Truth is the Son of Time
Reflections on the Trump Election
There is an old saying in Neapolitan dialect that I have been mulling over: Quanno chiagne per via nuova, sape chell che lascia non chella che trova. This loosely translates to mean that when you choose a new path, you know what you leave behind, but not what you will find. Or to channel Bette Davis, “Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.” I suppose any intelligent person whether Trump supporter or Hillary devotee would likely wonder the same.
The most obvious question is what the results of the recent election seem to reflect about the divided values of everyday Americans. Many go so far as to speculate about the efficacy and longevity of the great “American Experiment” and the general state of democracy in America. I have made my support of Hillary Clinton no secret. I also make no secret of the fact that I refuse to accept Donald Trump as MY president. His vitriolic stance towards women, people of color and queer America in general would be reason enough to question his governing skills not to mention his very character. At the same time, I do not think that Mr. Trump’s election inherently endangers the state of democracy in America.
However scary the prospect of Trump’s reign in America may be, American democratic institutions are strong enough to protect the voices of the underrepresented and ensure the agency of dissenting individuals. That is by design, thanks in no small part to our founding fathers. It is my opinion that Trump and his cabinet will test the very limits of many sacred democratic institutions in America, but they will not break them. Somewhat counter intuitively, one might even argue that the results of this latest election prove that democracy in America is alive and well. Although, at this point it bears noting that Hillary Clinton has almost certainly won the popular vote. We can call this hair splitting sour grapes, but try explaining this glitch of American democracy to Italians who for decades have upheld America as a shining example of democracy. “Wait,” they say, “you mean the people have not spoken?” My glib response amounts to, well yes they have, but…….
We can debate the finer points of the American Electoral College ad nauseam. Regardless, my contention is that however unsavory Trump’s political and personal views, America will continue forging ahead in the great spirit of plural representation. Many of us have already taken to the streets and social media to ensure that our voices are heard. For that reason alone, I feel strangely proud to be an American today.
The uniquely American impulse to believe in the inherit survivability of democracy is not something we take for granted here in Europe. Trump’s election is sinister for a lot of reasons that I have already mentioned, and perhaps the most troubling aspect of his presidency is what it will mean for global democracy and more specifically the sustainability of the single most important institutional development of the 20th century: the European Union. Democracy is neither foregone conclusion nor inevitability in Western Europe. In fact it is nothing short of a miracle that peace, stability and civil society have persisted in a region that has been consistently plagued by violence, sectarianism and ideological extremism. And while the American Experiment is likely alive and well, I would argue that Trump’s election coupled with the Brexit vote and the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis could very likely end the great European Experiment that is the European Union and its Schengen bloc.
Many Americans (not all), Trump and Clinton voters included, alternately treat Europe as a region of unfettered socialism and a veritable playground of historic curiosities. Coming on their vacations of a lifetime, these Americans visit the Coliseum, the Eiffel tower and the invisible remains of the Berlin wall. What many of these same American tourists seem to conveniently forget is that Europe is neither intrinsically suited to democracy nor predestined to remain as such. The success of democracy in Europe rests largely in the early foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (later to become the European Union) and NATO. A disintegration of the European Union would almost certainly plunge Europe into its original Dark Continent days, and given the current Syrian refugee crisis and Russian incursion into Crimea, it is incumbent upon the United States of America to do everything in its power to prevent this.
As Mark Mazower, author of the Dark Continent observes, it is tempting ''to read the present back into the past, and assume -- for instance -- that democracy must be rooted deeply in Europe's soil simply because the cold war turned out the way it did.” Democracy and by extension the Europe Union, is a tenuous institution in Western Europe. Having survived two world wars and a Cold War, Europeans are in no position to cavalierly assume that democracy will triumph simply because it should. I live in Napoli, a city so brutally bombarded throughout WWII that I am left in awe by the sheer resourcefulness and resilience of my fellow Neapolitans. Everyday Europeans across the continent will tell similar stories of war ravaged days and I would argue that given the recent memories of wars, both hot and cold, we more palpably appreciate the fragility of democracy on this continent.
Now more than ever, America, as the European Union’s single most important ally, has an unparalleled responsibility. The sustainability of the European Union is inarguably linked to American national security and commercial interests, and yet somehow, America’s commitment to NATO and the EU seem to have illogically morphed into a partisan issue. I argue that Trump’s recent election presents a direct threat to democracy in Europe for two main reasons: NATO and the Syrian refugee crisis.
As Trump famously stated, “Maybe NATO will dissolve, and that’s OK, not the worst thing in the world.” Some of this jingoistic bluster could be interpreted as election season pandering, but American commitment to NATO is not some ‘socialist’ program from which we should simply cut the fat to save American tax dollars. Those of us in Europe have watched in horror as Trump has made increasingly bombastic statements about his commitment to Europe. It is impossible to know whether he would actually follow through on his threat to cut NATO funding and support, but the fact that he dismissively treats such issues as a Nash game of chicken is disturbing in and of itself.
On 18 March 2014, the Russian Federation annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, thereby deposing the democratically elected Viktor Yanukovych. As a result, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution that declared invalid Crimea's Moscow-backed referendum. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, stated of the resolution, “it is about respect of territorial integrity and non use of force to settle disputes," adding that "it sends an essential message that the international community will not allow what has happened in Crimea to set a precedent for further challenges to our rules based international framework."
As a response to Russia’s mounting aggression in Crimea, on 6 March, 2014, President Obama signed Executive Order 13660 that “authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, or for stealing the assets of the Ukrainian people.” Furthermore, On 20 March, 2014, the President issued a new Executive Order, Blocking Property of Additional Persons Contributing to the Situation in Ukraine, finding "that the actions and policies of the Government of the Russian Federation, including its purported annexation of Crimea and its use of force in Ukraine, continue to undermine democratic processes and institutions in Ukraine.” It is absolutely inconceivable that America’s support of democratic processes and institutions, through its commitment to NATO and otherwise, should be reduced to partisan fodder. However in the world according to Donald J. Trump, American commitment to democracy in Europe is exactly that—a partisan issue to be nonchalantly tossed asunder as if NATO were some sort of useless entitlement program.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Russia will continue its illegal incursions into former Soviet satellite states. This would likely begin in Latvia, a democracy and member of NATO since March 2004. Should this Russian incursion occur, we have no reason to assume that Donald J. Trump and his congress will rightly come to the aid of a longstanding member state of NATO.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, a corner stone of transatlantic security, famously institutionalized the notion of collective defense, declaring that an attack against one ally is considered as an attack against all allies. The president elect, if his prior statements are to be trusted, does not seem to share this vision of transatlantic security, making him the first Post-War president to blatantly disregard the founding tenets of NATO. In the event Russia were to attempt a Latvian annex, Trump will predictably treat defense of NATO member states as a deal, figuratively thumping his chest and trilling, “show me the money.” In this transactional, tit-for-tat interpretation of American foreign policy, the emergent Trump Doctrine leaves NATO member states and the European Union vulnerable to Russian aggression. More abstractly, Trump’s willful isolationism and militantly ignorant stance vis-à-vis transatlantic security could potentially lead to the erosion of democratic institutions that have that have thus far all but guaranteed the geopolitical stability of Western Europe.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis
And then we have the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis to consider. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria. As it stands, about one million Syrians have requested asylum to Europe. Recently the European Union brokered a deal with Turkey allowing Greece to return to Turkey “all new irregular migrants” arriving after 20 March, 2016. In exchange, EU member states will increase resettlement of Syrian refugees residing in Turkey. This is a temporary fix, which the EU will likely revisit in the near future.
While Donald Trump was busy nattering on about building a wall on the United States southern border and notoriously making Mexico pay for it, Europe was facing a migration crisis in the truest sense. Estimates from the Pew Research Center indicate that the, “number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has stabilized in recent years after decades of rapid growth. But the origin countries of unauthorized immigrants have shifted, with the number from Mexico declining since 2009.” So let’s just take one moment to discuss the absolutely ludicrous notion that the physical construction of a WALL between the United States and Mexico is a viable option rather than the chest-thumping jingoistic “get out the vote” distraction that is actually is.
What seems to be lost in Trump’s histrionics is that the United States has attempted to build a wall between the United States and Mexico in the past and it DIDN’T WORK. In 2005, the Department of Homeland Security, launched the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) which allocated $1.15 billion through eight task orders to Boeing for a new, “integrated system of personnel, infrastructure, technology, and rapid response, for the northern and southern land borders of the U.S., primarily through fencing and electronic surveillance.” SBI resulted in hundreds of miles in new physical fencing and vehicle barriers to the tune of $2.4 billion. After ceaselessly spending billions on the construction of a WALL, the Department of Homeland Security abandoned the project. It has been categorically proven that physical walls cannot be some panacea towards the deterrence of illegal immigration. Under the Bush and Obama Administrations, a combination of biometric screening and verification across the immigration continuum and increased intelligence community collaboration with local police and immigrant communities has succeeded in preventing terrorist attacks in ways that a physical wall never could.
Evidence to the contrary, Donald Trump persists, purveyor of snake oil that he is, in maintaining that we must build a wall to keep all of the Mexican rapists and bad hombres out of America. I cite the failures of the unwieldy Secure Border Initiative because we have no reason to believe that our president elect actually understands the intricacies of maintaining the security and integrity of the United States immigration system. As a former employee of the United States Department of Homeland Security, I worked tirelessly with policy and security experts under the Bush and Obama administrations to secure America’s physical and virtual borders. And we all unequivocally agree that a physical wall was neither sensible nor sufficient when attempting to facilitate legitimate travel and trade and deter future terrorist attacks.
All of this is important to consider when attempting to decipher the Gordian Knot that is the Syrian refugee crisis. Migration policy experts agree that the flow of individuals from war zones will increase in the coming years. The European Union and its Schengen bloc will be tested, possibly to the point of breaking, as it absorbs this emergent population. Whether or not the United States under Trump’s administration chooses to assume a more active role in the Syrian conflict, Europe rests on the front lines as we grapple with exactly how we will face the changing dynamics of our population.
And Europe absolutely cannot go it alone. Already we have witnessed the Brexit vote, which was largely motivated by fear of the oncoming onslaught of Syrian refugees and migrants in general. Angela Merkel’s policies towards refugee acceptance have divided the European Union in undeniable ways, leading many to posit that perhaps increasingly more countries will choose to exit the European Union and its Schengen bloc. With rightist leaders such as France’s Marine Le Pen lauding Trump’s victory as“a great movement across the world,” and mounting nationalism across the continent, we must all consider the consequences of dissolution of the European Union and the Schengen bloc. There is no way to precisely predicted what an un-unified Europe would portend, but security and policy experts agree that the state of global democracy, international security and the economy would irrevocably suffer should the EU cease to exist.
The single most important thing the United States can do to assist Europe as it continues to face the Syrian refugee crisis is to accept more Syrian refugees. This is not merely a humanitarian obligation. The sustainability of the European Union requires active United States participation in alleviating pressure on the region by accepting additional migrants and assisting in securing the refugee screening process at Europe’s land and sea borders. Recently, Hillary Clinton stated that she supported President Obama’s decision to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in fiscal year 2016 and that she would support an increase of up to 65,000 refugees, an infinitesimal drop in the water when one considers the millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict.
We can all rest assured that Donald Trump will make no effort to resettle Syrian refugees on American soil. Mike Pence has in fact stated, "Donald Trump and I believe that we should suspend the Syrian refugee program." Many Trump supporters cite two reasons for their aversion to United States resettlement of Syrian refugees—security and the economy. It bears noting that United States Citizenship and Immigration Services biometrically screens all asylum seekers and refugees. These biometric checks include screening against known or suspected terrorist databases with fingerprints collected in the war theater as well as intelligence watch lists across the international community. Having worked in the field of national security, I will categorically state that I believe the United States immigration system is one of the most robustly secure in the world and that it can certainly support the screening of an increased Syrian refugee population.
Furthermore the contention that Syrian refugees, even 65,000 of them would compete with Americans for precious jobs is a fear mongering tactic that bears no basis in reality. It is nearly impossible to predict the long-term economic impact of the refugee crisis on host nations. However, in January 2016, the International Monetary Fund published a study entitled The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges in which it concluded, “Over the longer-term, depending on the speed and success of the integration of refugees in the labor market, the increase in the labor force can have a more lasting impact on growth and the public finances. While native workers often have legitimate concerns about the impact of immigrants on wages and employment, past experience indicates that any adverse effects are limited and temporary.” Again, this study examined the impact on European labor markets, which will continue to absorb refugees in the millions. The labor market impact of the arrival of 65,000 Syrian refugees is negligible in the United States.
Economists will continue to debate the overall effect of the Syrian refugee crisis on international labor markets. Yet no amount of debate, whether intelligent or uninformed, will change the reality that Europe is facing an unprecedented migration crisis. American refusal to collaborate with Europe to relieve the pressures of this crisis could lead, however inadvertently, to the collapse of the European Union as we know it. For that reason alone, I would argue that Donald Trump and his team either fail to understand or do not care about the state of European Union and the effect the recent election will have of the great European Experiment.
All of this makes me particularly wistful because today happens to be Remembrance Day. Across Napoli today, we recall the somber days of war---the hunger, the poverty, the destruction. In September 1943, on my street, the Quattro Giornate revolt against Nazi occupation commenced. This popular uprising, lead by the Neapolitan resistance, forced the German military out of the city prior to the arrival of the first Allied forces in Naples on 1 October, 1943. Many members of the resistance were poverty stricken children known as “scugnizzi,” who took up arms against Nazi occupiers to regain control of their city. The youngest victim of the revolt was Gennaro Capuozzo, killed at age 12 for which he was posthumously awarded a medal of valor.
In the aftermath of the Four Day Revolt, it was through American and British assistance that Napoli became the city it is today. It is also largely thanks to American commitments to Europe following WWII and throughout the Cold War that the European Union emerged and finally thrived.
Many well-intentioned Americans have said that we should focus on healing, and look forward to celebrating the time honored tradition of Thanksgiving. I wholeheartedly agree. But all of this seems like motherhood and apple pie when we consider the fate of Europe and the real questions the new American president and his cabinet must address with respect to America’s relationship with Europe. As Donald Trump consults his new transition team, many of whom appear to be coming out of the wood works from the Heritage Foundation, like many, I worry about the fate of the European Union. We in Europe will never forget the days of war. It remains to be seen if the Trump Administration will remember or even care to admit that the United States of America has long standing commitments in Europe. In the meantime, life in Napoli marches forward. With 3,000 years of history, we have undergone countless wars and invasions, volcanic eruptions and occupations, and with characteristic aplomb, Neapolitans remind us that a verità è figlia d’ ‘o tiempo. The truth is son of the time.