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Attacking Human Rights and Eroding Self-Governance



Authors as Published

As I write in late December 2018, the United States government is partially closed, the result of an unnecessary choice by President Donald Trump to try to force Congress to provide funds for a wall along our nation’s border with Mexico. The idea of such a barrier has never made any sense and Congress has thus far ignored Trump’s grandstanding to his most fervent followers, who have elected to accept and support his claims concerning the wall. Now, however, Trump not only seeks to compel Congress into providing the funding for a barrier that he has repeatedly promised his devotees Mexico would fund, and which that nation has just as often said it would never do, but he has also argued he will close the border completely if he does not get his way. [1] Such a decision would quickly and significantly disrupt the U.S. economy and likely wreak havoc in the nation’s already roiled financial markets.

It now appears that the government will remain closed until after January 3, 2019, when a new Democratic Party majority assumes control of the U.S. House of Representatives. That fact will make Trump’s political calculus even more difficult. He has long lacked the votes to obtain funding for his proposed “beautiful wall” in the Senate and now will not be able to marshal them in the House. Moreover, political polls show that a decisive majority of the country’s citizens blame Trump for the shutdown and, in any case, do not support the wall he has purportedly taken this action to secure. Many Republican and Democratic leaders also are expressing increasing frustration with their inability to negotiate with Trump, who has dug in his heels at times and promised to bargain at other points. This impasse constitutes an indictment of the President and the GOP’s inability or unwillingness to govern.

The current shutdown arose directly from Trump’s claim that immigration constitutes a national security crisis, a central plank of his presidential campaign and presidency. Trump has denigrated refugees and immigrants as criminals or wastrels seeking to steal American jobs from citizens. And he has gone further, falsely suggesting that the Democratic Party has no interest in border security and that those individuals entering the nation who are black or brown represent a particularly untrustworthy class of refugees and immigrants due to their race or ethnicity. [2]  

Beyond these claims, Trump has sought to treat would-be refugees with cruelty, and just prior to the 2018 midterm election went so far as to send thousands of American troops to the U.S.-Mexican border on the pretense that a caravan of individuals from central America seeking asylum, including women and children, constituted a “national security crisis.” [3] They did not and he has since dropped that assertion, which was plainly a partisan stunt and a misuse of American military personnel. In short, since declaring his candidacy for the Presidency, Trump has scapegoated immigrants and refugees for all manner of ills and has sought to curtail their human and civil rights while diminishing and dehumanizing them in the eyes of those willing to accept his lies. 

All of this is of moment to us here at the Institute due to our abiding interest in the foundations of self-governance and in vulnerable populations. Trump’s choices echo past historically frequent mistreatment of minorities and the poor in U.S. policy and politics (including refugees and immigrants) and serve more generally as a warning of how quickly unscrupulous leaders can degrade the democratic norms essential to self-governance.

Trump doubtless had the opportunity to use immigration as a demagogic tool as a result of the swift pace of social and economic change in the nation in recent decades. But while that is surely true, the country’s currently dominant neoliberal public philosophy, with its utilitarian emphasis on individual preferences and responsibility and its anti-governance provenance, provided fertile soil for his claims. In particular, it allowed him to argue that all of politics and economics are zero sum in character and to play on racism and prejudice against unknown “others,” even as it permitted him to contend that refugees were therefore undeserving of civil and human rights and dignified treatment as a class. Never mind that these arguments violate international treaties that the United States helped to craft and that they also abrogate the most basic principles of our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Never mind, too, that they violate all notions of human dignity on which rights claims are ultimately based. Our dominant governance philosophy has given Trump space to argue that Americans owe nothing to these individuals since, as he argues, they are all (or at least those that are not Asian-unless Chinese-or white) seeking asylum or refuge only to steal, rape or pillage from “real” Americans.

In making these arguments, Trump has not only attacked the idea and ideals of human and civil rights and dignity, he has concocted a lie to argue that such is necessary in absolute terms because the danger represented by often poor and terror-stricken vulnerable people seeking entry to the U.S. justifies such action. That all of this is nonsense does not make it less significant as an assault on the norms and rights that underpin both civility and self-governance. As New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander recently observed,

The founders of our nation did not merely wax poetic about the virtues of liberty; our nation was birthed by a Declaration of Independence, a document that insists that ‘all men are created equal’ with ‘certain inalienable rights’ including ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ After centuries of struggle, including a Civil War, we now claim to understand that all people—not just propertied white men—are created equal with basic, inalienable human rights. If this is true, on what moral grounds can we greet immigrants with tear gas and lock them in for-profit detention camps, or build walls against the huddled masses yearning to breathe free? [4]

Attacking vulnerable populations (whether they lack health insurance, they receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or are immigrants and refugees) as unworthy also taps into a long held cultural suspicion in our nation, stretching back to our time as colonies of Great Britain, that poor and vulnerable individuals are unworthy of citizen or government support because their status somehow arose from their own inadequacy. This cultural current and its tie to a particular conception of individualism runs deep. Charles Dickens sought to address it in many of his novels and stories, including his, A Christmas Carol, published in December 1843, in which the central character, Ebenezer Scrooge, reveled in mistreating the vulnerable. Likewise, in another Christmas novella published a year later, The Chimes: A Goblin Story, Dickens vividly depicted a wealthy government official as arguing the following:

‘You see my friend,’ pursued the Alderman, ‘there’s a great deal of nonsense talked about Want—‘hard up,’ you know: that’s the phrase isn’t it? Ha! Ha! Ha!—I intend to Put It Down. There’s a certain amount of cant in vogue about Starvation, and I mean to Put It Down! That’s all! Lord bless you,’ said the Alderman, turning to his friends again, ‘you may Put Down anything among this sort of people, if you only know the way to set about it.’ [5]

With this parody of the smug and self-rationalizing behavior of the rich people of his day, Dickens sought to remind a cruel and complacent elite of the conditions they were visiting upon a wide segment of the population in the name of their mythology of autonomous self-action and actualization. He also went further and sought to enjoin all those of good will to revisit their assumptions concerning justice and human dignity to secure social change.

Nonetheless, the cultural disposition that so concerned Dickens is alive and well in Trump’s scapegoating attacks on refugees and immigrants. Like the self-righteous wealthy citizens who routinely deprived the poor working men and women of the era of their dignity and rights in Victorian England, Trump has sought the same outcome for refugees and immigrants. Overall, a combination of demagoguery, the nation’s regnant neoliberal public philosophy and a widely held conception of individualism that convinces millions to imagine that difficult straits are ever the result of personal incapacity, has allowed Trump to persuade a share of Americans to believe the lie that immigrants and refugees must be punished for their situations, rather than assisted to address them.

While this is surely the case for immigrants, the same arguments apply, as we have found time and again in our work here at the Institute, to the poor and those with addictions, among other groups. Large shares of our nation’s population are willing to blame such individuals alone for their conditions and/or to argue that supporting them is a waste of time and money. Neoliberalism, with its mythology of absolute individualism, surely plays to this historic cultural prejudice and disposition.  Indeed, Trump has lately called for additional work requirements for those requiring nutritional assistance and that claim is rooted in no more than a prejudice that those needing such help must be asking for it illicitly. Trump has offered his assertions that such action is necessary in the face of evidence that little fraud or abuse of the program exists. In short, the arguments Trump is employing to vilify immigrants have also been employed to cast other vulnerable populations as untrustworthy or undeserving. [6]

Notably, none of Trump’s similar demagoguery concerning immigrants constitutes policy-making in the usual understanding of that term: of crafting legislation in the heated cauldron of diverse points-of-view. Instead, he has sought to undermine the norms and principles that must underpin all such democratic policy-making. Rather than develop an immigration policy via proposed legislation that considers border security concerns and the human rights of those seeking access to the United States, Trump has instead elected to attack and dehumanize those individuals.

As Dickens realized during his time and Alexander noted of ours, none of this is likely to change unless and until millions of Americans mobilize to decry Trump’s actions and demand that he and his party instead honor the values and social norms they now are seeking actively to undermine. History teaches that nations cannot sustainably legislate democratic norms. Rather, their populations must also work vigorously to embody those norms and reject leaders who, on grounds of prejudice, perceived self-interest or pursuit of power, choose not to value the freedom that flows from their broad and continuing respect and adoption.

The Institute will continue to explore these central questions of self-governance and capacity and seek to chart potential courses of action to address them as a part of its broad remit to chronicle the health of the nation’s democratic experiment. Few concerns are more vital to our country’s future.


[1] Karni, Annie and Nicholas Fandos, “Trump Threatens to Close Border if Congress Won’t Fund Wall,” The New York Times, December 28, 2018,  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[2] Qiu, Linda. “Fact-Checking Trump’s Rally in Missouri,” The New York Times, November 1, 2018,  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[3] Shear, Michael and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, Accessed December 28, 2018.

[4] Alexander, Michelle, “None of Us Deserve Citizenship,” The New York Times, December 21, 2018,  Accessed December 29, 2018.

[5] Dickens, Charles. The Chimes: A Goblin Story, New York: A. L. Burt Company Publishers, 1937, p. 96

[6] Stone, Chad. “The Facts about Food Stamps Conservatives Don’s Want you to Hear,” U. S. News and World Report, May 16, 2013, Accessed December 29, 2018. 

Publication Date

January 15, 2019