Historians' Watch

Executive Order: Trump playing the ‘nation’ card

Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency in the United States has provoked a rupture with political ‘common sense’. One element of this has been the issuing of the Executive Order (EO) halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. While protestors responded by flooding airports with banners declaring ‘Muslims welcome’, if we look at the history of migration regulation, we can see that airports, or rather borders more generally, have long been anything but sites of welcome. The way Trump frames and carries out his politics may break with convention, but in terms of migration regulation he represents the continuation a long history of exclusion of certain groups. This exclusion has, in fact, been central to the configuration of political power in the US and in other white settler states.

In the late nineteenth century these restrictions began to take shape. An increased technological capacity to travel across oceans, combined with the pull of economic opportunities and the need for labour in settler states across the British and other empires saw a massive increase in global migration. This migration came in large part from India and China. This provoked the colonial elite to articulate what they saw as the official identity of these new nation-states. And this identity was white. As Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds so eloquently put it, this ‘assertion of whiteness was born in the apprehension of imminent loss.’ The fear was of losing the tenuous grasp on power that they held, power that could be threatened by the new arrivals and their possible alliance with local lower classes. Immigration restriction in the name of protecting both identity and power soon followed.

Some of the first US restrictions were focused on Chinese immigrants. The Chinese had long been travelling to the US and other places without any clearly articulated system for restriction or entry control. This posed a problem for officials: how to legitimize restrictions where previously they did not exist? The answer came in the form of anti-Chinese violence perpetrated by white colonizers. Capitalizing on these xenophobic actions, US officials decided that the best approach was to stop the entry of Chinese in the first place. This took many forms, including the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which declared that ‘the coming of Chinese labourers endangers the good order of certain localities’, necessitating a halt to all Chinese immigration. Emergent nativism was legitimized by the state, which reframed its concerns as national security and then codified them into exclusionary immigration law.

State exclusion in the name of the people was not confined to the US. In 1888, a scene similar to that which was provoked by Trump’s recent Executive Order occurred in Australia. When a ship with 268 Chinese on board arrived in a Victoria port, officials did not allow passengers to disembark despite holding valid travel documentation. The ship sailed on to Sydney where other ships, faced with the same problem, were also waiting. As in the US, the issue went to the courts, where the legal right of the migrants to enter was affirmed. But even then immigration officials attempted to use their power to restrict entry to certain individuals, emboldened by an administration that had come out against the court rulings. ‘I am obeying a law far superior to any law which issued these permits’, declared the premier of New South Wales, ‘namely, the law of the preservation of society’. The integrity of the nation was positioned as above the law, and it was the ultimate task of representative government to uphold it.

As historian Adam McKeown has argued, this was the real achievement of the late nineteenth century – the establishment of the right of the state to exclude based on protection of the nation. The implementation of subsequent exclusionary policies of the twentieth century, which widened the scope of exclusion beyond Chinese and other Asians, occurred without the need to legitimize the state’s right to do so.

This legacy is evident in the events surrounding Trump’s Executive order. While many have engaged in debates and launched legal challenges over the way in which the exclusions within the Executive Order are articulated, the right of the state to exclude is accepted as common sense. The legal challenge to the validity of the Executive Order came to rest on the degree to which the nation can be seen to be under threat, but not on the validity of an Executive Order on immigration itself.

Trump came to power promising not just to protect the nation, but also to enhance it, to make it ‘great again’ vis-à-vis the rest of the world. This meant protecting Americans from the negative effects of twentieth-century globalization, which has fundamentally changed the nature of the economic landscape in the formerly industrialized global North. These changes have seen a breakdown in the legitimacy of the political elite, which has failed to articulate a response to these changes.

But how to respond to these changes without actually reorganizing the relationship between the US and the global economy? Here terrorism provides a useful framework as it authorizes random performances of control. The bombastic way that the Trump Executive Order was first issued, so in keeping with the personal brand of the president himself, may turn out to have been a political error. But its broader effect was to assert, loudly and clearly, the ability of the administration to protect the nation. The name makes this clear: ‘Executive Order Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.’ Although the revised version of the Executive Order notes that the countries singled out for exclusion have ‘been identified as presenting heightened concerns about terrorism’ it has been widely observed that nationals of countries such as Syria pose much less risk, statistically, than those from other places not included in the ban.

By symbolically asserting control over transnational economic and political processes, the Trump administration claims the ability to control and improve the national political economy. And by doing it in such an ostentatious manner the political effect is achieved without having to implement any structural changes. In doing so the administration attempts to re-legitimize elite power, while ironically framing itself as an anti-elite project.

As in the cases of Chinese exclusion, this is not purely an elite-led narrative: in both the US and Europe there are many who characterize the impact of immigration on both the economy and on culture in negative terms. But as the nineteenth-century examples also show, it is when elite power and legitimacy is threatened that we see an upswing in exclusionary policies. Bolstered by the established right of the state to exclude, these elites articulate the changes brought about by globalization as a threat to the nation. While on the surface Trump represents a new way of doing politics, he also represents a key continuity: he has shown that playing the ‘nation’ card remains a powerful political tool.

Further reading:

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders (New York: Colombia University Press, 2008)

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