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Heather Cox Richardson was tired when she wrote the Facebook post.
The Boston College history professor had been up late for a couple of nights writing. But she could see her friends were upset about last weekend’s chaos following the president’s executive order banning entry to all refugees and travelers and residents from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The expert on political history had a few thoughts she wanted to share.
“I put it up there on Saturday afternoon,” she recalled. “I didn’t think people would pay attention. I closed the computer and went out to dinner.”
By the time she got back later that night, her post had gone viral.
Why the attention? Well, Richardson’s post tries to make sense of the profoundly disorienting, and disordered, first weeks (executive orders, erratic tweets, sharp breaks from tradition) of the Trump administration. And a lot of people seem to need that right now.
Not that her theory is exactly reassuring. Richardson argues that the mayhem created by President Trump’s immigration order was intentional, rather than the result of incompetence. Written without consultation with legal and immigration experts, and sprung on Congress and homeland security personnel with little notice, the order led to chaos and late-night court sessions, as legal residents and travelers with valid visas were detained at airports or turned back.
Richardson has closely followed Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist and former chairman of white nationalist website Breitbart News, and she doesn’t think this chain of disruption and heartbreak was any accident.
“Bannon is an extraordinarily smart man, and he somehow forgot to tell airports how this was going to come down?” she said in an interview. “Almost everything . . . has been calculated.”
She calls it “a shock event,” a deliberate attempt to throw us off balance and deepen divisions between us. Doing so, she argues, makes the country more hospitable for a strongman claiming to be the only one who can restore order, and also for a strongman’s agenda — perhaps one targeting more Muslims, here and abroad — that would otherwise be a hard political sell.
Yikes. As we watch the Trump administration escalate tensions with Iran, attack the judiciary, and move to weaken regulations and other consumer protections, Richardson’s theory certainly makes sense, scary as it is. Then again, the idea that none of it is deliberate, that the White House truly is this incompetent, is terrifying, too.
Though her theory of the Trump administration conjures something dark, Richardson takes pains to argue that we need not actually let Trump and Bannon take us there. America has leaned toward catastrophe several times before and pulled back, she says — during the 1850s, for example, when Abraham Lincoln united groups that were otherwise deeply divided to stand against slavery, and prevail in the Civil War.
There is plenty on which people who are otherwise bitterly opposed can agree: the importance of equality; freedom of expression and religion; equal protection under the law; the idea that everyone should follow the same rules.
When we see our values being undermined Richardson said, we should speak out, for as long as it takes to restore them. That will require more protests. But also more courage from Republicans, especially those in Congress who have so far been distressingly passive in the face of the Trump tempest.
The alternative is unthinkable, but it’s not inevitable.
“History is not yet written,” Richardson said. “Let’s take this moment to write it in a way that honors American values.”