Two seemingly unrelated incidents this week, thousands of miles apart, showed us different aspects of a moral and political crisis that has paralyzed and divided the Western world. A charismatic TV personality got kicked out of a press conference and, halfway around the world, a gruesome discovery was made inside an abandoned poultry truck. One event played out as comedy while the other was a tragedy that mortified an entire continent, but the threads of meaning connecting them are stronger than they appear.
In the week’s single most Trumpian event – a high standard these days – Donald Trump ordered Jorge Ramos, the most prominent Spanish-language news anchor in the United States, ejected from an Iowa press conference, mockingly telling him, “Go back to Univision.” Nothing about Trump’s contemptuous and condescending manner was especially surprising or unusual, and anybody who still thinks those kinds of outbursts are likely to puncture the great gaseous blimp of his campaign has not been paying attention. If anything, Trump’s confrontation with Ramos, and the mainstream media’s horrified reaction, was likely to push his poll numbers still higher.
What happened outside the press conference was perhaps more instructive. You’ve probably seen this video clip, which went viral almost immediately, but it bears a little unpacking. A middle-aged man wearing a blazer adorned with a Trump button approaches Ramos, at first admonishing him for rudeness and then stepping up to incoherent and unprompted anger. Following Trump’s phrasing to its logical conclusion, the man twice tells Ramos, “Get out of my country.” With the affect of someone struggling to awaken from a puzzling dream, the silver-haired host of the daily news broadcast “Noticiero Univision” and the weekly English-language program “America with Jorge Ramos” quietly responds that he’s a United States citizen.
This appears to be puzzling information, or inadmissible evidence. “Well, whatever,” says Angry Blazer Man, perhaps realizing a split-second too late that his moment of patriotic glory has devolved into looking like an ignorant racist ass on everybody’s Facebook page. He concludes by waving his hands in front of him, in a sort of swimming-crab gesture of all-purpose denial: “No. Univision – no.” What I discerned in that moment was a confusion, and a rejection of reality, that is widely shared among the Trump demographic and can easily be found, expressed in the ugliest possible terms, in every comments section of every news article about the Trump-Ramos contretemps.
It’s partly Why is a Spanish-language TV network allowed to exist in my country anyway? and partly How can its employees turn out to be American citizens who speak fluent English and are better educated and more worldly than I am? Appended to this post by Peter Suderman for the libertarian site Reason – to be fair, a post that attacks Trump for channeling aggressive nativism and outright racism – commenters discuss the proposition that the fair-skinned Ramos is not actually Mexican, and that his accent when speaking English is “fake.” When we get to the waving crab claws and the “Univision – no,” it’s more like I refuse to admit that the current version of America exists, and I use my magic wish to make it go away. Which is definitely the mindset required to embrace the Mordor-like fantasyland of Trump’s delusional agenda in the first place.
Now that I’ve provided Apoplexy Blazer Dude with free psychoanalysis, I will also offer him some better ammunition for his next encounter with Jorge Ramos. Of course Ramos was telling the truth about his citizenship status, but it’s also true that he was born in Mexico and did not become a U.S. citizen until 2008, long after his two children were born. Which makes them – yes! – anchor babies, and in the future paradise of President Trump and his redacted 14th Amendment (as best I understand it) renders the entire Ramos family potentially deportable. So that’s taken care of.
Within a few hours of that showdown in the Hawkeye State, Austrian authorities found an abandoned truck parked just off a highway near the Hungarian border. It was marked with the brand name of a Slovakian chicken processor, but in fact contained the decomposing remains of 71 human beings, most likely Syrian refugees who were being smuggled into the European Union. Donald Trump has not officially embraced a policy of “let them die in a truck” as a corrective to illegal immigration, as far as I know, but he really doesn’t have to. That’s only marginally crueler and more nightmarish than the nonsensical ideas Trump has actually proposed, and the connection between the upsurge in nativist, racist paranoia that his insurgent campaign has channeled and that kind of outcome is not terribly difficult to work out.
Amid the devastating scale of the human tragedy behind Europe’s migrant crisis – the Austrian chicken truck, however ghastly, is barely a drop in the bucket – we shouldn’t waste much compassion on the political leaders of the E.U., who have appointed themselves as the front-line cops of the neoliberal economic order. But Europe’s political class is unmistakably pinioned between uncontrollable opposing forces, and has no clue how to manage the situation.
On one hand, the European public has been demoralized by years of fiscal austerity and economic stagnation, and is increasingly anxious about continuing immigration from the Arab and Muslim world, if not openly hostile. This climate of discord has fueled the growth of left-wing movements like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, but it has also fueled right-wing, anti-immigrant parties in countries that openly flirt with fascist symbolism and ideology. I was going to say that Europe’s neo-fascists make Donald Trump’s reborn know-nothingism look positively cuddly, but that’s not it. They make him look profoundly American, which isn’t exactly better or worse, but is definitely different.
On the other hand, European authorities face an unstoppable human tsunami that will easily exceed 500,000 migrants in 2015 alone, and given its pace of acceleration might well reach 1 million. These people are fleeing civil war and violent repression in Syria, Afghanistan and other Arab or Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa; they are fleeing poverty, hunger and economic dislocation in sub-Saharan Africa. They try to enter Europe from every possible direction by every possible means: They cross the Mediterranean to Greece or Italy on rickety, overloaded rafts and boats; they walk clear across Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary toward the supposed promised land of northern Europe’s large cities.
Humanitarian concerns dictate one kind of response, and for all of Europe’s internal conflict on the immigration question, putting human rights first (or at least appearing to) is a foundational element of postwar European identity that has not entirely been sacrificed to the market or to politics. But the politics of this crisis are increasingly toxic. Every governing party in every European nation faces widespread rebellion and imminent defeat if it is perceived as overly welcoming to the incoming human tide. Harsh words and strict counter-measures are called for, despite the self-evident fact that they have done nothing to stanch the flow. The collision between those forces produces many bad things, including a human-smuggling ring whose leaders are too stupid or too sleazy to know that you cannot safely transport human beings inside a sealed compartment intended to keep chicken thighs from going bad.
If the Austrian death truck – with its accidental but unavoidable echo of the Nazi extermination vans used along the roadsides of central and eastern Europe 75 years earlier – was the worst single headline to emerge from Europe’s catastrophic migrant crisis this week, it had plenty of competition. At least 52 people died aboard an overcrowded boat trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Sicily earlier in the week, and on Friday the Libyan Red Crescent reported that two more boats had capsized near the port city of Zuwara, with 84 people confirmed dead and 18 still missing.
That makes at least 207 people who have lost their lives this week alone, desperately trying to reach a continent that desperately does not want them. Given the chaotic nature of a crisis that stretches across thousands of miles of land and water and two dozen countries, the true number is almost certainly much higher. How many people in villages or shantytowns in Syria and Mali and Chad are waiting for a phone call from an uncle or a sister or a son that will never come? Whether or not they ever find out what happened – whether their loved ones are found and identified, let alone sent home for burial – is more a matter of luck than anything else, although using that word in this context approaches a cruel joke.
Europe’s refugee crisis has gotten relatively scant attention in the American media, partly because we are ferociously gnawing at our own wounds at the moment and partly because of our innate tendency to view the rest of the world through a mist of miscomprehension. You can say this for the Islamic State: They understood how to get our attention. A few YouTube videos of beheaded Westerners and a few hundred teenage recruits lured out of the crumbling Western suburbs, and a gang of incoherent zealots too crazy for the rest of the Islamic fundamentalist movement becomes the new Evil Empire, demanding endless expenditure on endless war. With the solitary exception of Bernie Sanders, the debate within the 2016 presidential campaign is not about whether it’s a good idea to spend billions more of our grandchildren’s money going after the Islamic State, but how soon to invade and how many ground divisions will be required. (I’m pretty sure that Donald Trump’s secret plan to crush ISIS involves outer space in some way.)
Things that happen overseas only fall into three categories: charming, enlightening and terrifying, and the migrant crisis in Europe clearly isn’t either of the first two things. It seems incomprehensible and far away, but not quite far away enough. Among other things, if we were willing to look closely at Europe’s dreadful paradox we might notice that the ideological climate looks pretty similar but the scale is entirely different, and we might come to understand that in comparison our so-called immigration problem barely exists. Most demographic data suggests that the undocumented immigrant population in the United States has fallen slightly in the past few years, and that the 250,000 or so people who enter the country illegally every year are roughly balanced out by the number who leave.
There’s almost no point wasting time debunking the Trumpian myths about all the Mexican rapists and murderers who have been unleashed to wreak havoc on white America, or about the devastating economic effects of illegal immigration. All that has been repeatedly and carefully disproven by actual experts (which I am not), but it doesn’t seem to matter. Undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than the population in general – they prefer not to attract attention, after all – and virtually all of them end up paying taxes into a system whose benefits they cannot receive. Trump’s supporters correctly perceive that the Republican Party has talked the talk on immigration for decades but has never walked the walk, because the GOP’s corporate overlords want to ensure that the supply of low-wage labor is constantly replenished.
But there is nothing rational, of course, about the articles of faith professed by the Trump cult (“a confederacy of the frustrated,” in the marvelous phrase of New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos). There is certainly nothing rational behind the longing to see a useless trillion-dollar wall built along the border by slave labor, or to see Jorge Ramos’ family and millions of other longtime American taxpayers rounded up and shipped away because they interfere with some mythological conception of what our country is supposed to look like. Those things won’t actually happen, because they’re just angry, childish fantasies that channel the endlessly recirculating current of racism, nativism and victimology that has nourished white America’s persecution complex for 200 years and has served so effectively to foreclose all discussion about economic power or class conflict.
What troubles me is that America is experiencing epic Trump mania in the face of an “immigration problem” that is largely imaginary. Europe’s problem, on the other hand, is real. More than 107,000 migrants entered the E.U. in July alone, an all-time high. Even given the European mania for record keeping, that’s probably an undercount. One reason we don’t want to look too closely at the social and political trauma across the Atlantic is that we fear it may be contagious. If we're this crazy now, try to imagine what breeds of goblins and demons a migration crisis on that scale might conjure up in America, especially given the decrepit condition of our democracy and our, shall we say, inconsistent recent record on human rights. Or on second thought, don’t. Donald Trump is like the aging Borscht Belt comedian who opens the show, warming up the crowd and getting us in the mood – in this case, the mood for fascism. He's not the headline attraction, who knows better than to show his face before we're good and ready.