The Anthropology of Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

Ever since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas on risk back in 1992, anthropologists have understood that there is a difference between what is actually dangerous and what people think is dangerous. Scientists can measure the probability of you being struck by a bolt of lightning or getting hit by a car. But our fears are not based on extensive scientific study, nor are they the results of our own idiosyncratic psychology. They are shaped by the culture we live in and the history we’ve collectively experienced. The sad thing, anthropologically, about Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration is that it does not make Americans safer, just makes some Americans feel safer. The tragic thing about the order is that forces others to suffer for the sake of our own false sense of security.

The ostensible reason for the executive order is to keep Americans safe from terrorism by keeping “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the United States. But there is no evidence that the  order will achieve this goal. It would not have protected Americans from the 9/11 attacks, which were carried out by people from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Egypt. It would not have stopped the San Bernardino shootings, which were carried out by a US citizen and his Pakistani-born wife. It would not have protected the victims of the Pulse night club shootings from Omar Mateen, an American citizen with parents from Afghanistan. It would not have protected our children in Sandy Hook from Adam Lanza. It would not have protected parishioners in Charleston from Dylan Roof.

This is not the first time that airport security has been driven by a perception of danger rather than a sober assessment of risk. Back in December Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the TSA, posted an Op Ed describing the security vulnerabilities of the TSA Precheck program, and suggested several ways to tighten security in the program. But, as security expert Bruce Schneier has pointed out, if the PreCheck program has been in place for over a decade and no terrorist has used it for a terrorist attack, shouldn’t we conclude that there are relatively few terrorists, and we’d be fine with less security, not more — or, at the very least, cheaper, smarter, and less burdensome security?

Clearly, Trump’s executive order does not make Americans safer. In fact, it may make us less safe. The Washington Posts reports that Jihadists groups are celebrating Trump’s order because it will throw moderate Muslims into the arms of extremists. But — and this is the thing — it makes some of us feel safer. Consider Renn (sp?) Brewster, quoted in a recent report from the BBC:

“This rule that President Trump passed, he did this to protect American citizens. The source of this is all the killing and the terrorist attacks on our countries that are causing these bans. We don’t seem to hear any thing about why we are doing this. We didn’t just decide to do these bans on travel for these seven nations that have a history of sending terrorists to different Western countries. There’s a reason why we’re doing this. Let’s stop the killing. Let’s stop the terror attacks. Then people can travel freely like we used to.”

There’s little in Brewster’s statement I can agree with. Trump’s executive order does not halt immigration to other Western countries, and will not make them safer. There is no extensive history of Iraq or Iran or any of the other five countries on Trump’s list sending terrorists to the United States. Why, then, do people like Renn Brewster believe this?

In fairness, it could be because they know something I don’t — I’m not omnipotent and could be wrong. I’m willing to be convinced I’ve got it wrong. But until that happens, it seems more likely to me that Trump supporters simply have the facts wrong. Remember, this is a country where many people couldn’t tell the difference between Chechnya and the Czech Republic when two Chechens bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013. Clearly, we need more and better social science in school — and probably to read the news that shows up in our social media feeds a little more carefully.

But people believe that Trump’s order makes them safe not only because they lack a few key facts, but because of the coherent ‘webs of belief’ (as Geertz once put it) that connects all of the facts together. Culture is not an isolated bunch of facts. It’s a coherent and consistent pattern, structure, assemblage, or what have you. People who support Trump are not irrational. They have a cultural rationality. I personally think it is inaccurate.  The point is that changing minds requires engagement with real people and the entirety of their belief system, not scorn or derision or simple fact checking. Educating people about the dangers facing this country means altering the entire world view which people operate with, of which isolated facts are only a part. It also means realizing that we ourselves come from a culture with its own beliefs, and to recognize that there may be times when we could get it wrong ourselves.

Finally, it also requires understanding the emotional stakes people have in beliefs about terrorism. Anthropologists like Mary Douglas and Simon Harrison have pointed out that fear of strangers are rooted in concerns that the body politic might be polluted by external sources of danger. Anthropologists used to have a little cottage industry explicating the cultural logic of these beliefs and their emotional power. Today, however, we have been put out of work by ‘alt white’ white supremacists, whose racist ideology makes explicit the logic of purity and boundedness that was once unconscious.

There is a lot more to say about Trump’s executive order — that it was poorly executed, cynically designed for political gain, and cultivates a public atmosphere of ignorance and fear in order to make our democracy more pliable and subject to tyranny. American anthropologists can and should push back against the order, which is opposed to both our interests and our values. But most of all, we need to use the findings and methods of anthropology to understand the difference between what must be done and what will make us feel good. Only then will we have the ability to make hard decisions well, and be able to engage with our fellow citizens to convince them that we have far less to fear than Donald Trump wants us to think.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

2 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration

  1. Yes, Trumpism all about building a “high group, low grid” social environment in Douglas’s terms, which is why risk is constructed as a danger coming from the outside, rather than a danger that results from breaking a taboo that regulates behaviour. (You could contrast this with the virtue politics of the Democrats, which are very focused on regulating behavior in various ways. Similarly, ‘nature’ is robust within limits in the Trumpist worldview: there will be no recourse to fragile nature in order to coerce the sacrifice of private interest in respect of the public good = ‘global warming is a myth the Chinese made up.’) There are very few symbols as evocative of a ‘high group’ social sensibility as is “The Wall.” Moving outside the US context, you could say that various polities are retreating from the norms and forms of hierarchical encompassment and integration characteristic of the (still emergent) liberal, democratic, global order.

  2. This is an insightful analysis, very understandable and should be read by a broad audience, I would hope. So thanks. I recently engaged in the kind of conversation you mention above with a fearful neighbor, on facebook, and found that he was deeply concerned about so-called Muslim “no-go zones” where Sharia Law supercedes the state, in the UK and France. Apparently there’s this fear that these zones will also emerge in the US, or already have in places like Dearborn, Michigan, and that these zones will be breeding grounds for terrorists. So, perhaps that’s another of the cultural fears to add to your list. See:

Leave a Reply