The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Undoing of the GOP

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Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Columbus, Ohio
Trump's 9/11 tale is only the beginning.Photo: Ty Wright/2015 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the GOP debate over Syrian refugees, Trump’s latest surge, and the comparatively low-key Democratic presidential race.

Republican presidential candidates and governors have called for turning away Syrian refugees, Ben Carson has likened them to “rabid dogs,” and Donald Trump is peddling an urban legend about Muslims cheering the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New Jersey. How can a major American political party do this without incurring some political cost?
It can’t. The GOP — not just Trump and Carson — offers something to offend almost every minority group in the country: black, gay, Latino, and Muslim people. And one majority group: women. Even its so-called moderate Establishment candidates are culpable: Jeb Bush called for admitting only Christian refugees from Syria; John Kasich has proposed a government agency to promote “core Judeo-Christian Western values,” a plan that strikes me as not just anti-Muslim but anti-Semitic despite the lip service paid to “Judeos”; Marco Rubio opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest. None of this will hurt Republican candidates in safe, gerrymandered House districts or in deep-red states. But it will cripple them in presidential elections, and contested races for the Senate and governorships in purple or even purplish states, let alone blue ones. 

But it must be said that the call for banning Syrian immigrants, besides being a xenophobic replay of America’s brutal record of turning away European Jews and incarcerating Japanese-Americans during World War II, is most of all a stab at political bait-and-switch: The Republican candidates think that if they rail enough against the lethal potential of 10,000 destitute Syrian refugees subjected to a two-year American vetting process, maybe no one will notice that they have no coherent ideas for combatting actual ISIS terrorists as opposed to imaginary ones.

No one else in the West has a fail-safe idea, either, but the Republican presidential candidates are particularly clueless. They repeatedly state that Obama’s efforts are insufficient but then, as the president has noted, just repeat his current policy, only louder. Some seem to think the problem will be solved, as Rubio has it, if a president will only say, “We are at war with radical Islam.” Ben Carson has called for “moderate forces” in Iraq and Syria to establish “sanctuary zones” — blissfully unaware that these “moderate forces” he hopes to recruit will be drawn from the same populace he is calling “rabid dogs.” Lindsey Graham has called for 10,000 American troops to help do the job — a proposal that is a nonstarter with the American public largely because of the war in Iraq that he helped champion and prolong. The others offer only bluster and gobbledygook that are merely more polite variations on Trump’s vow to “bomb the shit out of them.” The pugilistic Chris Christie seems to think we can defeat ISIS in part by keeping 5-year-old orphans out of Jersey.

Last week, Karl Rove welcomed terrorism as a winning issue for Republicans and cited a September poll from Gallup showing that 52 percent of the public believes that Republicans will do a better job of protecting America, while only 36 percent says the same of Democrats. But that poll was taken before the Paris attacks. The latest Washington Post–ABC News poll, conducted since Paris, found that despite a drop in Obama’s numbers, Hillary Clinton was more trusted to “handle the threat of terrorism” in one-on-one matchups with every major GOP presidential candidate. That 3 a.m. phone-call ad that failed in 2008 may easily mow down the gaseous GOP armchair generals of 2016.

That same Post-ABC poll showed that Carson had fallen from being neck and neck with Trump to a fairly distant second place (32 percent to 22 percent). What happened to Carson? Why is Trump, who has lately gone so far as to justify the pummeling of a black protester at a Birmingham, Alabama, campaign rally, rising yet again? 
As I wrote in my New York piece back in September, Trump is “a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish” who also may be the best thing to happen to American politics since Obama. He is continuing to prove the first part of that equation, heaven knows, but also the second: His repeated supremacy in the polls is exposing the built-in biases of those in the press who have dismissed his numbers as a transitory blip since day one and has also shown up the bankruptcy of the anachronistic, consultant-shaped political campaigns that offer the voters pablum like Jeb! as a feckless alternative. Most important of all, Trump is exposing the heart of a virtually all-white political party’s base by speaking its most repellent convictions out loud and unambiguously rather than let them continue to be cloaked in the euphemisms of most of his ostensibly more respectable opponents. 

Trump isn’t suffering any penalty in the polls because the base believes this stuff — the base that has been bullying the GOP ever since John McCain empowered the Ur-Trump, Sarah Palin. And it’s fear of that base’s power in the primary states that has made Trump’s GOP adversaries, except those at the bottom of the pack with nothing to lose, so slow and ineffectual in taking him on. It’s not lost on them that Trump’s bigotry — whether aimed at African-Americans, Latinos, or Muslims — only boosts his numbers. That’s why they are coming up with their own me-too plans to turn away Syrian refugees. That’s why they are remaining silent when a black protester is beaten up at a seemingly all-white rally in Birmingham. That’s why, after the Charleston massacre, they didn’t come out against the Confederate flag until after the Republican South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, did so and gave them political cover. They are hoping that when Trump does wear out his welcome they’ll inherit his following. We can thank Trump for inadvertently exposing just how much the GOP leadership cowers before the racists and crazies.

As for the Carson bump, it’s gone the way of the Fiorina bump. It certainly didn’t help him that his own foreign-policy adviser told the Times, for attribution, that the good doctor didn’t know squat about the Middle East. As Paris has felled Carson, it has boosted Trump by fusing terrorism with the issue that made him a GOP hero: immigration. “Donald Trump was elected president tonight,” Ann Coulter tweeted the night of the Paris carnage with typical hyperbole. Trump will not be elected president unless Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, et al, secede from the Electoral College. But he can’t be ruled out yet as the GOP nominee. The Wall Street Journal trumpeted on its front page last weekend an effort by the “Republican Establishment” to mount a “guerrilla campaign” to “defeat and destroy” Trump. How? It would create an ad that “would link Mr. Trump’s views and style to his celebrity foe, Rosie O’Donnell, in hopes of provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump” as well as “fake pro-Trump ads” that would use “a Trump impersonator to show him insulting people.” This plan is so stupid you have to wonder if it wasn’t conceived by Rove.

You can’t fight something with nothing. Which candidate is going to take Trump out? Bush, who supposedly rose from the dead after his last (slightly) less-embarrassing performance in the last GOP debate, is at 6 percent in the Post-ABC poll; Rubio, still the subject of countless pieces touting him as the perfect candidate on paper, is at 11 percent. The RealClearPolitics poll average in South Carolina, whose primary has been since 1980 the most reliable indicator of who will win the GOP nomination, is indistinguishable from the national numbers: 27.5 percent for Trump, 21.8 percent for Carson, 12.3 percent for Rubio, 11.3 percent for Cruz, and 6.8 percent for Bush.

Meanwhile, Trump has a plan B: He is now saying that he may run as an independent after all. This is further confirmation that his faux “pledge” not to do so, signed with much fanfare at the Trump Tower, has all the standing of the Munich pact of 1938, with GOP chairman Reince Priebus reenacting the role of Neville Chamberlain.

Things are a little calmer on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton’s biggest problems lately are front-page reports in the Times and Washington Post showcasing her ties to Wall Street and her role in her family’s $3 billion donor network. Will continued stories like these hurt her at all?
I just saw Adam McKay’s upcoming new movie The Big Short, from the Michael Lewis book, and it made me furious all over again at those who made a killing during the housing bubble while so many Americans lost their savings, their retirement plans, or their homes in the crash. But the star power of Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell is no more likely to pull a majority of the Democratic electorate away from Clinton than Bernie Sanders has. Nor is Clinton likely to suffer any lasting damage by her own tone-deaf gaffes, like her offensive effort in the last Democratic debate to link her coziness with Wall Street to 9/11. And if she ends up running against Trump — or, for that matter, Rubio or Bush or Cruz — she will be seen, by comparison and perhaps not without reason, as a relative populist no matter her speaking fees from Goldman or her ties to Robert Rubin.