Donald Trump’s presidency reminds me of nothing so much as the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. At the height of the violence, a Serb friend said to me, ‘I don’t like [Slobodan] Milošević. I don’t like his methods, his cruelty, his crudeness, and his sadism. But at least someone is doing something.’
That last clause captured the essence of the entire conflict. My friend was willing to look past all of Milošević’s abuses and brutality if it meant that Serbia wouldn’t be a victim anymore. According to this nationalist narrative, Serbia had been forced to accept that it was just one republic among six, even though Serbs, who were spread out across Yugoslavia, comprised almost half of the country’s total population.
Of course, the idea of Serbia as a victim ran counter to the views of the other republics. To them, Yugoslavia, far from being a conspiracy to hold down Serbia, was actually a conspiracy to enshrine Serbia’s position as primus inter pares. After all, Serbia controlled the army, the secret police and the ruling party.
In many ways, a similar pattern has emerged in the United States since Trump took office. Trump is rude and often cruel, and even many of his supporters seem to realise that they wouldn’t want their own children to emulate him. Still, he speaks to their grievances and anxieties. And in 2016, he reached enough swing-state voters to clinch a victory—a scenario that could well happen again in 2020.
Trump and his followers have homed in on issues that were not really on most other Americans’ radars, but which force voters to pick a side. Such inherently divisive ‘wedge issues’ often provoke an equal and opposite reaction from the other side of the political divide. As each side digs its trenches, the complexities and nuances of the issue tend to be overlooked.
Immigration is Trump’s key wedge issue. While many Americans would simply be amused by the fact that it is more useful to speak Amharic than English in a Washington DC taxi, Trump has turned immigration into a referendum on America’s soul. Hence, during his recent trip to Europe, Trump issued an ominous warning about immigration ‘changing the culture’ of Western societies.
In the eyes of his supporters, Trump is winning on immigration, simply because he is ‘doing something’. Under his watch, distinctions between legal and illegal immigration have been cast aside, along with wonky debates about the need for skilled workers in certain sectors or locales. And if you think that Trump will acknowledge that immigrants built the country, you can think again. The entire issue has been reduced to a question of American identity, filtered through the prism of race.
By weaponising the immigration issue, Trump has convinced his supporters that they could lose their country to people with vastly different identities and tribal loyalties, owing to what he portrays as a kind of ethno-racial spoils system. In doing so, he has marshalled those who oppose immigration behind the banner of their own group identity. And, at least for now, he has the numbers to win.
But wedge issues, by definition, tend to galvanise both sides. The new slogan for Trump’s opponents is ‘Abolish ICE’—that is, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency charged with implementing many of the administration’s immigration policies. And, among proponents of immigration, even ‘illegal’ has come to be regarded as an offensive, pejorative qualifier for any living, breathing person. Of course, the term refers not to one’s person, but to one’s immigration status within a given jurisdiction, in this case that of the United States.
Similarly, pro-immigration forces have increasingly denounced those who stress the need for border controls, even though they are simply advocating legal immigration. Rather than debate regulations that could stanch the flow of undocumented migrants into the country, pro-immigration radicals seem to doubt that there should be any laws restricting the movement of people at all.
Needless to say, this plays directly into Trump’s hands. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans want border controls. To be sure, the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents went further than most Americans were willing to accept. But if voters think the alternative is no border controls, or a wave of dubious asylum claims, they will side with Trump in the end.
The immigration debate underscores the fact that the political centre in America is quickly disappearing. But Trump’s radicalism should not be met with more radicalism. Trump and his supporters have selected their winning issues carefully. The best response is not to play their cynical game, but rather to appeal to a broader segment of Americans. It can be done.