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I’ve been thinking about Barack Obama lately, and not because I suspect he ordered a tap on my phones, or directed his agents to eavesdrop through my flat-screen, although I like the idea of someone poring through hundreds of pages of transcripts of me ranting about how I can’t seem to switch channels without turning on the Xbox.
No, I’ve been thinking about the former president because of a conversation we had a couple of years ago now. Obama had been saying he didn’t consider terrorism an existential threat to the country, the way we once viewed the specter of nuclear war.
I asked Obama when, theoretically, he would consider Islamist terrorism to be an existential threat. I expected him to say it would be when al-Qaida or ISIS got its hands on nukes or managed to take down the computers that power our banks.
But Obama’s answer was different, and immediate — clearly he’d thought about it. He said terrorism would rise to the level of an elemental threat only when we responded to some eventual attack, as a culture, by turning against each other and betraying our own ideals. I think he used the word “overreacting,” though I can’t be sure.
This was well before anyone considered Donald Trump a plausible president of the United States, so Obama wasn’t talking about anyone in particular. Rather, he worried about some distant moment when America would surely continue to exist, but when the country as we’d known it — the world’s most powerful symbol of liberty and tolerance — might not.
At the time, I will tell you, I didn’t necessarily agree. It seemed to me a couple of dirty bombs or some nerve gas on the subway would constitute a pretty existential threat, at least in terms of our ability to go on with our daily lives. It still does.
But Obama’s warning seems to me sadly prescient now, and more pressing than he might have thought. It turns out we didn’t need another catastrophic attack to lose sight of our common convictions; we just needed a leader who would shamelessly exploit our darkest fears, with no regard for repercussions.
I don’t think I’m being unfair here. Trump’s latest attempt at a travel ban from Muslim countries, which exempts legal residents and sidesteps an indefinite hold on Syrian refugees, would almost be a reasonable, cautious policy decision, were it not for two factors.
One is that we already vet these potential immigrants more closely than we do anyone else entering the country, and Trump and his team are the only ones who insist that terrorists are flooding the country disguised as refugees. The second is that we know what Trump is really after here, because he’s referred to his policy previously — if Rudy Giuliani can be believed — as a ban on Muslims, period.
And here’s what else is going on that you may have missed: Over the past few weeks, three Indian men have been shot in separate attacks around the country, two of them fatally, apparently because they could be mistaken for Muslims by ignorant extremists.
Trump condemned that brutality, but not before he’d created a new office at the Justice Department called VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, which is pretty much a bunch of words jumbled together in search of an acronym. His announcement of that entirely unneeded initiative seemed to me a chilling moment in his overrated address to Congress; it called to mind Nazi-era propaganda meant to blame every societal ill on an alien race.
There’s a famous short story by Shirley Jackson that I remember reading in school — it’s called “The Lottery.” Basically, it’s about a small-town ritual where whoever picks the wrong number in a random lottery gets stoned to death. The point is that a fearful mob can easily be manipulated into turning on one of its own and distorting the norms of civic life.
Obama isn’t the only president who foresaw the danger of this dynamic. George W. Bush feared exactly this response after the terrorist attacks of 2001. As reactionary as Bush could be in world affairs, he made it a priority in the days after those attacks to visit with American Muslims, to make clear they were not the enemy, to caution the citizenry against rash and hateful reactions.
In general, leaving aside the occasional, isolated outburst, the governing establishments of both parties have acquitted themselves well in confronting this new age of terror and resurgent white nationalism. Americans don’t all agree on much, but we’ve generally accepted the idea that the country’s legacy as a nation of immigrants, indifferent to race or religion, is at the bedrock of what we consider to be our singular place in the world.
This is probably why we’ve had so much trouble finding any consensus on what to do about unlawful immigration. At its core, the problem — and it is a problem — pits two of our seminal ideals against each other: rule of law, on one hand, and compassion for outsiders, on the other.
But Trump isn’t of the governing class, and he doesn’t exist to sort out painful contradictions in public policy. From the moment he entered the political fray, he has breezily, almost thoughtlessly breached the boundaries of what used to be responsible political debate.
He’s an entertainer, fueled, rather than repulsed, by the raw emotion of a mob. Trump looks at the fear that defines so much of America in the moment — an entirely reasonable fear not only of foreign terrorism, but also of fast-spreading automation, new and destabilizing global markets, substance abuse and a kind of spiritual dislocation — and he gives it a name.
Not only Muslims, but Mexicans. Not only the poor and powerless, but the educated and the politically correct, the news media whom he calls “the enemy of the American people.” He’ll happily lay waste to the granite cornerstones of the democracy — tolerance, pluralism, a free press — as long as the mob behind him stays loud and true.
He’s not alone. If you can believe what you read in the papers, the nationalist backlash Trump embodies is soon to sweep across Europe, too. America is a global beacon, still, but not in a way that should comfort our timid political leadership.
I’ve heard from a lot of readers in recent weeks, maybe people accustomed to my criticism of ideological dogmas generally over the years, who wonder when I’m going to write something affirming about this president.
The answer is: when he acts like one. (And reading from a teleprompter for an hour is a mighty low bar.)
It’s not the agenda that worries me especially; policies come and go, good and bad, and that’s why we debate them. It’s the cultural virus Trump seems willing to unleash, the meanness seeping across a land where “go back to your own country” is becoming a common mantra. It’s the uncomplicated, unconsidered assault on ideals that really do make America exceptional.
And it makes me wonder. What if Obama was right? What if this is the threat, more than any bomb or missile, that leads us down a path from which there’s no going back?
When does the governing majority in Washington stand up and say: “Enough”?