The “Debt” Immigrants Can Never Repay

Interesting read:

In July, Donald Trump told a story about how he coerced a wealthy businessman he didn’t like and who didn’t like him into praising him. The story focused on the pleasure Trump took in watching that man grovel and tell him he was “doing good.” In Trump’s hands, it was a parable about debt and gratitude. “You know,” Trump says he told this nameless enemy, “you don’t like me and I don’t like you. I never have liked you and you never have liked me—but you’re gonna support me because you’re a rich guy. And if you don’t support me, you’re going to be so goddamn poor you’re not going to believe it.” Trump describes the man as acquiescing and praising him, closing the story with: “And maybe we didn’t get along, but it’s not like he has a choice. He has no choice.”

To Trump, this is the story of an excellent “deal.” The best deal is one where the other party, who has something you want (like “a wealthy businessman’s grudging approval”), has no choice but to give it to you. It doesn’t matter if the praise is genuine as long as it costs the businessman something to give it. This calculus may seem pragmatic, but it ends up having a long-term price of its own: “You lose all your friends when you’re president,” Trump laments later in his monologue, one of his part-joke, part-confession asides. When the “deal” is your only framework, your universe shrinks and shuts out bonds over things like (for example) shared principles. It also makes nontransactional feedback—or any truly independent judgment untainted by bribes or threats—implausible. Some consequences of this approach are as old as they are obvious: Choosing to exert control through coercion, insincere praise, or veiled threats frays relations into the kind of exploitation on the one side and lying obsequiousness on the other that Shakespeare’s fools spent every play mocking. More worrying, for a democracy, is that there is no aspiration to anything resembling the ideal of equality here: Trump’s “deal” is about supremacy. He applies it to everything, and his most ardent support (and much of his administration) draws power by championing this worldview.

Trump’s story may have been apocryphal, but it’s also clarifying. Though no friend to the poor and marginalized, his priorities remain clear even with his ostensible equals; these priorities consist largely of making his deal partners lose. The story also offers one of the better examples of the gratitude tax he tries to exact from those with whom he interacts. This is a particular kind of American paternalism at its finest, a framework where the weaker party is not only forced into social or financial debt—they are humiliated and made to feel it. The paternalist values getting the better end of a deal over pretty much everything else. And that’s what a particular subset of Trump supporters—striving to “win” this way themselves—like about him.

Absent an arrangement where he profits financially, the paternalist deal-maker makes sure to profit socially. That’s crucial to understanding some of the less-obvious gears powering Trump’s worldview. Yes, he’s racist; yes, he’s classist. But he’ll make exceptions for poor people (or people from marginalized communities) if they’ll grovel and praise. Sen. Lindsey Graham argued that Trump’s dislike of Somali immigrants like Rep. Ilhan Omar is not based on race. The reason he’s demonizing her to his followers, Graham argued—as if this weren’t racist and above all slimy—was that she didn’t likehim. “I really do believe that if you’re a Somali refugee who likes Trump, he’s not going to say, ‘Go back to Somalia.’ ” You’ll recognize the currency Graham’s identifying here: The only nonwhite migrants worth tolerating, to this way of thinking, are those willing to pay—and they’d better give more than they got, whether in dollars or in gratitude.

This bleak standard is symptomatic of a larger pattern of American paternalism that has always existed but is now flourishing under Trump as other national ideals wither. The American paternalist in the Trumpian mold thinks he’s generous and even-keeled. In practice, he tends to be paranoid, erratic, and consumed by the pursuit of “deals” that put him ahead of the other party in an imaginary ledger he curates with obsessive care. People with less material wealth than him are suspect; as he cannot imagine other motives for them, they must be out to take advantage. He is therefore on guard with them and keen to maintain his advantage by any means. This has obvious consequences for immigration policy: Such a person sees nothing meritorious in courageous dreamers filled with human potential traveling to a foreign country to make a better life. In his ledger, their arrival (and indeed, their existence) appears as a debit.

Source: The “Debt” Immigrants Can Never Repay

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: