Thousands attend an afternoon rally in lower Manhattan to protest...

Thousands attend an afternoon rally in lower Manhattan to protest President Donald Trump's new immigration policies last month.  Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting” order on refugees is his most controversial act in his three weeks in office. But his decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was more important. Yet the first order stoked a panic, while the second received limited attention in comparison.

In the long run, the refugee order doesn’t seem a big deal. It’s a 90-day pause for seven nations — war-torn, governed by state sponsors of terror, or lacking a U.S. diplomatic presence. And it’s an indefinite pause for Syria, coupled with an intention to take 50,000 refugees annually when the pause ends.

The way the order was rolled out and implemented was careless at best, and slapdash at worst. The administration appears to have failed to think through the complications, from dual-nationals to what would happen to people in route to the United States.

Anyone who criticizes the order on those grounds has my sympathy. Presidents don’t get mulligans on executive orders. And we’ll have to see what the courts say. But the panic stoked by opponents of the order is wildly disproportionate.

It is not a Muslim ban: it doesn’t touch Saudi Arabia, for example. It prioritizes protecting oppressed religious minorities: that is long-standing U.S. policy. It’s a reasonable measure that was poorly thought through and badly rolled out.

But in a few months, it is poised to be history (though the over-reaction to it will linger damagingly). And then, and long after that, the United States will still be out of the TPP, an 11-nation trade agreement from which Trump withdrew on Jan. 23.

To be fair, Trump was following through on a promise that he made in November. And TPP is not make or break for the U.S. economy: the U.S. International Trade Commission found it’s worth about $57 billion in growth after 15 years.

But TPP wasn’t just about trade. It was about containing China. Without TPP, other Pacific nations risk being pulled into China’s orbit. And that could cost us a lot in trade, and even in security, down the road.

Yes, the benefits of TPP are unknowable, and the agreement was far from perfect. But TPP was a big deal, and now that the United States is out of the agreement, it’s unlikely to get back in. Yet Trump’s decision drew only limited coverage compared to the refugee firestorm.

One obvious reason for this is that many liberals hate Trump, and recognize that they can’t damage him by complaining about a trade deal that many of them also dislike and which isn’t popular with the wider public. But the refugee order also hit another, more revealing, nerve.

Many liberals have shown near-zero interest in helping the millions of Syrian people in Syria, as shown by former President Barack Obama’s AWOL red line. But a lot of them care a ton about not appearing to be prejudiced, and hence about our drop in the bucket refugee admissions.

And that’s what this is about: appearances. It’s the foreign policy of multiculturalism.

The liberal attitude to illegal immigration illustrates what’s happened. As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found last fall, Democratic opposition to illegal immigration has collapsed since the early 2000s.

But the left hasn’t shifted to actually caring. It’s shifted to not wanting to do anything that makes it look like it doesn’t care.

Actually caring about the welfare of others would mean, among other things, defending free trade — because that helps people in other countries (and the United States) get richer, which reduces their desire to come here. But many liberals would rather take the multicultural road. It makes you look nice.

My liberal Capitol Hill neighborhood is full of signs bearing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quotations, such as “I have decided to stick to love.” How fitting. It’s all about you, and signaling your own virtue. And refugees are a fantastic virtue signaling device. Trade deals, unfortunately, are not.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Thatcher Center for Freedom.