When President Trump authorized his first travel ban only weeks after his inauguration, he was selective with its targets. The purported goal was to mitigate foreign terrorism, but even if such an action were to work, Trump excluded the nations that produced the 9/11 hijackers. Instead, he targeted seven predominantly Muslim nations that had zero connections to his business interests. Same for the subsequent expansions of the ban, one later that year and another just last month.
Trump’s travel ban remains a nativist placebo, something to assuage those looking to blame someone who isn’t white, Christian, or American for their problems. It has the added benefit, for the president, of distracting from the kind of white supremacist violence that engenders the hatred that his politics require. A travel ban remains among Trump’s Pavlovian responses to crisis because it angers liberals, pleases his rabid base, and accomplishes very little beyond hurting people he couldn’t care less about.
So with the Coronavirus presenting him within arguably the biggest crisis of his presidency, where else did we think he’d turn?
Rather than using his network time Wednesday night to present the American public with a sober plan for mitigation of the coronavirus (COVID-19) or to account for shortcomings in the response thus far, Trump and his advisors defaulted to their xenophobic instincts and added to a discriminatory national legacy. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” he said, without indicating whether or not that period could be extended. “The new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight,” he added before discussing measures aimed at financial relief.
For this familiar bit of xenophobia he turned to his white-nationalist-in-residence: Steven Miller, the anti-immigration absolutist who helped create Trump’s efforts to ban visiting Muslims and collaborated with Jared Kushner to shape the president’s address. It was then unsurprising to see Trump refer suddenly to the United States having “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” (emphasis mine), and to speak with denigration about China and the European Union, sectors of the world that have been suffering even worse than the United States.
This ban may seem absurd, first, because the virus is already here and is spreading exponentially every day. The U.S. now has at least 1,215 confirmed cases, including only 49 repatriated from overseas, per the CDC. The agency indicates that the disease has killed at least 36 people in the States.
Sarah Forward, the chair of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Rolling Stone that the president’s new policy misses the point. “I believe that the most important source of COVID exposure today is unrecognized and unchecked community transmission. I do not believe that blocking foreign nationals from entering the US from points in Europe addresses that risk,” said Forward. “Moreover, it is worth noting that while some source cases in the US clearly originated in Europe, these were often returning U.S. residents who had been traveling in Europe, not foreign nationals bringing the virus to the U.S., and this travel of U.S. citizens and green card holders is still allowed.”
Those aren’t the only suspicious loopholes Trump left in this new travel ban. Included in the European ban are the 26 nations within the Schengen Area, the continental mass through which one could conceivably travel freely. However, the United Kingdom, for reasons Trump left unexplained, is exempt, even though it just had a massive leap in one day from 134 to about 590 cases and has recorded at least 10 deaths — comparable if not higher numbers than several of the European nations listed. His British clone, prime minister Boris Johnson, being in charge surely didn’t hurt. But it didn’t take long to discover that like the Muslim travel ban, Trump made sure that people can still go to and from his financially suffering golf resorts in Europe, none of which are technically in the Schengen Area.
There is a profit motive for Trump in seemingly everything, even xenophobia. So not that we should expect empathy from our cretinous president at this point, but while he was concerned about his profits, he forgot to tell our allies in Europe who have it worse that we have their backs. Even China, the supposed source of the pandemic, is now trying to help Italy, which has suffered more than 800 deaths and has been in full lockdown since the start of the week. France and Spain have been hit hard, as well. German chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the kind of straightforward news conference on Wednesday that panicked Americans might have appreciated from Trump, leveling with her citizens that two of every three them may become infected.
Merkel has been a Trump rival on the world stage, opposing his anti-NATO nonsense. missing from the presidential address was any sort of empathy for our allies; instead, a kind of rank contempt that Trump typically reserves for, well, Mexicans and Muslims.
Prior to introducing the ban, he said that “the European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hotspots,” which is a lie, since Italy banned travelers from China and we see how ineffective that has been. Trump added another bit of xenophobic rhetoric: “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
Again, the emphasis on seeded was mine, for in that context it connotes much of how Miller and Trump have tried to depict unwanted immigration, undocumented or otherwise. They see it as an infection. Miller is the senior White House adviser who last year conjured the idea of releasing undocumented immigrants into “sanctuary cities,” presumably onto the streets and homeless, as political retribution against Trump’s opponents. That is how one might speak of vermin or insects, and it is the same cadence we heard the president use referring to people infected with Coronavirus traveling from Europe.
The two rhetorics shared a common gene, if you will, with the historically illegitimate fears of disease associated with immigrants, spread both throughout culture and legislation such as the Immigration Act of 1891, which banned people with “loathsome or contagious disease” from entering at ports such as Ellis Island.
It is easy to see why European Union leaders were so angered by Trump’s action. “The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action,” a statement read. “The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
But if Trump and his white-supremacist speechwriter actually tipped Europe off about this, imagine the flood of people coming on flights coming from those nations to the States in the next 24 hours. Trump faces a mounting societal catastrophe that would have been daunting for any president, but is increasingly of his own making. Washing hands diligently may help save lives, but isn’t going to get America out of this.
When I asked Forward how bad it has gotten, she told me in the Harvard lab she runs, “we are literally closing down tuberculosis research to be able to send our N95 masks and respirators to the hospitals. The hospitals are writing to ask if any of the research labs have unopened bottles of buffer to run these diagnostic tests because they cannot get reagents. This is horrifying.”
Perhaps we should stop saying that we have an incumbent president, because the job appears vacant. Instead what we have are a bunch of fearmongers, desperate to use their brand of nationalism to hold onto power. This is their Pavlovian response to crisis, so expect more as this Coronavirus pandemic grows worse here in the States, and it appears that it will. This administration wants its populace, already frightened out of its wits by this virus, to look over here, please, and remember the bogeymen they’d like to scare them with. In Trump’s America, if you’re white and Christian, you are told this land is your land. And everything is an invasion.