When Did America Give Up on the Idea of America?
Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, we didn’t act like this.
What has gotten into those Canadians? Aren’t they supposed to be our allies in the war against radical Islam? They have agreed to take 25,000 Syrian refugees from camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey over the next three months. They have ceded much of the work of vetting those refugees to the International Organization of Migration, an intergovernmental body based in Geneva. And now they plan to distribute the refugees to 36 cities across the country. Don’t they know those people are terrorists?
No, they don’t. Jane Philpott, minister of health in the new government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, explained to me that the process of approving Syrian candidates “is not so different from our usual vetting process.” The whole process, she says, takes a few days, from pre-interview by international agencies through security screening in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey by Canadian officials. Philpott told me that Trudeau had made the 25,000-refugee target an important element of the party campaign platform as early as last March. And are the Canadian people nervous? Not at all, she said. “There was a tremendous outpouring of compassion once Canadians understood what was at stake.” Philpott is herself a refugee advocate. “It has made me very proud of my country.” (Polls in September found that three-quarters of Canadians wanted to take more refugees, though by the time the new policy was announced, in November, the mood had shifted, with 51 percent opposing the policy.)
It makes me very proud of her country too — and yet more ashamed of my own, where Donald Trump can plausibly calculate that he will help his political chances by proposing to bar all Muslims from our shores. The question Americans must ask themselves is: Why are Canadians so calm about a transaction that provokes hysteria in the United States? Why have Republican candidates for president and Republican (and some Democratic) congressmen and governors reacted to President Barack Obama’s plan to bring in 15,000 Syrians, over a far longer period of time, after the kind of vetting process normally required in order to be nominated secretary of state, as if he had agreed to surrender American national security on a whim?
Of course, 14 Americans just died in a terrorist attack apparently motivated by Islamic extremism. For Obama’s enemies, that cinches the case against the refugees. The United States, Ted Cruz has declared, must not take any refugees “with a significant al Qaeda or ISIS presence, such as Syria.” Of course, he already thought that. Even before San Bernardino, Chris Christie, self-styled post-9/11 pillar of courage, told an interviewer that even “orphans under five” aren’t being vetted thoroughly enough and shouldn’t be admitted.
I was in Sweden immediately after the terrorist killings in Paris. The Swedes have agreed to take up to 190,000 refugees this year, far more than anyone save Germany. Plenty of Swedes told me that they didn’t believe their country could integrate all those newcomers, but scarcely anyone mentioned the alleged terrorist threat from refugees. They were worried, but they were not frightened.
Canada itself has suffered from lone-wolf terrorist attacks, including one last year on the Parliament in Ottawa. That, in turn, sparked calls for tougher surveillance measures. Nevertheless, voters welcomed Trudeau’s call to reverse the policy of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and take in more refugees. Of course, Canada (and Sweden) is every bit as devoted to its security as is the United States. That being so, the American response can’t be explained by the threat but by something else. So what is it?
For a long time, my answer was “9/11.” Americans had lived for generations with an expectation of security that had been utterly shattered; the ensuing overreaction was unavoidable. When the wildly hyperbolic debate over whether alleged terrorists could be tried on American soil broke out in 2009 and 2010, I blamed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who put impossible conditions on a proposed trial, for surrendering to Americans’ still-raw feelings about their vulnerability to terrorist attacks. The same fears, it seemed, stymied Obama’s effort to close Guantanamo.
The towers fell more than 14 years ago; the statute of limitations on post-9/11 panic has expired. Yet Americans have never been more fearful. I’ve increasingly come to feel that I don’t recognize my own country. I was a little boy in the early 1960s, and, of course, we all had mushroom-cloud nightmares then. But the threat of nuclear war was real, not imagined. And even the anti-communist paranoia of that time could not eclipse Americans’ fundamental self-confidence. The besetting national sin has always been self-righteousness and complacency, not fear and loathing.
No longer: The distinctive national mood today is a combination of anxiety and wrath — a blind wish to strike out at all the enemies that have laid American low. That’s why the emotional high point of so many of Trump’s rallies involves turning on a reporter, or a protestor, in the midst of the crowd; heckling him, giving him the bum’s rush, sometimes even manhandling him. Trump encourages his followers to find a scapegoat for their fear, an outlet for their anger; they eagerly accept the invitation. Maybe Father Coughlin, the 1930s fascist leader, inspired this kind of ugliness. But it’s something most of us have never seen.
Is it because Americans cannot accept the loss of unchallenged global supremacy — because we can no longer dash our enemies to the ground with a sweep of our mighty hand? Perhaps we’re more like Russia than we’d care to think — furious and frustrated that the world doesn’t cower before us as it once did. Is it the violent echo chamber of the Internet and social media and the shock jocks of radio and TV? That, too, is part of it. The idea of a rational center, emotionally detached and ideologically neutral — the old image of the mainstream media — now seems quaint beyond measure. Our emotional reaction to everything is hyperbolic.
Yet who is orchestrating this potent mix of adrenaline and resentment? Our political leaders — or rather, an entire right-wing political culture. The relentless collective message of the right is: America is helpless. Trump has based his entire candidacy on an inchoate, all-encompassing sense of American failure that only he can right. But so, in a less bullying way, have the other leading candidates and their supporters. Obama now devotes much of his rhetorical energy to counteracting the hysteria, as he tried to do in his Oval Office speech. But the extraordinary relationship he forged with Americans during his first campaign is long gone; he no longer has the ability to shift the public mood.
Here, then, is the formula: Politics, cranked to the highest volume by the Internet and 24/7 everything, acts on a very real sense of vulnerability to stoke fear and rage. Americans worry that immigration will harm the economy and change forever the texture of daily life. Those are legitimate anxieties. But Republican candidates and conservative media evoke an apocalyptic invasion, to be held in check only by immense walls and an army of border guards. The Syrian refugees are not people in need but emissaries from the land of jihad. Refugees are terrorists; terrorists are super-predators. Our institutions are weak; our enemies strong. The only inexcusable mistake is weakness. If the world hates us, let’s make sure that it fears us, too. Was it only seven years ago that Obama ran for office promising to restore America’s good name in the world? That was no small part of Obama’s pledge to voters. Yet today, a growing number of Americans look at the world beyond their borders with bristling hostility.
It feels like we’re in that stage of a Jimmy Stewart movie before our hero finally steps forward to remind the townspeople that they’re Americans, for goodness’ sake, and they’ve got to stop running around like chickens with their heads cut off. That always works in the movie, because the townsfolk have only temporarily lost sight of their better selves. I don’t think our problem is that we lack a Jimmy Stewart. The problem is that our loss of self runs much, much deeper.
Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images