In the months before Donald Trump’s despicable executive order at least temporarily banning entrants to the United States from select majority Muslim countries and similarly placing a stop on all refugee admissions, among other measures, was promulgated, many commentators have attempted to find the words to capture the smallness of mind and of moral vision of the new President. Roger Cohen is among those who have done so recently, in a powerful piece in the New York Times, published just before Trump’s latest execrable order, noting that “A rough translation of ‘America First’ is Muslims last.” Although it may be claimed that the choice of countries represents the demands of ‘extreme vetting’ rather than of the identity politics that is decried in others, the rhetorical context that preceded the move makes such a defence strained.
That this pitiable notion of “America First”, although in a certain tradition, is not in keeping with other American traditions, such as for instance that of the Quakers, is the least point. Although it wraps itself in pragmatic claims of protection against terrorism it in fact represents the rejection of the idea of liberal democracy itself, understood as grounded in conceptions of equal treatment of persons (even if this idea was to be applied differently to citizen insiders and non-citizen outsiders).
Considerations of human dignity arising from what the philosopher John Rawls understood as a ‘broadly Kantian’ background to the shared public culture of liberal democracy played a crucial role in upholding their institutions, and underpinning such ideas as ‘public reason’ bringing together the idea that justification in a democracy must require reasons and that these must be of a kind that could be accepted by others, having different ‘comprehensive conceptions of the good’, such as followers of different religions or none at all. Another American philosopher, Richard Rorty, referred to a “human rights culture” underpinning liberal democracies, and crystalized in facts such as the abhorrence of torture, in retrospect a precisely and presciently chosen example. However he worried, and controversially argued, that this had no ultimate philosophical or political support except itself.
Whatever one’s view on the matter of ‘foundations’, that such a culture plays an important role in the practical sustenance of respect for human rights and dignity seems unexceptionable. By claiming a cloak of democratic legitimacy, but rejecting the substantive requirements of a human rights culture, Trump’s vision of America, to the extent democratic at all, refers more to a classical conception, present in Athens and Rome, in which the social basis of dignity and institutional rights were narrowly restricted, and even then insecure. The use of slaves on a mass scale by these ancient Western democracies is well known. Until recently, despite the often deep-seated imperfections of liberal democracies, their progression had been in a distinct direction, but we see again today the influence of the thesis that majoritarian democracy justifies riding roughshod over the substantive rights of minorities and the ideal of even-handed application of principles. The ‘universalizable‘ moral ideas that are deployed are selective ones, such as that of a sovereign prerogative to take actions to protect against terrorism. Participants in the struggle for civil rights in the United States knew that the obstacle to their cause was not an absence of purported ‘moral’ arguments but the power of perversely applied ones, such as the appeal to states’ rights as justification for the domestic apartheid regime.
The common political tactic of the new and enthusiastic confederation of illiberal majoritarian regimes is that perverse and selective deployments of concern are combined with a ‘fake news’ appeal to a purported threat to the vital interests of a majority to justify a hierarchical order: the antithesis of the political ideal of liberal democracy. The hierarchy may operate implicitly – through certain ‘signs’ being elevated to dominance, offering signals as to who should gain precedence and of how ambiguities should be adjudicated in society – or explicitly, in law.
The institutional significance of Trump’s executive order is that it represents a first attempted transition from the first to the second. Practically, it represents a move to end the application of ideas which gained domestic force in the United States during the civil rights era, and global force during the twentieth-century due to anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, to immigrants and refugees to the US by limiting the role of group based discrimination (a shift embodied in the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act). However, this is but a step in a broader effort to bring about a conceptual revolution, cheered by illiberal majoritarians everywhere. They understand that its real importance is to strike at the idea of the human rights culture – not because the US had been looked to as its champion, as some may wish sentimentally to believe, but because this is a signal that there is a new order of things. There is thus an important and increasingly evident difference among supposed votaries of democratic values. Some calculators and supplicants offer tepid or no criticism and others take a worthy stand. Yet, as Rorty and others have insisted, argumentative reasoning, even if ‘correct’, may have little effect in the face of barbarism. A human rights culture is created and sustained in many ways. It is the sum of our words and our deeds that matters.