Trump Isn’t the Problem; He’s the Symptom

On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump announced a plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, sending shockwaves through the political universe. The plan drew condemnation from most of the chattering class and his fellow candidates, though undoubtedly, many of his supporters were on board with the thrust of the plan, even though Trump suggested even American citizens, who happen to be Muslim, will be banned from re-entering the country. To be frank, this plan is abhorrent and repulsive to our constitutional ideals and merits unequivocal rejection. It is now easy to cast Trump as a problem (and for the GOP’s electoral chances in 2016, I would argue everyday he dominates the news cycle is problematic), but in reality, Trump is merely the symptom and not the problem itself.

Focusing on the plan first, it manages a perfect trifecta: unconstitutional, irrational, and unworkable. Working backwards, it is unworkable because it is absolutely impractical to know for certain whether or not a foreigner, seeking to enter the country as a tourist, is a Muslim. Are we going to ask for religious documentation? How do we know that a Radical Islamic terrorist isn’t merely pretending to be a Christian? Proving a negative (ie that one is not secretly a Muslim) is a dead end. Immigration would ground to a total halt. Plus in many of the most dangerous places, verification is an impossibility, hence the House plan to temporarily pause the Syrian refugee program.

It is also irrational because it misplaces the threat. Do we feel better about a businessman from Vancouver, who happens to be Muslim, visiting family in Seattle or a self-declared non-Muslim from Raqqa, Syria coming to the country? Under the religion-only test, the Syrian gets through and Canadian gets blocked. Does that seem rational? Clearly, radical Islam is a serious problem, but not all of Islam is. Any ban should focus on specific countries not religions.

Trump understands that Americans are scared, and he is right that we need to button-up our immigration policies; he just does so in an ineffective way. The fact is the threat to this country comes from ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya or al-Qaeda controlled territory in Yemen and Afghanistan as well as portions of North Africa (or from Westerners who travelled and were trained in these places). The rational policy is tighten policies for all people, who either live in or have visited those countries, irrespective of their faith. That means suspending the refugee program until verification concerns noted by Obama’s FBI Director James Comey and others have been rectified. It also means altering our visa waiver program (the bipartisan Feinstein-Flake bill is a very good start) whereby a French citizen can go to Syria, develop skills to launch an attack, go back to France, and then come to the US without a visa to launch an attack here. Anyone visiting a hotbed of Islamic terror should be required to get a visa, irrespective of what country they are from and what their faith is. These policies would do far more to keep the bad guys out while avoiding the clear moral issues of blindly banning all Muslims.

Where the Trump plan totally goes off the rails is its treatment of US citizens who happen to be Muslim. Entering the country is a clear, fundamental right that Trump is depriving based on one’s religion without any probable cause. That is a blatant violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Attacking people for their faith is the domain of the left, as evidenced by their attacks on the Sisters of the Poor and Christian florists. Trump also suggested “closing” parts of the internet up. To those who would protest about freedom of speech in the first amendment, he would call them “foolish people.”

It is easy to defend constitutional rights during tranquil times, but the true mettle of one’s commitment to our ideals and freedoms shows during dire times. Trump is flunking that test, promising to shred the rights of Muslim citizens, functionally blockading them from leaving and banning them from returning, in the name of protection. Again, I ask are you more concerned about a Muslim American spending a weekend in Toronto or a detached young male who is a non-Muslim American (unaffiliated with an aid group for argument’s sake) in Syria. Freedom of religion is the quintessential American right, and we as conservatives have fought hard to protect it. To quote President Ronald Reagan from 1984: “government should not make it more difficult for Christians, Jews, Muslims, or other believing people to practice their faith.” Trump would do exactly that, and that is deplorable.

It is the nature of mankind to trade some freedoms for the hopes of safety, a natural proclivity Trump is playing to. Charlatans in the past like Senator Joe McCarthy fed off this fear. Democrats are currently using this fear in an effort to strip due process rights away from some looking to buy guns. A low point in this nation’s history was the internment of Japanese citizens where our fear led us to strip fellow citizens of their rights just because of who they were. Tragically, the Supreme Court upheld this policy in Korematsu v. US. I would point you to Justice Frank Murphy’s powerful dissent, in which he declared (emphasis my own), “But to infer that examples of individual disloyalty prove group disloyalty and justify discriminatory action against the entire group is to deny that, under our system of law, individual guilt is the sole basis for deprivation of rights. Moreover, this inference, which is at the very heart of the evacuation orders, has been used in support of the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.”

America does not stoop to the level of our adversaries to beat them; our constitutional ideals are meaningless if we are so fickle and weak-kneed. We punish those who themselves commit wrong, not just belong to a certain group. We mustn’t repeat the tragedies of the past, by stripping rights in the supposed effort to protect ourselves. The inclination can be strong, but we must rise above it and keep our dignity for in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” We must stand united against this irrational, ineffectual, and unconstitutional policy.

Republicans and conservatives need to stand up to Trump’s divisive rhetoric. We have worked hard for years to make clear we are at war with Radical Islam but not all of Islam; in fact, we need moderate Muslim leaders themselves to stand against radicals. Trump’s plan lumps in all Muslims, threatening to undo this work. It also makes it easier for Democrats, hobbled by slavish political correctness, to avoid the term Radical Islam. Some on the left will also undoubtedly use the Trump plan to marginalize other GOP plans on refugees (like the House bill) as racist and not as the much needed reform they are.

After clearly going past the line (if he hadn’t already), it is now easy to dismiss Trump as the problem whereas he is really the symptom of a bigger problem. An increasing portion of the American public, particularly the working class, feels disenfranchised. The whole public is scared; prior to the San Bernardino terror attack, only 33% of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of ISIS, and only 38% approved of his handling of terrorism (from CNN-ORC). Obama’s consistent dismissal of ISIS has perhaps irreversibly damaged his credibility on national security. Trump’s tough talk is reassuring, even if the underlying policies aren’t feasible.

By the same token, the Republican Party has been an abject failure when it comes to explaining how its policies will help the working class, perhaps because much of its donors are corporatist Wall Streeters. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost voters whose top issue was having a President “who cares about people like me” by a stunning 81-18% margin. He never articulated how his policies would help ordinary, working Americans. At this point, no serious Republican Presidential contender, apart from Trump, have made a serious stride in this area (though Rubio has been trying harder than others, and hopefully, Paul Ryan will be a thought leader in this area). Perhaps recognizing this country has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs in 20 years, hurting millions of Americans, Trump has pledged to go after China and Mexico. Will these policies work? Not necessarily, but he at least provides the illusion of caring.

For many Americans, the past 20 years have been hard. While Clinton oversaw an economic expansion, manufacturing sputtered in his second term and his foreign policy left us less safe. While Bush’s ability to keep us safe after 9/11 is a tremendous accomplishment, his economic policy is mixed and he is not blameless for the financial crisis. Under Obama, our record has been tepid with inequality worsening while his dithering in the Middle East has left us more unsafe. The establishment and mainstream political parties have failed many Americans, and it is no wonder they have looked elsewhere, to someone out of the political class addressing their security and economic concerns, Donald Trump.

That is why the efforts to marginalize Trump based on his egregious rhetoric have failed spectacularly. The establishment is pointing out to voters what the establishment doesn’t like, but these voters have lost faith in the establishment because it has failed to deliver for them. The only way to attack Trump is to effectively argue he, one of the world’s greatest marketers, is selling a false bill of goods and won’t deliver. Someone must also step up and detail an economic vision that re-enfranchises a middle and working class that has been left behind.

Until then, we are destined to hear this self-aggrandizing candidate offer more unserious if not offensive plans while his poll numbers likely stay high. Trump’s anti-Muslim ban runs counter to the values we espouse and would be a dangerous degradation of constitutional rights. This has to be the impetus for other candidates to actually offer plans that will bring the middle and working classes into the fold. Unless someone else offers a compelling vision to these voters, the Trump phenomenon isn’t going away, no matter what he says.