A figure like US President Donald Trump often serves as a lightning rod, a pole around which a divided and vituperative political conversation arranges itself. In itself, the 5-4 decision by the US Supreme Court Tuesday upholding the Trump Administration’s executive order banning travellers from a select group of “Muslim countries” is a worrying development in the world’s oldest secular republic: It calls into question the current bench’s commitment to the US’s first amendment, which prohibits the state from practising any form of religious discrimination. But beyond the immediate legal ramifications, the decision is symptomatic of a wider trend, of which Trump’s election and politics is but a manifestation.
The conservative-majority bench upheld the executive order, seen as bigoted by large sections in the US as well as by many around the world, by citing the fact that US presidents have broad powers when it comes to making policy on matters of national security. But, as Justice Sonia Sotomayer, one of the four justices to rule against the ban, pointed out in her dissenting opinion, “It leaves undisturbed a policy first advertised openly and unequivocally as a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ because the policy now masquerades behind a façade of national-security concerns.” The fact, however, also is that the “Muslim travel ban” was one of the planks on which Trump campaigned. An insular approach has marked the current administration’s foreign policy, and the parochialism it represents is not a top-down imposition but rather a cleavage that is increasingly visible in the rise of the far-right across the world.
The travel ban on Muslims from certain countries is unlikely to address the US’s national security concerns. In fact, according to 55 officials, including former CIA directors, it will likely have the opposite effect. But the rationale behind it, as with all such political moves, is to appeal to the electoral base that voted Trump to power. In the same vein, the Trump Administration’s tariff war and the cycle of levies on imports and exports it has generated in countries including India, can only have a negative impact on the global economy of which the US has been a lynchpin since World War II. The decision on Tuesday showcases an important development the world must take note of: America, as an open society and economy, one that welcomes the flow of people and capital, is under siege. And the challenge doesn’t emanate merely from the man tweeting from the White House.