Is it after all better to remain silent and be thought a fascist than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt? The brief consensus Tuesday morning appeared to be that this was so. However bizarre and disturbing may have been Donald Trump's persistent refusal to make clear exactly whether he would or would not violate wholesale the civil rights of all Muslim Americans upon his election, the uproar across the public sphere was understandably much greater when, late Monday, he declared that as president he would ban all Muslim people from entering the country. It was almost immediately agreed across left and right that such remarks were too savagely bigoted to stand. Even Republican politicos were now calling Trump a "fascist." Somehow, the view took hold that this was the end of Trump's campaign and with it of an ugly-- but already in retrospect so brief and ill-fated as to appear comical-- episode of American perversity.
Unless, that is, it isn't. You have felt the doubts as well. After all, will a GOP electorate that has gotten used to the rhetoric of this election season so far really be that much more shocked by Trump's latest obscenity?
I see that I am not the only one this morning who feels that the GOP is playing a bit too much the innocent in now closing ranks against Trump (however salutary it may be to find that there was some rhetorical line he could cross that would trigger this reaction). After all, Trump is reaping from ground already prepared by two decades of anti-Muslim stereotypes in the media and political discourse -- and more recently by the astonishing moral cowardice displayed by virtually every major Republican politician, and some Democrats, during the anti-refugee panic that swept the nation after the Paris attacks. It may be the case that Jeb Bush and even Ted Cruz understand the legal distinction between Trump's unconstitutional "ban" on all Muslims entering the country and their own merely craven and immoral call to exclude Muslim refugees from the resettlement program, but does the typical Trump-supporting GOP primary voter understand it? Does he care if he does? I doubt very much that people who weren't already shocked by Ted Cruz describing the admission of "Syrian Muslims" through the U.S. refugee program as "lunacy" or Ben Carson comparing refugees to mad dogs will be so much more perturbed by Trump's placing all Muslims under the ban. Why should we think this will change the calculus of the election when such earlier episodes of shameless fear-mongering didn't turn anyone away?
Cruz and Carson may have been at the fire-breathing end of the wave of anti-refugee scapegoating, meanwhile, but not a single other major Republican to my knowledge, not even the "moderates," has spoken up to defend the refugee program as it has existed since 1980. Even Lindsey Graham, who sponsored bipartisan legislation earlier this fall to expand funding for resettlement and called on the U.S. to take in a greater share of Syrian refugees, backpedaled cravenly in the week after the Paris attacks. Previously, Graham had been the politician you could point to as the morally consistent Neocon, the one who at least thought the U.S. ought to take in the victims of Assad and ISIS, if he also thought it was a good idea to engage in an escalating war with such actors. But when it really counted, he fell into line with all the others, saying we need a "timeout" on resettlement until supposed security concerns could be addressed.
John Kasich -- you remember him, the not-so-scary Republican contender -- parroted the same ridiculous narrative that we needed to halt all admissions until Obama had provided details on security screening procedures, as if there were some great secret about the mechanics of the modest federal resettlement program that has been around since the Boat People crisis of the 1980s. (Others have recycled the related absurdity that the president is "unilaterally" admitting Syrian refugees. A passing acquaintance with the Refugee Act reveals of course that the president and State Department have always had responsibility for determining admissions.) As Governor of Ohio, Kasich has endorsed the words of his own state legislature in petitioning the White House to halt resettlement.
Graham and Kasich both know better -- especially the former. There is not the slightest chance that Graham genuinely did not understand the security vetting process involved in refugee admissions, when he had coauthored legislation the previous month to expand the same program. It was clear from the interview I heard with Graham on NPR that he was not particularly pleased with himself for joining the anti-refugee chorus, and wished to change the subject, but apparently the extent of the panic had cowed him into acquiescence. Such qualms and signs of better judgment make it all the more shameful that he has repeated harmful myths.
Oh yes, and Rand Paul too-- once the darling of the vaguely libertarian and anti-interventionist Left -- remember all those articles trumpeting his stance on criminal justice reform, etc.? He was the if-you-have-to-be-a-Republican-you'd-better-be-that-one kind of Republican. Well, his response to the refugee issue post-Paris ought to have reminded everyone on the anti-militarist Left that in truth they have little in common -- not at least in the matters of heart that really count -- with the isolationist Right that Paul represents. The two tendencies may briefly intersect with one another over the issue of military intervention, but they are traveling in entirely different moral directions. Paul's proposed "SECURE Act" is not really so different in underlying spirit from Trump's "ban," focusing as it does on suspending visas from Muslim-majority countries. Both actions, both men have assured us, would be "only temporary."
At the state level, meanwhile, several Republican governors are actually practicing unconstitutional discrimination against refugees themselves. Indiana's Mike Pence has directed state agencies to refuse resettlement support to any Syrian directed to the state by federal authorities (and only to Syrians)-- which is of course in direct violation of the equal protection clause of the Constitution and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Voluntary agencies that contract with the state to assist refugees courageously pressed ahead with resettlement anyways, and Pence cannot stop them without facing what he no doubt realizes would be a decisive legal challenge.
Such actions and rhetoric have served to roll together fears about the refugee program, terrorism, and some vague specter of "Muslims coming into the country" into a single toxic package -- as well as to render permissible in right-wing circles at the state-level the literal application of discriminatory policies to refugees on the basis of religion and nationality. Trump has merely exploited this opening provided to him by others to his utmost power. More mainstream Republicans should not be surprised, therefore, if Trump actually gains in the polls, or at least maintains his position, for making a statement that merely formalizes and totalizes a deadly conflation that they helped to plant in many people's minds.
As if to confirm it, there was that Bloomberg poll out yesterday showing that two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters were in favor of Trump's remarks on the "ban." I don't know nearly enough about the statistician's art to say if this number is reliable, or just the sort of unscientific headline-bait that will look alarmist a couple weeks from now; but if this is even close to true we have reason to worry. We must keep in mind that Trump has not so far miscalculated the lowest common denominator he can reach, nor has he lost any of his supporters by antagonizing the rest of the Republican Party. One of the many surprising things we've learned from this campaign season is that apparently there is, or has long been, a slumbering contingent of GOP primary voters that actually wanted to see someone poke his finger in the eye of Fox News, and the Tea Party, and all the other gatekeepers on the right whom we used to think served as direct conduits to white resentment but who, it is now clear, have provided an almost respectable scaffolding, by comparison, over the raging undercurrents. The genie is out of the bottle now.
I remember even as recently as the beginning of last summer joking with friends about what a dull election 2016 was going to be. After eight years of relatively interesting and heavily ideological politics, it looked as if we would be back to a gentleman's fight between two scions of established political dynasties -- Bush vs. Clinton, with the feeling that reigned in most of the country for the last half-century that the outcome one way or the other did not particularly matter.
Now that America is having its "Little Man, Listen!" moment, however, this doesn't sound so bad. The electorate has spoken, and it prefers not to have the patrician duel we were all forecasting. Now comes the reign of the tinpot dictators. Trump is of course the modern exemplar of the style, but his success has fed on a contagion which has deeper roots, and has also provided forward momentum to his opponents in the primaries. Ted Cruz for one has been ginning up the posse right alongside Trump from the very beginning-- scapegoating immigrants over the Kate Steinle murder, saying that the real reason the U.S. has not yet defeated ISIS is that it is too cautious in avoiding civilian casualties, and now declaring that he would "carpet bomb" IS-held territory to see "if sand can glow in the dark." I take that to be a call for mass extermination, complete with the snickering denigration of the entire class of humanity who are being placed in the cross-hairs (I think the "sand" thing was meant to be a big laugh-line). Nor is the phenomenon limited to the U.S. The Front National in France won a handy majority in the regional elections last week, winning numbers not approached since 2002 -- the last time there were similar levels of international fear about terrorism.
I can only begin to guess at how it would feel to be a Muslim person in this country when popular contenders for the presidency throw around proposals for massive bombing raids in Muslim countries that make no distinction between civilians or combatants, or casually toy with the "option" of registering all Muslims in a database, or declare forthrightly that all Muslim arrivals will be "banned" from the country. I imagine what would frighten me most, though-- since this is what does in fact frighten me most -- is the way this monstrous rhetoric just keeps feeding on itself. It's becoming impossible to say what will be left safe and sacred at the end of it.
An example. I remember that soon after the Paris attacks, I was on a group call at work with people who represented various refugee- and immigrant rights advocacy organizations. At that point, the anti-refugee backlash was just getting going, and the talking point that many of us were recycling (myself included) to try to defend the resettlement program was to emphasize how completely thorough its security measures already were, how long its vetting process usually took, and how different it was in this respect from other means of entering the country legally -- crossing the border and claiming asylum, applying for student or tourist visas, etc. We thought this was the right thing to say at the time, but one colleague on the call gave us a salutary warning. Don't make too much of the fact that refugees are vetted and "hand-picked," she said -- because the visa program, asylum seekers, students and tourists might all be next. It seemed implausibly alarmist to me then.
But sure enough, Rand Paul has called for a temporary suspension of the visa program from "terrorist-producing" countries. And Trump is cutting to the heart of what such demands from the other Republicans are really about -- namely, excluding Muslims from our borders. It's gone this far, further than what most of us thought possible only a couple weeks ago, at the time of that group call, and no one could be blamed for fearing that it might go a lot further. All I can do is tender a prayer from Louis MacNeice:
"O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me."