Populisms vary, but their genesis is generally the same. Some set of ideas commands public support but lacks purchase in elite policy debates. Then a combination of elite failure and popular pressure makes that tension ripe for exploitation, and some new figure or movement emerges, promising to follow the will of the people and override the ruling class.
Donald Trump is obviously such a figure, and his freeze on refugee admissions to the United States is one of those ideas. Just as most Americans favor lower immigration levels than the bipartisan immigration deals hatched in Washington envision, many Americans are doubtful about admitting large numbers of refugees from terrorism-scarred countries. Trump’s primary-season proposal to temporarily bar all Muslims from entering the United States had only minority support. But when he shifted to advocating a refugee freeze and country-by-country restrictions, he was on more solid populist ground.
So it’s not surprising that he’s attempting to keep this promise. It’s also not surprising that it’s been a mess.
This is not because the basic idea is infinitely beyond the pale. I oppose the Trump refugee freeze because I think the United States has a particular moral obligation to help people in Iraq and Syria given our own blundering actions in the region. I also don’t see strong evidence the refugee program was creating a major terrorism risk, or threatening to create the kind of unassimilable enclaves that Europe is dealing with today. The temporary freeze on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries might make sense if the Trump administration had a brilliant new vetting procedure in mind, but there’s little evidence of that.
At the same time, all refugee policies involve limits, most refugees need to be helped much closer to home, not every refugee population will have an easy time adapting to American life, and the annual ceiling in Trump’s order – 50,000 – is still close to the number of refugees admitted in most years of the Obama and Bush presidencies.
Moreover, some of the details of the Trump policy are perfectly defensible. The proposed preference for religious minorities, for instance, has been attacked as Christian chauvinism. But the reality is that Middle Eastern Christians (and Yazidis, and other groups) are often in a particularly desperate position – facing, for instance, persecution within refugee camps – and deserve more help than our efforts have afforded them to date.
None of this is to minimize the cruelty involved in narrowing the doorway for refugees. But foreign policy is a realm of cruel choices, and it is not clear that the suffering caused by a narrower gate for refugees is obviously worse than the suffering caused by drone strikes and bombing runs and “kinetic military actions,” all policies that consistently command bipartisan support.
So why the weekend frenzy, the screaming headlines, the surge of protest? Because of several features inherent to populism, which tend to undermine its attempts to govern no matter the on-paper popularity of its ideas.
First, populism finds its voice by pushing against the boundaries of acceptable opinion. But in the process it often embraces bigotries and extremisms that in turn color the reception of its policies.
In this case, it’s Trump’s original “Muslim ban” forays (and the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric of his inner circle) that has shaped how his freeze has been received. His defenders may protest that most Islamic-majority countries are not affected, that any counterterrorism policy will disproportionately affect Muslims, and that the White House order draws on a list of countries that President Barack Obama targeted for (much more modest) visa restrictions. All of this is true, but still … Donald Trump ran for president calling for a temporary ban on Muslims.Once he crossed that line (and many others), it became inevitable that any move like this would be seen as a second-best path to religious discrimination, and resisted fiercely and understandably on those grounds.
Second, having campaigned against elites and experts and all their pomps and works, populists imagine that their zeal can carry all before it, that proceduralism and institutional knowledge are for losers and toadies and men with soft hands, and that a few guys in the White House can execute a major overhaul of a delicate system without bureaucratic patience or rhetorical finesse.
This assumption is deeply mistaken, for reasons evident this weekend.
Then, finally, because populism thrives on its willingness to shatter norms, it tends to treat this chaos and blowback as a kind of vindication – a sign that it’s on the right track, that its boldness is meeting inevitable resistance from the failed orthodoxies of the past, and so on through a self-comforting litany. That makes it hard for populists to course correct, because they get stuck in a “the worse the better” loop, reassuring themselves that they’re making progress when actually they’re cratering.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, the ascent of populism also creates an unusual level of solidarity among elites, who feel moved to resist on a scale that they wouldn’t if similar policies were pursued by normal political actors. These tensions ratcheted up over the weekend; it’s difficult to see how they ratchet down.
The great fear among Trump-fearers is that he will deal with this elite opposition by effectively crushing it – purging the deep state, taming the media, remaking the judiciary as his pawn, and routing or co-opting the Democrats. This is the scenario where a surging populism, its progress balked through normal channels, turns authoritarian and dictatorial, ending in the sort of American Putinism that David Frum describes darkly in the latest issue of The Atlantic.
But nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind its opposition down.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.