The Narcissist and the Nationalist

By John Torpey

From our series, Speaking Justice to Power: APLA / PoLAR Respond to the Trump Executive Order on Immigration
Week 33 – Statue of Liberty” by Khürt Williams. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Scarcely one week into his presidency, Donald J. Trump issued an executive order barring from the United States all refugees for 120 days, all Syrian refugees until further notice, and all passport-holders from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen), none of which had been the country of origin of any terrorist killers in the United States since 9/11.[1] The countries of origin of the 9/11 attackers, who came chiefly from Saudi Arabia, were not among them. The executive order barred green card holders, who by definition had been through extensive scrutiny in order to gain that coveted status; refugees, who would similarly have been through extensive vetting by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and by the U.S. government, and whom the government has an obligation to take in as a signatory to the Refugee Convention; and some 200 million travelers from these countries, doing considerable potential economic damage to the United States.

All this was done in the name of protecting Americans from “radical Islamic terrorism,” just as Mr. Trump said he would do during the election campaign. Would the executive order really keep us safe from terrorists? A wide array of experts has insisted it would not, mainly on the grounds that it would convince the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims that the United States and/or “the West” really does hate them. In other words, it plays directly into the hands of ISIS, which immediately deployed the executive order for its own propaganda purposes. That may not matter to Stephen K. Bannon, the Svengali behind Mr. Trump, who seems to have been one of the principal forces behind the order. The purpose of the executive order thus seems to lie elsewhere; it was meant chiefly to persuade the Trump base that he was carrying out his campaign promises to tighten borders and make the United States safe from various kinds of supposedly malevolent intruders.

Donald Trump Speaks With Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office. Right to left: General Matt Flynn (seated), Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Senior Advisor Steve Bannon, Vice President Mike Pence (seated), Chief of Staff Reince Preibus. By Karl-Ludwig Poggemann. CC BY 2.0.

The order raises a number of broader questions about the new administration. Did the order include green card holders a) out of incompetence and an inability to distinguish among different categories of immigrants; b) in an effort to test the limits of their reach; or c) because they really thought that even green card holders – formally known as legal permanent residents — should actually be excluded? On this and other issues, it is difficult to sort out whether the highly inexperienced Trump team is clueless or, more worrisomely, perfectly aware of what it is doing and aiming to achieve the stated objectives with no concern for the effects. It is the process whereby the executive order was formulated (or lack thereof) that should really concern us; a number of the principals, especially Secretary of Homeland Security General John Kelly, appear to have been fully informed about the order only as it was being signed. This move fits a disturbing pattern: “Mr. Trump’s reliance on a close circle of advisers to write and vet executive orders while keeping departments that must implement them largely in the dark is without precedent.”[2] In short, what is really at stake in this executive order is the future of democracy in America.

Insofar as there is a division of labor between them, it is tempting to see Trump as the source of the incompetence and Bannon as the source of the extremism. As has been widely noted, Mr. Trump is a self-regarding windbag who lacks both the patience and the reflectiveness to concern himself with the details of policy. There is an emotional emptiness at his core that requires constant re-affirmation; hence he surrounds himself with beautiful women, loyalists, and his family in order to reassure himself of his importance, and he does not take criticism easily. (Just cue up those White House Correspondents’ Association dinners and watch him sitting stone-faced as Seth Meyers and Barack Obama make fun of him; some think the 2011 dinner provoked a desire for revenge that led to his 2016 run.) Ignorant of so much, “incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of decency,” as Philip Roth has put it[3], this may be because his father raised him to believe that the world is divided between “killers” and “losers” and then shipped him off to a discipline-rich military academy when he proved an unmanageable 12-year-old.[4] Against this background, Trump’s main preoccupation is with attention and, ideally, adulation; he reportedly longs for the approbation of cultural elites but is forced to settle for the crowds of ordinary people who cheer his simplistic nostrums about how he “alone” can “make America great again.”

No Muslim Ban 2,” Washington, DC USA, 2017.02.04. By Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Bannon, meanwhile, is an apocalyptic crusader who believes that we of the “Judeo-Christian West” are in the beginning stages of “a global war with Islamic fascism” and that we will at some point inevitably go to war with China. He sees the advance of secularism as having “sapped the strength” of the West to defend its ideals.[5] He has famously described himself as a “Leninist” who wants “to bring everything crashing down.”[6] Bannon, too, appears to be driven by Oedipal issues: his disenchantment with American society boiled over when his father, a telephone lineman without a college degree, was hurt by the economic collapse of 2008.[7] Under attack for coddling white supremacists as head of Breitbart News, he insisted that he was an “economic nationalist,” not a white nationalist, noting that “the globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia.”[8] Good evidence points to that conclusion;[9] the question is whether that requires tearing down the United States’ leadership role in the system of global economic and international affairs that has stabilized the world order since 1945. Trump and Bannon believe that it does, and it seems they will stop at nothing to make it happen.

To quote Philip Roth again, “What is most terrifying [about Trump] is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”[10] The future of American democracy and, indeed, the future of the world may be at stake; the executive order banning millions of Muslims from the United States is just the beginning. Figure out what you care about and prepare to defend it; we are in for a very rough time as long as Trump is in office.

screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-11-18-pmJohn Torpey is Presidential Professor of Sociology and History and Director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author or editor of eight books, including: The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (2000); Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices (2004); and, with Christian Joppke, Legal Integration of Islam: A Transatlantic Comparison (2013). He is on the editorial board of Theory and Society and the Journal of Human Rights, and edits a series for Temple University Press titled “Politics, History, and Social Change.”


[1] Scott Shane, “Immigration Ban is Unlikely to Reduce Terrorist Threat, Experts Say,” The New York Times, January 28, 2016;

[2] Gardiner Harris, “Approval, For the Most Part, for Tillerson,” The New York Times February 2, 2017;

[3] Judith Thurman, “Roth on Trump,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2017, p. 19.

[4] Daniel Burke, “The Guilt Free Gospel of Donald Trump,”, October 24, 2016;

[5] Scott Shane, “Stephen Bannon in 2014: A War with Radical Islam,” The New York Times February 2, 2017, p. A15.

[6] Ryan Lizza, “Steve Bannon Will Lead Trump’s White House,” The New Yorker November 14, 2016;

[7] Michael Barbaro and Michael M. Grynbaum, „Stephen Bannon, A Rookie Campaign Chief Who ‚Loves the Fight‘,“ New York Times, August 17, 2016;

[8] Gabrielle Levy, “Steve Bannon: ‘I’m Not a White Nationalist… I’m an Economic Nationalist’,” U.S. News and World Report 18 November 2016;

[9] See Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[10] Judith Thurman, “Roth on Trump,” The New Yorker, January 30, 2017, p. 19.

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