First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This poem was written by Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp for resisting the Nazis’ agenda. His words are immortalized on an engraving outside the U.S. Holocaust museum, warning against moral complacency when groups are demonized by the state. The key idea is that the first action of oppressive regimes is to carve away and persecute small, specific groups that the majority considers unsympathetic. Communists and homosexuals, for example, were among the first groups targeted by the Nazis. When no groundswell of outrage resulted, the Nazis were emboldened to broaden the groups they targeted. This ultimately resulted in the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. For Martin Niemoller, it meant that no one defended him when the intellectuals were liquidated by the Nazi regime.
A worthy thought experiment is to imagine how this could work in the United States. One would start with a group so obviously anti-social as to be indefensible by anyone except a principled defense attorney. The MS-13 gang, for instance, is well known for narcotics trafficking and extreme violence. Although it started in Los Angeles, it was exported to Central America, making it an easy villain for a demagogue to use. No one respectable will speak in defense of MS-13. Through rhetorical slight-of-hand, the genuine problem of how to contain MS-13 is conflated with a largely unrelated issue: illegal immigration and border control. Illegal immigrants are characterized as rapists, murderers, and thieves. Grudgingly, the demagogue may concede there are a few good people among these “animals”. The connection between MS-13 and illegal immigrants is entirely untethered to actual facts. Fewer than 1 in 1000 illegal immigrants are MS-13 members. On the whole, illegal immigrants are less likely to commit violent crime than natural born citizens. Nevertheless, they provide a conveniently voiceless enemy for the administration to attack while consolidating its popularity and power.
Most every comparison with Nazi Germany in American politics comes across as alarmism. This time the parallels are apt, as our President stocks his administration with avowed white supremacists, admires and studies Hitler’s speeches, and cannot bring himself to condemn a Nazi rally in Virginia that resulted in the death of an innocent woman.
Moreover, the paranoid style of our president should be familiar to anyone who’s familiar with the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In Trumpland, enemies of the state are everywhere. A partial list of those conspiring against the president include James Comey, Jeff Sessions, Rob Rosenstein, all Democrats, any Republican who voted for someone else, the FBI, the CIA, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the media in general, some undefined entity called “Deep State”, the United States District Court of Southern New York, “leakers” within his administration, and the other six G7 countries. His allegations that the 2016 election was “rigged” against him are obviously incorrect in hindsight. Like “Spygate”, we’re still waiting for him to acknowledge that this “scandal” was a dud. One is tempted to ascribe his predilection for conspiracy theories as psychological projection.
In any case, there’s only a small step between believing illegal immigrants are a dangerous threat to America, and believing that legal immigration is also undesirable. It’s built on the same paranoia that “foreign” and “enemy” are synonymous. The way this rhetorical pivot starts, as always, is to find some voiceless group that is easily turned into a villain. As it turns out, there’s no more powerless group than Chinese graduate students.
The Trump administration is launching new restrictions on the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in technology and engineering. It’s intended to focus on areas of technological competition, but there is no obvious limiting principle in the text of the administration’s new rules. In my personal experience, Chinese graduate students must submit to extraordinary bureaucratic hurdles just to return home to visit their families. The net effect of these additional immigration burdens will be to delay or even prohibit travel between the U.S. and China. Science requires free movement of people and ideas. This policy is exactly opposite what researchers need to make discoveries.
What’s more, it’s entirely incapable of limiting the actual threat of technological espionage. There has been no evidence presented linking Chinese graduate students to the theft of American trade secrets; this is a policy divorced from reality. In the real world, the Chinese firm Sinovel has stolen U.S. secrets. The bipartisan consensus of Congress was that they should be banned from U.S. markets; instead, the Trump administration gave them a fine and a slap on the wrist. One concludes that protecting U.S. intellectual property is only the nominal justification for singling out Chinese PhD students for undue scrutiny. The messages received by Chinese students is that (1) we consider them to be potential spies and thieves, (2) they do not contribute to America, but rather take from it, and (3) China is unworthy of advanced technology. All three messages are exactly the opposite of what we should be saying. In point of fact, America’s dominance of science and technology fields owes a great debt to Chinese immigrants, and it’s been to the benefit of everyone that the U.S. is the premier location to train as a scientist. This policy amounts to collective punishment of Chinese students without due process or documentary evidence. As a result, the best students will elect to do their PhD work with our competitors in China, Japan, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and the UK. But, advancing U.S. science has never been this administration’s priority.
Despite the president’s ghostwritten bluster about being a master negotiator, the Chinese press largely characterizes Trump as a vulgar, under-prepared fool, who can easily be manipulated to serve China’s interests. This makes intuitive sense, especially considering that China has recently surpassed the US in research spending. Indeed, one wonders how ceding scientific leadership to China makes America great again. It puzzles me, however, that the Chinese-American community is less than unanimous in their reprobation of Trump’s attacks on Chinese immigrants. I hope that we as Americans don’t make the same mistake that the German intellectuals did in assuming that the State’s attacks on other groups don’t matter until they come for us.
Are we on our way to an American holocaust? Almost certainly not; in any case, it’s beyond my imagination. Trump is too old, and America’s civic virtues are too established to be undone by a single administration. That the question can be asked, however, is sobering. The long-term trend is worrisome, and his nitwit sons will probably try to continue these perverse convulsions in some future election. But, I still believe in the essential goodness of Americans. I don’t think we’re capable of indefinitely tolerating a president who attacks Gold Star parents, crippled journalists, and gentle Canada. Recall the popular acclaim when Welch checked McCarthy with the unanswerable question: “at long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Our government was designed to defend individual liberties against encroaching state powers, and we have successfully weathered any number of morally bankrupt presidencies. The genius of the Constitution is that it restricts the ability of “Great Men” to wreck havoc. I’d be relieved if we wake up from this bad dream before we completely lose our advantage in science and technology. Training Chinese scientists in America is good for everyone. If the U.S. is a hostile environment to the most talented scientists and engineers in the world, they will inevitably find somewhere more welcoming to work.