Protests, Politics, and the Plight of Refugees

People were right to loudly protest Trump’s appalling Muslim ban. But a better refugee policy requires more than opposition to blatant cruelty.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Donald TrumpProtestsrefugeesSyria

The heartening swell of public opposition against the Trump Administration—both the brilliantly organized series of women’s marches and the relatively spontaneous gatherings at airports against the “Muslim ban” executive order—have led to familiar conversations about the link between sporadic, cathartic episodes of protest and the slow, sometimes boring work of sustained resistance. Of course, the seasoned activists who have spurred or joined these protests need no lessons in organizing, but not all of the participants have such a background, and caution may be merited if one recalls the similar optimism during the early days of Occupy Wall Street, when (arguably prescient) questions about the protests’ connections to more traditional forms of political activity were greeted in some corners with incredulity.

I mention this link to policy because the executive order clearly struck a nerve that years of (practical) American indifference to the plight of Syrians did not. I think Conor Williams offers a good explanation here: The EO represents a high-profile attack on an idealized vision that progressives share about America, however murky the realities of our history and public opinion. The progressive vision of America that lawyers rushed to the airports to protect, and that protesters gathered to affirm, is one of aspirational pluralism. “A United States that no longer welcomes refugees, that effectively accepts religious tests for sorting who amongst the downtrodden ought to have the best chance of coming—that is a United States that has lost sight of itself,” writes Williams. To bow to that vision without a fight is to give up on a core tenet of how we understand ourselves, and to yield to Trump and his ilk (who, Williams notes, sound, for all their ultranationalist chest-thumping, like the European far right).

Why does it matter that this vision is aspirational? Because it seems to me the best way to account for the gap between the past week’s massive outpouring of political energy and the relatively paltry attention given to refugee issues over the past few years. We have not lacked for regular reminders that the U.S. could admit far more refugees (especially from Syria’s civil war) than the Obama Administration committed to. Moreover, the ongoing slaughter in Syria from which so many of these refugees have fled is now treated like old news; the scale of the suffering within the country is largely overlooked until its desperate residents arrive at our borders. Obviously they should be admitted, but this is a rather tardy form of humanitarianism.

So, yes, it is crucial to show up for a protest when a core element of the country progressives aspire to is under blatant attack. One can only hope we don’t become inured to similar outrages over the next four years. But as the sordid backstory of our Syria policy suggests, protests are a supplement, not a replacement. And the invigorating experience of mass protest, in which anti-Trump solidarity is forged across diverse segments of the American left, must fuel the patience for disagreement that will inevitably follow when progressives, as they have tried with limited success to do regarding Syria’s ghastly war and humanitarian crisis, decide what to do next.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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