Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally. Most of us learned that mnemonic device at some point in our mathematical education. Calculations must be done in an appropriate succession to reflect distributive and associative properties. So, PEMDAS: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. Math has an order of operations.
So does political life. Certain policy spheres condition others. Some political decisions suggest or forestall others. Politics is the art of the possible, where necessity and fortune are wrestled with by prudence. It is itself conditioned by history, in the form of language and tradition, and nature, in the form of human beings and geography. As with the rules or principles of any game, the more thoroughly a statesman comprehends the limits of political choice the more freedom he actually has, able to act with confidence, avoiding obstacles.
The first step in the order of political operations is foreign policy and immigration. Just as parentheses are grouping symbols that indicate what is to be treated as a unit and what will interact with that unit, so too do immigration policy and foreign policy delimit the nation from the world, and bound the domestic sphere. No reformation or renaissance in political life here at home is possible without recognition of this fact. Just as ignoring parentheses in a mathematical calculation will produce a wrong answer, so too have 30 years of American policymakers ignoring borders both here and abroad in pursuit of global liberal empire resulted in harm to American citizens.
As we pray for a swift resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war so that there might be minimal loss of life, let us consider whether our leaders have learned anything from those long decades of schooling. No. The expansion of NATO ever eastward ignored the bounds of Russian influence and interest, seeking to divide Europe from Russia, nuclear exponents be damned. When the predictable happened, and Russia invaded Ukraine—while normal Americans have hoped for peace and wished Ukrainian citizens well—our leaders have seen the chance to punish the Russian people and weaken Vladimir Putin by protracting the conflict, turning Ukraine into a Syria or Afghanistan, treating dead Ukrainians as just a function of dead Russians. Never mind the domestic consequences of subtracting Russian resources out of order.
Senators who have talked big game about domestic reforms have shown themselves ignorant of this sort of basic math. An American foreign policy directed towards liberal hegemony conditions the political status quo. U.S. sanctions and flirtation with further material involvement in the Russia conflict continue that. You cannot give speeches in praise of industrial policy and the restoration of an economy transformed by globalism and then turn to work for the perpetuation of the global superstructure that created the conditions you bemoan. Politics being local and all that, the local politics of Washington, D.C., remains dominated by the military industrial complex warned of by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Foreign policy not only shapes the world; it is where the money is, the prestige is, the guns are, here at home. The miserable state of our union came into being in direct and indirect service to the maintenance of a Cold War apparatus grown fat on the self-licking ice cream cone of liberal internationalism. Our leaders should know they cannot change anything else without changing that. Explanations for why they don’t are contracting—either they’re dim, or they like things as they are.
Borders, specifically our borders, are the other parenthetical to all political calculations. How can we the American people decide to do anything as a nation if we do not know who we are? I do not just mean that America’s character is in question right now, that we seem in conflict with ourselves over what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean or what America is on the world stage—the reality most conditioned by foreign policy.
I mean also that we cannot know who we are if we do not know who is here. There are an estimated 46.6 million foreign-born persons in the United States today, legally and illegally, and probably more. They make up some 14.2 percent of the population now, the largest percentage since 1910, and more than black Americans. The privileges of citizenship are being inflated away. The flow is not stopping, rapidly approaching an 1890 peak. How can we assimilate these immigrants, and to what character will they be assimilated? There is no chance of citizens deliberating over that, as a self-governing republic, if the laws are not enforced and the tide is not stemmed.
Only when the American character abroad and at home is clarified, after we have stopped our foolish pretense to being an indispensable nation to the world while questioning the very concept of our nationhood here in our borders, can there be any coherence to our political goals. The order of operations must be respected, exponential growth and exponential risk seen and understood, and only then will the basics of domestic policy—the multiplication and division, addition and subtraction of infrastructure and social safety nets and cultural norms—be able to move from left to right.
Donald Trump won in 2016 because he knew the parentheses come first. His hold on American political life continues because no other figures of comparable stature see that immigration and foreign policy go together and condition all the rest. Until more elected officials understand this order of political operations, he and his voters will remain. Now as tensions rise with Russia and with China and Republicans fall eagerly back into the formations of 2012, those who do grasp the stakes must do their best to set down the problem clearly. We at The American Conservative are partnering with American Moment to conduct an emergency conference, “Up from Chaos: Conserving American Security,” to add to that effort. We’re starting with the parentheses.