Trump’s claim in his inaugural address that it is “the right of all nations to put their own interests first” is exactly wrong. The first obligation of all nations, as of all individuals, is to respect the moral and legal order under which the rights of every nation and every individual are to be upheld.
Putting “interests” before morality led to the Trail of Tears and Death and other genocidal actions against the Indian nations, putting “interests” before morality led the South to secede from the Union in an effort to maintain slavery, putting “interests” before morality is currently leading us to maintain an inhuman detention and deportation system and leading many people to view immigration as a threat to the nation rather than as one of its greatest resources.
The United States, to its credit, has sometimes acted out of a deep concern for the common good—even at the sacrifice of some of its interests—in the correct belief that in the long run this would make everyone better off, including the United States. Now the world is faced with a Trump administration that wants none of this sort of civility—or “political correctness”—because it believes that we are entitled to more than we have received, and that seeks to be served by others rather than seek to serve them. Such an arrogant, greedy, and shortsighted approach to world politics cannot be expected to do the United States, or the cause of peace and justice anywhere in the world, any good.
We are in a battle for the soul of the country between competing visions of what our nation is all about and what will best serve to improve our common life together. This fight turns on the question of whether the United States will uphold the vision of the most progressive framers of the Constitution—that the American people as a whole are sovereign
an international moral and legal order that also guarantees other peoples, and ultimately every individual,
rights—or whether we will slip further back into something more like the Articles of Confederation and the vision that the states are free to bully those they consider “inferior” or, worse yet, into a new vision of a bullying federal government in which that government is answerable not to the American people but to the whims of a demagogue or to what Bernie Sanders refers to as “a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.”
The two greatest acts of demagoguery in which Trump has engaged so far have been his efforts to impose a travel ban on Muslims coming from various countries and his attacks on the Dreamers and on immigrants generally.
The travel ban, like the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during WWII, has nothing to do with improving our security. It will merely contribute to the scapegoating of more than a billion people for the actions of a handful. It is as though Christians were being banned for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan. Just as there were many Japanese Americans who fought for the United States in WWII in spite of the internment camps, so there will be many Muslim Americans who will continue to champion and serve this country. That will intensify the disgrace we will feel a generation from now when we have come to our senses. One hopes that the Supreme Court will eventually show more courage in defending the Constitution than it did in
Korematsu v. United States
We, as a people, must restore and renew the sense of ourselves—of America—as a nation of immigrants. This is who we are and who we want to be: a hospitable people made up of individuals from every other nation on earth. As A. Philip Randolph used to say: our ancestors may have come over on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now. That is exactly right. And that is why there must be a swift legislative path to citizenship for all of the undocumented immigrants in the country. They are already part of who we are, but in a second-class status that they do not deserve and that weakens our unity as a people. Immigration should be embraced and increased as something that has always been of great benefit to us and will be of even more help in the future.
One in ten Americans in the private sector is employed by an immigrant-owned business. Immigrant-Americans are twice as likely as United States-born Americans to start their own business. Reduce the number of immigrants in the United States and economic growth will decline, increase that number and economic growth will increase. Immigrants are of crucial importance to vital sectors of our economy and our national life. The capacity of our economy to grow depends in large measure on the creativity of our system of higher education and the inventions and innovations that fuel technological development. Since the Nobel Prize was established in the early 1900s, according to the Institute for Immigration Research, “about 40 percent of the more than 900 prizes have gone to Americans … [and] about 35 percent of all US Nobel laureates have been immigrants to the United States. Eighty percent of those individuals worked at universities at the time of winning the Nobel Prize.” In a fit of ignorance and prejudice, the Trump administration is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Nationwide, the
New York Times
reports, “the number of new foreign students declined an average of 7 percent this past fall, according to preliminary figures from a survey of 500 colleges by the Institute of International Education. Nearly half of the campuses surveyed reported declines.” We are losing both many talented individuals who should have been encouraged to become American citizens and an important source of financial support for our system of higher education as a whole.
The role of immigrants in the field of healthcare is perhaps even more important. There is already a desperate shortage of trained medical professionals, a shortage that will worsen in severity as the population ages, and acquiring professionals from other countries will be an essential part of the solution. The journalist Tom Brokaw, reporting recently on his own experience, captures a truth about American healthcare that should be universally recognized: “What I’ve learned is that American health care is a universe of scientific genius and selfless compassion populated by what seems to be the most diverse population in the country. Spinal surgeons of Russian origin and American training, Ecuadorean eye specialists, Chinese imaging experts, Kazakh physical therapists, East Indian oncologists and an elegant orthopedist from Bologna (we traded New York Italian restaurant recommendations) — I’ve met them all. It is not just New York hospitals that are an ethnic “purée,” as an Argentine nurse at Sloan Kettering described the mix to me. Most large metropolitan hospitals are staffed by dedicated workers from just about every continent. Rural American patients welcome well-trained Pakistani and East Indian physicians in private practice and small-town clinics. In the middle of white-bread Minnesota you’ll see employees of the Mayo Clinic scurrying through the corridors in Muslim head scarves and Sikh turbans. I was consulting with a Nebraska-born neurologist, the son of a grain elevator operator, while a Mayo-trained Kenyan émigré expertly drew my blood.” In short, we are all in this together and must embrace our common humanity and common destiny as a people who love this country.
In his State of the Union address, Trump offered a different vision. Instead of embracing our common humanity with those from all over the world who have become and will become Americans, Trump sought to draw sharp lines of division between Americans to be and those who are already citizens, as if his only responsibility was to the latter: “My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans — to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.”
Here, again, as in his inaugural address, Trump has wandered away from the truth of moral conduct into a fog of American nationalism, into a rhetoric of “America First.” What Trump is actually doing through such rhetoric is engaging in national self-worship rather than in the worship of God or—in more secular language—showing respect for the moral and legal order under which every people and every individual claims their rights. Whether we, as a people, wish to follow Trump into such idolatry, and all of the vile consequences that must flow from it, is the question before the nation.
The first and most sacred duty of every American representative, including the president, is to respect the moral and legal order. Indeed, it is an obligation of the American people as a whole. James Wilson, my favorite revolutionary among the framers of our constitution, made this crystal clear at the founding of our country:
“[When] I say that, in free states, the law of nations is the law of the people; I mean that, as the law of nature, in other words, as the will of nature’s God, it is indispensably binding upon the people, in whom the sovereign power resides; and who are, consequently, under the most sacred obligations to exercise that power, or to delegate it to such as will exercise it, in a manner agreeable to those rules and maxims, which the law of nature prescribes to every state, for the happiness of each, and for the happiness of all. How vast—how important—how interesting are these truths! They announce to a free people how exalted their rights; but at the same time, they announce to a free people how solemn their duties are.”
The first and most necessary duty of nations, as well as of individuals, Wilson argued, was to do no harm. But they were also commanded to do good to one another. Sociability was part of the law of nature for nations as well as for individuals:
“It may, perhaps, be uncommon, but it is certainly just, to say that nations ought to love one another. The offices of humanity ought to flow from this pure source. When this happily is the case, then the principles of affection and friendship prevail among states as among individuals: then nations will mutually support and assist each other with zeal and ardour; lasting peace will be the result of unshaken confidence; and kind and generous principles, of a nature far opposite to mean jealously, crooked policy, or cold prudence, will govern and prosper the affairs of men…. The love of mankind is an important duty and an exalted virtue. Much has been written, much has been said concerning the power of
abstraction, which man possesses, and which distinguishes him so eminently from the inferior order of animals. But little has been said, and little has been written, concerning another power of the human mind, still more dignified, and, beyond all comparison, more amiable—I may call it the power of
Wilson’s name for this living capacity for benevolence and sociability—“the power of moral abstraction”—did not catch on. In our own day, the social theorist Edward Shils has proposed the term
by which he means the virtue of the citizen—the virtue of concern for the common good—and not merely good manners. For Wilson, this alternative would have been acceptable only if it was understood that the citizen in question was a citizen of the world as well as of the United States. The power of moral abstraction was “not confined to one sect or to one state, but ranges excursive through the whole expanded theater of men and nations.” It was as necessary to the progress of exalted virtue, as the power of intellectual abstraction was to the progress of extensive knowledge. By this power, the commonwealth of a state, the empire of the United States, the civilized and commercial part of the world, and the inhabitants of the whole earth become the objects of the warmest spirit of benevolence. By this power, even a minute, unknown and distant group of individuals may become a complex object that will warm and dilate the soul. For James Wilson, love of neighbor and love of God were part of the foundation on which the promise of the American Revolution was raised.
We are, to repeat, in a battle for the soul of the country between competing visions of what our nation is all about and what will best serve to improve our common life together. We can only win that fight by a successful moral and political revolution—by rediscovering the most progressive ideals of America’s founding generation and building on the work of the many generations that have since sought to see those ideals more fully realized.
The most important task for every Democrat elected to the House in 2018 will be articulating a program of social democratic reform for the country in cooperation with other Democrats, vetting this program in the form of detailed proposed legislation before town hall meetings in their districts and in national discussions, improving this program in the light of public criticism, and helping the Democratic Party win a national mandate for this program in 2020.
The Democratic Party must persuade the American people that what we all want for our country can be better realized by what must become the Democratic Party’s commitments—to a swift path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants, to quality healthcare for all as a human right, to massive investment to rebuild our country’s infrastructure and “decarbonize” our economy, to a Freedom Budget to begin to abolish poverty with investment in public education, housing, and job training, to “draining the swamp” by which the 1% rig the rules of the game in their favor—than by the Republican Party and its commitments (which include lip service to some of these goals while doing the exact opposite).