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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The dangerous path of Trump’s xenophobia

Syrian refugees arrived in Jordan in September 2015.Raad Adayleh/Associated Press/File

Last week President Trump reaffirmed his travel ban on six Muslim countries. As a fig leaf, he also threw in North Korea and Venezuela — nations that are not majority Muslim but hardly founts of travel to America — trumpeting his resolve to foil terrorism.

This fools no one beyond his most fervent followers. Bereft of domestic successes, Trump seeks to assuage his base by embracing an “America First” policy drenched in xenophobia. In the past weeks, Trump has affirmed his indifference to democracy and people beyond our shores, embracing legislation that sharply limits legal immigration; entertaining a further choke hold on admitting immigrants; renouncing our commitment to humanitarian ideals abroad; and rejecting pleas to help refugees from war and bloodshed.


This is a tragedy for countless others — and for us. Without surcease, Trump is attacking that which defines America at its best: its identity as advocate for democracy and refuge for the oppressed.

Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have now discarded democracy and human rights as pillars of American foreign policy. Such sentiments, they assert, impede America in pursuing its self-interest. Their message to the subjugated and endangered is stark: Unless it serves Trump’s transactional worldview, their plight — no matter how miserable — does not concern us.

True, geopolitics are complex, and our historic fidelity to democratic and humanitarian principles has been decidedly mixed. But no president before Trump has rejected them outright. Repeatedly, he is most drawn to autocracy and autocrats, including the dictatorial and murderous Vladimir Putin — about whose interference in our own democracy Trumps remains silent.

Blind to history and oblivious to strategy, Trump’s myopic machismo endangers America’s security. In a dangerous world our most willing and reliable allies have always been democracies that honor human rights: They have joined our military and diplomatic coalitions, shared intelligence in the struggle against terrorism, helped us subdue pandemics, and served as our closest trading partners.


In contrast, the violent extremism we fight together thrives where repression and corruption flourish. Uncritically supporting autocrats stokes anti-Americanism, squandering our moral capital and diminishing our influence on repressive regimes that breed aggression, instability, and human suffering. Our burgeoning global unpopularity does not evince Trump’s strength, but his foolishness.

Nor does espousing human rights mean imposing American values. Throughout history, brave men and women have risked everything in the hope of securing those same rights. Nelson Mandela was not promoting America’s agenda; he suffered imprisonment so that black South Africans would suffer no more. Our shame lies in how long we failed to support him.

We must not let Trump shame us now. Thus we must also defend another hallmark of our better selves: America’s historic role as refuge for the endangered and oppressed.

Trump’s renewed Muslim ban is a cynical effort to placate his base. Most appalling is his indefinite ban on refugees from Syria’s slaughterhouse, a genocidal horror that condemns hundreds of thousands of civilians to death, hunger, trauma, and catastrophic injury. To all this Donald Trump’s America has turned its back.

But not just on Muslims — or Syrians. As Trump regaled its General Assembly with threats to North Korea’s leader, the United Nations continued imploring the world to shelter 1.2 million refugees from conflict and persecution. But Trump told the General Assembly that he wants to prevent refugees from resettling in the United States. He supports legislation to cut legal immigration by half, and proposes capping refugee admissions at 45,000 per year, a far cry from Barack Obama’s goal of 110,000. Meanwhile Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief adviser on immigration, is urging a ceiling of 15,000 — roughly half the number of refugees created each day — subordinating humanitarian urgency to Trump’s nativist agenda.


This is morally inexcusable. Those whom Trump shuns include children bereft of family, and survivors of rape, torture, and religious persecution. Contrary to his assertions, our vetting program for refugees is stringent and safe.

Countries that shelter these refugees — severely straining their resources — include those, like Jordan, critical to regions where we deploy American troops and seek to counter terrorism. Our willingness to emulate them enhances our national security by affirming America’s own humanitarian commitment. Beyond that, it is imperative to welcome those — including Muslims – who risked their lives to oppose terrorism and assist American efforts. Here compassion and self-interest converge.

Our openness to the oppressed tells the world that we are worthy of emulation, not enmity. Our strength derives not merely from those who are Americans by accident of birth, but from those who made a free and cherished choice. Trump’s rhetoric notwithstanding, our economy grows with their help — as confirmed by a study from the Department of Health and Human Services that the administration rejected.

We cannot let him redefine the world’s richest country by his poverty of spirit.


Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.