Donald Trump ran for president pledging to restore “America First,” a nativist agenda projecting hostility to all things foreign—ideas, people and products.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a dream come true for xenophobes. Predictably, the president’s allies are using the killing of George Floyd to spread their toxic message of building a wall.
Peter Navarro, an assistant to the president on trade, wrote in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, “America must bring its manufacturing and supply chains home” so that we become “too prosperous to hate.” But isolationism does not breed understanding — much less prosperity. Trump doubled down on his isolationism with his speech at West Point frowning on military engagement
The anti-trade zealotry is part of a broader thrust to create a fortress America. The signs are everywhere, from draconian restrictions on refugees, a looming severe drop in foreign students, Cold War-like posturing against China, and threats to defund the World Health Organization.
Trump’s nativism formerly aroused opposition, but COVID-19 has given him cover. The most alarming example is in a section of the Cares Act, which prevents even some citizens from receiving checks if a parent is foreign-born. Here’s an example. My nephew is a US citizen, born in New York City. His 15-month-old daughter, Zagora, was also born in New York, also a citizen. But she is ineligible for the $500 stimulus check granted to minors because her mother, although a permanent US resident, does not have a Social Security card.
This chilling example,with its echoes of apartheid, reflects a broad retreat from internationalism. The US admission of refugees has virtually ground to halt. US consuls around the world are shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, and visa applicants face a protracted delay. The loss of foreign students due to visa restrictions and uncertainty about their ability to remain will mean a severe drop in revenue to American universities.
Promising to protect US jobs always makes a good sound bite, but protectionism — which other countries will be sure to imitate, by keeping out American goods — inevitably hurts our economy (ask soybean farmers).
The damage will be as much spiritual as economic. The disappearance of foreign-born people in our midst — the goal of Trump advisers such as Stephen Miller — could cause a gradual shrinking of American horizons.
Fewer immigrants and foreign students, fewer Americans traveling overseas and returning with experiences gained abroad, fewer executives with foreign trade partners — all presage a narrowing of the American mind.
It happened before — in the 19th century, when Catholics were widely discriminated against, in the 1920s, with the anti-Asian immigration act, in the 1950s, when Joe McCarthy exploited the fear of foreigners to red-bait loyal citizens.
It happened after the September 11 attacks, when Muslims were targeted. Xenophobia always travels in the shadow of fear. Mistrust of the other is just as toxic on the world stage as it was in Minneapolis.
There are valid reasons for border controls during a pandemic and for restrictions on air travel. Benn Steil, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, said recently, “Like it or loathe it, we are not going back to globalization as we knew it.”
Rather than go into a defensive crouch, globalists should work to minimize restrictions — within the limits of what is prudent and safe. A good start would be to strengthen multilateral ties — contrary to the Trump administration, which has sought to neutralize or destroy international organizations.
The United States has legitimate concerns with China, involving human rights abuses, trade and patent infringements, and its early mishandling of the coronavirus (not that the United State was covered in glory).
The way to collar China into improvements — including improved protocols on infectious diseases — is by acting in concert with allies. Unilateral saber-rattling won’t work. It answers to a deluded self-vision that America is best and can go it alone.
But the world isn’t a sports league, and no country is “best.” We gain from listening to the Beatles and Bach; Pakistani doctors make us stronger. Our auto industry was a joke until the Japanese and Germans started competing with it.
Most of all, the United States gained from being the country that foreigners wanted to come to, whether the future-father of Steve Jobs, or the Central American grocer on my corner. America’s great strength is not just egg rolls or tacos — it has been its openness to the world. It’s not only prevented demographic sclerosis, it has kept the country dynamic and diverse. Even in a pandemic, we shouldn’t lose it.
Roger Lowenstein lives in Cambridge. His latest book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve.”