Donald Trump built his political identity around exclusion. In his depiction, foreigners are always scheming to steal Americans’ jobs and bring sickness and physical harm into the country. A wall on the southern border would be a visible symbol of Trump’s outlook. American exceptionalism would be nurtured through the nation’s ability to keep others out.
Trump’s unwillingness to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously is resulting in a much different kind of wall—one protecting the rest of the world from an endangered America and its citizens.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported that, as the European Union makes plans to reopen its borders, member nations may exclude Americans from the list of nationalities welcome to enter. A day earlier, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated that he was in no rush to end restrictions on travel from the U.S. across his country’s southern border. During the coronavirus pandemic, the United States is exceptional in its vulnerability and weakness. It is the hardest-hit developed nation on Earth.
Welcome to America’s summer of isolation. Despite the good works of many governors and mayors, the heroic efforts of nurses and doctors, and months of dutiful hand-washing, social-distancing, and mask-wearing by millions of Americans, the U.S. is being judged by its sickest states and most reckless politicians. Becoming a global pariah isn’t just embarrassing. It could also limit Americans’ economic activity and freedom of movement in ways that citizens of the world’s leading power are unaccustomed to seeing.
EU nations are beginning to open up tourism to one another’s citizens, but officials in Brussels appear to be grading non-EU nations on a harsh curve. The EU, which has beaten back the virus, is using these months to prepare for a potential second wave in the fall; it has to continue to minimize the present risks as much as possible. Thus the United States suddenly finds itself in the company of Russia and Brazil. In the coming months, European vacationers may yet find themselves on the beaches of Santorini, but Americans will have to satisfy themselves with a drive to the local state park.
Some exclusions seem wise. The Cruise Lines International Association announced last week that, even after a “no sail” order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expires on July 24, the trade group’s members will not restart operations from U.S. ports until at least mid-September. “Although we had hoped that cruise activity could resume as soon as possible after [July 24],” the association said in a statement, “it is increasingly clear that more time will be needed to resolve barriers to resumption in the United States.” Barriers to resumption is a polite way of describing the thousands of new infections still occurring in the United States every day.
Other decisions to freeze out Americans appear purely political, even hypocritical. On Sunday, China ended poultry imports from a Tyson facility in Arkansas because of COVID-19 infections among the plant’s employees—sparking fears that Beijing would use contagion panic to justify blocking other food imports from the United States. The irony is rich, of course, given that the coronavirus appears to have originated in China. But America’s high-profile failure to contain the disease is still a propaganda opportunity for Beijing.
As the summer progresses, and other nations claim modest victories over the first wave of COVID-19, the gap between their experience and America’s could widen—further undermining global confidence in the U.S. government’s ability to get the problem under control.
For the past six months, the president of the United States has treated COVID-19 as fundamentally a responsibility of the states and their leaders. Purchases of gloves and ventilators, testing and tracing capabilities, guidance on how and when to shut down, standards for reopening—Trump has left states to figure everything out for themselves. As the surreal moments mount—did he publicly admit that he told his team to slow testing down?—so does the death toll. Half the states continue to show infections increasing.
But other nations do not score Americans state by state. Travelers from Washington State, which moved swiftly to control an early outbreak, get no preference over those from areas that shut down late and reopened prematurely. To the outside world, Americans speak in one voice. When people abroad come to see the U.S. as a super-spreader nation, every single American suffers.
Yet, far from being chastened by this growing isolation, Trump is working to disconnect America from the world in one more way. On Monday, he announced further immigration restrictions, ostensibly in response to the pandemic and the recession that it created. The rules suspend the issuance of new visas in a variety of categories, including those granted to skilled high-tech workers and seasonal employees in the hospitality business. The Trump administration insists it is protecting the jobs of American workers, but the restrictions—by crippling certain industries—are likely to exacerbate the economic crisis. “Critics of the moves,” The Washington Post observed, “say the president is using the public health crisis to carry out the kind of border closures and immigration overhaul he has long extolled.” Isolating the U.S. is the goal, and the president appears unconcerned about the consequences.
As news broke that the EU was prepared to exclude American visitors, Trump was visiting the border wall in Arizona. He was celebrating the completion of approximately 200 miles of border wall. On its own terms, the wall is a failure. A target of 450 miles by the end of the year is unlikely to be met. Most of the miles completed merely replace barriers that were already in existence. Trump promised again and again that Mexico would pay for his project. That didn’t happen. The cost to Americans so far has been more than $11 billion.
Meanwhile, because of Trump’s inability to handle the pandemic, the rest of the world is building a wall around the United States. After 120,000 lives lost and incalculable economic damage, Americans are paying even more dearly for this barrier.
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