by Victor Davis Hanson// National Review
If Trump shows that his actions are a reaction to past extremes, his changes will win public support.
The emperor Augustus who oversaw the transition from the nonstop civil war of a collapsing republic to the Principate — with all the good and bad that such a transition entailed — was fond of quoting the Greek aphorism “Make haste slowly” (σπεῦδε βραδέως / Latin: festina lente).
That seeming paradox of advocating both speed and caution was actually no contradiction at all. The adage instead reminded leaders that swift change can proceed only with careful forethought and deliberation, the same way that a swift crab scurries boldly across the beach but does so well protected in his shell.
The classical message is that to effect change, the agent must first anticipate from where and why furious opposition will arise — and then how best to preempt it and turn it against the opponent. Key to the strategy of change is to remind citizens that the present action is a corrective of past extremism, a move to the center not to the opposite pole, and must be understood as reluctantly reactive, not gratuitously revolutionary. Such forethought is not a sign of timidity or backtracking, but rather the catalyst necessary to make change even more rapid and effective.
Take Trump’s immigration stay. In large part, it was an extension of prior temporary policies enacted by both Presidents Bush and Obama. It was also a proper correction of Trump’s own unwise and ill-fated campaign pledge to temporarily ban Muslims rather than take a pause to vet all immigrants from war-torn nations in the Middle East.
Who would oppose such a temporary halt? Obviously Democrats, on the principle that the issue might gain political traction so that they could tar Trump as an uncouth racist and xenophobe, and in general as reckless, incompetent, and confused.
Obviously, the Left in general sees almost any restriction on immigration as antithetical to its larger project of a borderless society run by elites such as themselves. Obviously Republican establishmentarians fear any media meme suggesting that they are complicit in an illiberal enterprise.
Perhaps the Trump plan was, first, to ensure that radical Islamist terrorists and their sympathizers do not enter the U.S., as they so often enter Europe; second, to send a message to the international community that entry into the country is a privilege not an entitlement; and, third, symbolically to reassert the powers of assimilation, integration, and intermarriage as we slow and refine legal immigration. (The U.S. currently has about 40 million foreign-born residents, or a near record 14 percent of the population; one in four Californians was not born in the United States.) If this was the Trump-administration strategy, then it might have preempted criticism in the following manner with a supplementary communiqué:
- We wish to extend and enhance prior presidential temporary directives that slowed and monitored unchecked immigration and visitation into the United States from war-ravaged regions in Middle East, by providing a brief breathing space of 90–120 days to ensure we can catch up and properly vet newcomers. In the past, the Obama administration has astutely identified “countries of concern” that might pose problems in visa applications. We wish to refine and calibrate such precedents to ensure the safety of the American people as the displaced-persons crisis in the Middle East expands. We wish to avoid indiscreetly and recklessly admitting persons into our country about whom we have no accurate background information.
- This act is necessary because we plan to continue prior administrations’ policies of admitting refugees, but we cannot fairly and judiciously screen an anticipated 50,000 entrants this year without allotting proper time and consideration that was often lacking under former policies.
- This temporary hold on admittances shall not affect those who were previously vetted through the issuance of green cards or those foreign nationals who — as translators, guides, and intelligence operatives — in time of war bravely and at risk to themselves helped the United States military at war.
- Although the number of current travelers inconvenienced by the issuance of this order will be small, we will do all in our power to clarify implementation of the policy and to expedite problems affecting those in transit at the time of this executive order’s issuance.
Had the administration announced something like the above before or as the edict was issued, and followed up on its provisions, it would have preempted most criticisms and rendered them shrill from the get-go.
Make haste carefully is good advice for lots of necessary Trump initiatives. Take the wall with Mexico and the campaign promise to make “Mexico pay.”
With the issuance of that executive order, Trump might have also issued a communiqué along the following lines:
- We seek no punitive measures against Mexico or the Mexican people but believe that relations between both countries are enhanced by a clearly demarcated border and the return of international and U.S. immigration legal norms governing lawful travel between both countries.
- To fund necessary border fencing, we will issue a temporary and modest tax on remittances sent to Mexico from sources inside the United States. Our wish is to avoid placing financial burdens on the American taxpayer and inconveniencing the Mexican people, the vast majority of whom in the past have followed U.S. immigration laws when entering the U.S. The fee will be a small percentage of both the personal amount remitted and the aggregate $25 billion sent out of the United States each year to Mexico. It is designed to alleviate the costs incurred by illegal immigration. Upon completion of the necessary border fencing, the tax will expire. We will do our utmost to ensure that the fence is constructed quickly, cost-effectively, and prudently to reduce the temporary inconvenience of the temporary duty on remittances.
The same brief preemptory explanations might help clarify long-overdue treatment of sanctuary cities:
- If the United States is never to revisit the dark past of states’ rights and attempts at nullification of federal law, it must address the epidemic of so-called sanctuary cities. No municipality or local jurisdiction can pick and choose which federal law it is willing to abide by. If local governments did do so, the logical result would be an epidemic of the nullification of national laws. Particular cities, for example, might follow the precedent of sanctuary cities and nullify federal environmental or gun-registration statutes.
- We recognize that millions of Americans reside in municipalities that have not followed federal law, and we do not wish to punish residents in a haphazard manner by withholding all federal funds to those jurisdictions that have ignored or subverted federal immigration laws. Therefore, the suspensions of federal funds to particular sanctuary jurisdictions that have nullified federal laws are measured and targeted, in hopes that such a dangerous and subversive precedent will not undermine the sanctity of the federal government. If we have learned anything from 1861, it is that state subversion of federal law is a slippery slope that can lead only to chaos and worse.
- Our efforts at this point are not aimed at using state and local resources to act in lieu of federal immigration officers in the cases of those illegal immigrants who have established long residence, who have not violated U.S. laws, and who are gainfully employed. Rather, the intention at present is to ensure the safety and security of U.S. residents and citizens, by dutifully working with local and state authorities to expedite the removal of non-citizens who have both entered and resided in the U.S. illegally and who have violated U.S. criminal statutes.
The aim again is to remind the country that the action is a reaction to past excess and extremism. To take another example, if we are going to get into a minor tiff with Australia over its refugee problem, then it might be wise to explain that Australia’s own refugee policies are among the most restrictive in the world, and that, on principle, the United States cannot involve itself in the internal immigration affairs of other nations and therefore must allow Australia free rein to determine its own immigration future. And we carefully would explain the consequences of that decision of non-interference. In truth, Australia, not Trump, was the more culpable. (Immigrants, many from the Middle East, heading toward Australia will undergo vetting that permits them entry into the U.S. but not into Australia — in a deal that was understandably not much publicized by the lame-duck Obama administration?)
In terms of strategy, the Trump people surely grasp the rationale of their opponents: to react hysterically to every presidential act, raising the volume and chaos of dissent to such a level that moderate Republicans go into a fetal position and sigh, “Please just make all this go away” — and thus turn their animus upon their own.
Trump may think that the Left’s crying wolf constantly will imperil their authenticity and turn their shrieks into mere background noise Or he may wager that the protesters will raise the temperature so high they themselves will melt down before the administration does.
Perhaps. But just as likely, the Left is gambling that each outrage is a small nick to the capillaries of the Trump administration — after a few months the total blood loss will match the fatal damage of an aneurysm. The result will then be such a loss of public credibility that the Trump administration will become paralyzed (think Watergate, Iran-Contra, or the furor over Iraq), or so deterred that it will shift course and fall into line.
Trump needs to carefully consider the full effect of executive orders and the certain reactions against them to the second and third degree — not because he should cease issuing them (so far the orders have almost all been inspired), but to ensure that they are effective and understood. In this way, they may win rather than lose public support, especially if the relevant cabinet secretaries are on board and out front with the media. In other words, only by taking actions deliberately and with forethought can he bring about not so much change as a long-overdue return to sanity.