize my computer or phone, but so long as I didn’t mind the inconvenience of being detained for a few hours or losing my electronics.
It was on the plane, halfway across the Atlantic, that I remembered something: I had forgotten to upload my lecture notes for the next day to something that was not my computer hard drive. Which meant I couldn’t really afford to give up my computer. Which meant, if push came to shove at the CPB desk, I would need to grant access to my electronics so as to ensure I had a lecture to give the next day.
That realization led to some sadness that I was so disorganized as to be unable to take a principled stand, but — and here’s the embarrassing part — I also felt some small measure of relief. I wouldn’t have to be inconvenienced. Even if actions are being taken that tarnish American exceptionalism, I wouldn’t have to resist that day. And that felt comforting.
In the end, I wasn’t asked to open any electronics. I never have been. I’m a white guy who is well-versed in the rules, norms and protocols when it comes to entering the country. It is possible that I will never be asked to do this. I could manage to get through the Trump era without any personal fear of the coercive apparatus of the state intruding on my affairs — even if CPB or DHS chooses to crack down on less privileged groups.
What scares me the most about the Trump administration isn’t what the federal government will do to me. What scares me is my own ability to look away if the federal government does things to more marginalized segments of the population.