In the months before Donald Trump’s despicable executive order peremptorily banning entrants to the United States from select Muslim-majority countries and placing a temporary stop on all refugee admissions was promulgated, many commentators attempted to find the words to capture the smallness of mind and 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, in which he noted that “a rough translation of ‘America First’ is Muslims last”.
That this pitiable notion of “America First”, although part of a tradition, is not in keeping with other American traditions, such as that of the Quakers, is hardly the point. Although it wraps itself in pragmatic claims of protection against terrorism, the order 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 crystalised 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 a vital 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, harks back to a classical conception, present in Athens and Rome, in which dignity and rights were narrowly restricted, and even then dispensable. The use of slaves on a mass scale by these ancient western democracies is well known.
Today’s equivalent is the thesis that majoritarian democracy justifies riding roughshod over the substantive rights of minorities within and of ideals of equal consideration without. The “universalisable” moral ideas that are employed are selective ones, such as that of a right to the protection or promotion of majority cultural interests, a sovereign prerogative to take actions to protect against terrorism and so on. 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 an imminent threat to the supposed majority to justify a hierarchical rather than a democratic 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 how ambiguities should be adjudicated in society – or explicitly, in law.
The institutional significance of Trump’s executive order is that it represents a transition from the first to the second. Practically, it represents the 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 era of decolonisation, to immigrants and refugees to the US, as embodied in the 1965 Immigration and Naturalisation Act, which made possible larger subsequent movements of people from areas of the world hitherto restricted.
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, much as some may wish sentimentally to believe that, but because this is a signal that there is a new order of things. Among the supposed votaries of liberal democracy, the difference between those calculators and supplicants who offer tepid or no criticism and those who do otherwise must be judged in this context. As Rorty and others have insisted, argumentative reasoning, even if “correct”, has little effect in the face of barbarism. The sum of our words and our deeds matters more.
Sanjay G Reddy is an Associate Professor of Economics at The New School for Social Research.