Point Austin: Punching Down in Our Names

Abbott’s refugee rejection confirms the triumph of Trumpism

Point Austin: Punching Down in Our Names

First immigrants, then those without homes, now refugees.

One might think Republican officials would be running out of vulnerable people to use as symbolic punching bags, but it seems the candidates for targeting are endless. Perhaps they will eventually be reduced to kicking puppies, but in the meantime there are plenty of low-status human beings whose troubles can be blamed on themselves and employed for political grandstanding. Every Trump rally offers new possibilities: foreigners, reporters, protesters ... with various persons of color always ready at hand.

Consider Gov. Greg Abbott's decision, announced last week, to refuse 2020 resettlement of refugees in Texas, making it the first state to do so under a new Trump policy providing that option. Abbott's letter to the U.S. Department of State justified the decision by complaining of federal immigration enforcement – which has nothing to do with refugees or the State Department – confounding the exhaustive vetting that refugees receive with the desperation of asylum seekers at the border ("Abbott to Refugees: Drop Dead").

Wednesday morning, Abbott's plans hit a speed bump: In Maryland, U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte issued a preliminary injunction to block the new policy, a few days before the deadline for states to notify the feds of their decisions (most have said they will continue to accept refugees). The court ruled that the Trump policy, promulgated by executive order, is illegal (the federal law precludes any individual state rejection), likely unconstitutional, and frankly inexplicable. "One is left to wonder exactly what the rationale is for doing away entirely with a process that has worked so successfully for so long," the judge asks. "And why now?"

By a Thousand Cuts

Those are good questions that are unlikely to be answered in a court of law. Although there have been a few public statements supporting Abbott (nearly all from other GOP officials), most have roundly condemned his decision as both inhumane and counterproductive. Many objections have come from religious organizations, among the main facilitators of refugee resettlement.

The public backlash is welcome – but, to a great degree, beside the point. Whatever the final outcome of the lawsuit or its eventual effect on Abbott's decision, the Trump administration has largely accomplished what Abbott's letter to the State Department only emphasizes. That has been done simply by steadily reducing the allowable annual number of refugees to historically (even laughably) low levels.

For decades, under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, the U.S. admitted more refugees than the rest of the world combined; since Trump assumed the throne, he's used refugee policy as one more weapon in his war against the Other. He first froze admissions altogether, then steadily reduced the annual ceiling – from the 110,000 cap of Obama's final year, to what will be 18,000 for fiscal year 2020. For Texas, a state of nearly 30 million people, that would mean accepting fewer than a couple of thousand people fleeing thoroughly documented persecution.

Why, asked the plaintiffs, is the U.S. "eviscerating a long-standing, smooth-functioning humane program, with disastrous consequences not only for Plaintiffs and eligible refugees but for the image of the United States as the beacon of liberty?"

No Beacon Here

The answer, it seems to me, is hiding in plain sight. Abbott's letter serves to confirm (if we needed any more evidence) the triumph of Trump and Trumpism over the Republican Party, and indeed over much of the country. "Not only is the proposed modification illegal," assert the plaintiffs. "It is little more than a politically motivated decision that will engender hate and divisiveness throughout the country." The charitable organizations obviously believe that sort of politics is a bad thing. Trump and his enablers, including the governor of Texas, have long since concluded that engendering hate and divisiveness throughout the country is precisely how they will continue to maintain their grip on political power.

Abbott's symbolic rejection of an embarrassingly small number of refugees (like his dishonest and cruel denunciations of people experiencing homelessness) is not about them; it's about us. The dismal group psychology so characteristic of our time has been accurately described in a much-circulated essay by Adam Serwer ("The Cruelty Is the Point," The Atlantic, Oct. 3, 2018): "Their shared laughter at the suffering of others," wrote Serwer, "is an adhesive that binds them to one another, and to Trump." The governor of Texas is simply making sure his supporters recall the tie that binds them.

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