Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Old Nonsense in a New Wrapper

Monday saw the latest in what will no doubt, by November, be an extraordinarily long and elaborate chain of attempts to repackage the candidacy of Donald Trump. Trump delivered a speech in Youngstown, Ohio dedicated to foreign affairs and national security. There are many points of inaccuracy or logical weakness that one might highlight in this address, but the one that interested me most was the passage in which he asserted:

In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles – or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law. Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into the country.

This is ostensibly an attempt to recast Trump's earlier call for a total ban on all Muslim immigration or travel to the United States into more "reasonable" terms. Rather than proposing a religious test which would be in flagrant violation of the First Amendment, Trump is now calling for an "ideological test" along the lines of what was done during the Cold War in search of communist spies and saboteurs. While this does minimally sanitize Trump's rhetoric in semantic terms, the practical logic of his proposal of course remains very troubling. The parameters of this "ideology" that Trump would screen for are so vague as to invite monstrous abuse. Would, for example, a devout Muslim who feels Sharia law is more personally binding on her than any civil law (as many orthodox Jews feel about halacha or as many Catholics feel about Church canon law) fail this ideological screening test? There is no real way to know, if one follows the strict wording of Trump's pronouncement. He has left open the possibility that, in the enforcement of his policy, the Venn diagram showing the overlap between world Muslims and "Radical Islamic ideologues" might form a single, coterminous circle.

Beyond these gimmicks of fuzzy logic, the latest Trump "reboot" is offensive for being such a transparent con. By railing against the "ideology of Radical Islam" Trump has switched his key from overt prejudice to dog-whistle broadcasts aimed at the same constituency of bigots. Any cursory examination of the web will find that there is a cottage industry of books, journals, and websites dedicated to spreading the "truth" that Islam is not a religion at all, but a "political ideology bent on world domination" (Google the phrase in quotes if you doubt my word). Thus in posing his "ideological test" Trump is performing the same kind of evasive postmodern wink as was entailed by his shout out to "Second Amendment people," his ramblings about President Obama's birthplace, and so much of what he has contributed to political discourse during his life in the public spotlight.

Trump has pulled such a thin veil over his bigotry that few people outside the US, Muslims least of all, will be taken in by it. Even if it were in any way persuasive, his new rhetoric can not wipe clean the monstrosity of his prior call for a total ban on Muslim immigration and travel. In the same way that no African-American, Catholic, or Jewish citizen could ever trust David Duke (or anyone who supports him), no matter how much he repudiates his past, no Muslim anywhere, "radical" or otherwise, will ever be able to trust that Trump's words or deeds are undertaken in good faith. His first call for a ban should have totally and permanently disqualified Trump from elective office here in the U.S., much less from the presidency of our constitutional Republic. The fact that so many elected officials and commentators have failed to acknowledge that fact is deeply distressing.

This is more than an abstract problem, moreover. In practical terms, the election of Donald Trump, given his logic and rhetoric, will cripple the United States in the struggle against groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. Because these latter groups are so malignant, it is very difficult for them to draw support from the world's Muslim communities. However, precisely because their only goal is wanton destruction, they only need to attract a very few frightened or deranged people from the world's 1.6 billion Muslims in order to continue their program of mayhem. A figure like Donald Trump, who ratchets up the climate of fear and threat experienced by Islamic society worldwide, plays perfectly into the plans of violent jihadists. It is thus not merely for the sake of abstract principle, but for that of the hardscrabble, nuts-and-bolts task of defeating America's enemies, that we must hope voters see not only through this con game, but also the others that Trump will continue to unpack between now and November.

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