What a strange place our nation has come to when a candidate for president representing a major party, in a major policy speech, calls for “ideological certification” of immigrants.
If ever a candidate deserved “extreme vetting,” it’s Donald Trump. There are few policy proposals I can think of that are more un-American — a term that any defender of civil liberties must use advisedly — than the ones he made this week in a speech in Phoenix on immigration.
The image of America he conjured in Phoenix is as terrifying as it is untrue. It’s a country where “sanctuary cities” shelter undocumented immigrant killers who prey on defenseless citizens. Where the government invites dubious refugees from terrorist hotbeds without vetting them. Where the president has attempted to impose an illegal amnesty for undocumented immigrants and refuses to execute immigration law.
To Trump, these are not mere executive failings; they are acts of betrayal. The rage with which he delivered his message on immigration is informed by the old stab-in-the-back fantasy so beloved by fascists of yore. President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are subverting America, and they are using immigrants to do it.
This narrative works hand in glove with Trump’s racial scapegoating. Places where blacks and Latinos live, to him, are lawless hellscapes where predatory criminals breed, prey and hide. It’s not enough to point to crime rates, which are rising in some places while remaining well below historical peaks, or to point out that minority communities are disproportionately the victims of violent crime. No, Trump must present immigrant criminals as direct threats to white America.
So in Phoenix, he paraded parents who lost their children to God-awful acts of violence (or mere car wrecks) in which the culprit was an illegal immigrant. He twisted the natural sympathy any decent person would feel for these grieving people into an indictment of every immigrant — legal, illegal or yet to come to our shores. All wound up complicit before Trump paused to catch a breath.
The speech was grotesque. Though his handlers gave Trump new terms to sprinkle in — “detainers,” “removal,” “biometrics” — to add a veneer of gravitas, the point was not to explain policy. It was to inflame hatred.
There is a policy story to be told, and when Trump tries to tell it he is compelled to lie. He has to pretend that immigrants are not being deported in record numbers and that much of immigration law and policy is already focused on deporting those with records of violent crime. He has to ignore the vetting process already in place for those seeking refuge in the United States, which is thorough and rigorous, taking up to two years to complete.
Much of the 10-point immigration plan Trump presented is simple white nativism. For example, he signaled a break with recent Republican Party tradition by calling for even legal immigration to be severely curtailed, as well.
As a Los Angeles Times report put it, “The shift he advocates would greatly reduce immigration overall and move the U.S. from an immigration philosophy of allowing strivers from around the world to take advantage of American opportunities to one focused on bringing in people who already have money and job skills.”
Left unsaid was who will get to decide on an immigrant’s suitability, and according to what criteria, but it’s hardly a mystery. “It’s our right as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us,” Trump said.
Perfect. A man driven by an insatiable desire to be worshipped and feared will also set the standard for ideological correctness.
How a major party of this great nation nominated a person so unfit for the presidency, so pernicious, needs to be thoroughly understood before it’s too late.
That a broad swath of Americans has embraced his unapologetic racism is not surprising. And that others might be dragged along by Trump’s fear mongering — in a time of stagnant wages, gutted pensions, terrorism and chaos spreading around the world — makes a certain sense.
What should deeply trouble us is that a major political party was powerless to stop him, and that the free press, a cornerstone of American democracy, shrank for so long from calling his racism and dangerous authoritarian tendencies what they are.
Trump has maligned the spirit in which our republic was founded: that it should be a safe haven for all the world, where men and women could find freedom and opportunity.
There will be a reckoning for this. Whether that extends beyond the Republican Party remains to be seen.