Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal and libertarian icon, told us last year to take Donald Trump “seriously but not literally”. Trump was playing to the gallery, Thiel suggested, and if elected would govern seriously and competently – and would quietly forget his more outlandish campaign promises.
Naively, I and a few others started to hope that this might be true after Trump was elected. Maybe it was because the S&P 500 and the dollar both rallied after news of his victory. Maybe it was because his cabinet appointees have mostly been rather competent. Maybe it was just because we can’t resist a strong horse.
Whatever it was, the new President’s first week in power has dashed those hopes. His executive order banning entry to anyone born in one of seven predominantly Muslim countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – from entering the US for 90 days and barring entry to refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days led to permanent residents being detained in US airports and some being sent back to the countries they’d come from.
It turns out we really should have taken Trump literally. During the campaign he pledged to block the entry of all Muslims into the US. His executive order did not go that far, but the intent is clear.
Was the inclusion of permanent residents in this ruling, now reversed, intentional? It seems so: Steve Bannon, the President’s alt-right Rasputin figure, was clear to the Department of Homeland Security that they were to be included. It was only after massive, spontaneous protests (which included Google co-founder Sergey Brin, himself a refugee from the Soviet Union) and condemnation from abroad and within the President’s own party that the White House “clarified” and moderated the rules.
Even in its new modified format this executive order makes it nearly impossible for legitimate travellers who were born in one of these countries to visit the US for any reason – work, study, or family visitation, let alone seeking asylum. And we still don’t have specifics of who is and who isn’t actually exempted. The rule of law is being trampled.
There are two possible stories here. One is that the new President naively issued a sweeping executive order on a Friday afternoon, without running it past the relevant departments or legal counsel for advice, worded so badly that hundreds of people were detained without just cause. If this is the case then an outright buffoon is in charge of the US nuclear codes.
The other story is of life imitating art. A 2002 episode of the American legal drama The Practice featured a fictional case of an airline being sued over its policy of not allowing Arabs to board its planes. After it lost the case, the airline’s president admitted he’d never expected to win – the aim was to prove just how safety-conscious his airline was, at any cost.
Perhaps this past weekend has gone as Trump and Bannon hoped. The rules have been scaled back, as they may always have been intended to be, but Trump has proved to a part of the electorate that he is willing to be brutal to innocent people in the name of keeping America safe.
People are protesting, yes, but this didn’t do Richard Nixon much harm during the Vietnam war. In this story, Trump and his advisers are willing to trample the rule of law and individual rights just to hold on to power.
I don’t know which is a worse prospect: that the new US President is malevolent or incompetent or both. But the initial hope that things might be surprisingly OK has disappeared. Trump is as bad as you feared, and maybe worse.