In early May, Donald Trump dismissed his own proposal for a blanket ban on Muslim immigration as a mere “suggestion.” One month — and a mass casualty terrorist attack later — the ban has become the centerpiece of his general election campaign.
On Monday, the Republican nominee described banning immigration from the Middle East and “Muslim countries outside the Middle East” as a “common sense” and “mainstream immigration policy.” Far from a casual “suggestion,” Trump argued that if the American government fails to establish the ban, “we’re not going to have a country anymore — there will be nothing left.” And he framed the debate over Muslim immigration as a synecdoche for the broader choice American voters will face in November — between policies that put the American people first, and ones “designed to benefit politically correct special interests.”
“I called for a ban after San Bernardino, and was met with great scorn and anger but now, many are saying I was right to do so,” Trump told supporters at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. “When I am elected, I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies, until we understand how to end these threats.”
Trump suggested that this ban would be temporary, lasting only until the American government is “in a position to properly and perfectly screen those people coming into our country.” But Trump’s attempt to frame the immigration ban as a response to the Orlando shooting, specifically, suggested that the United States would never be in such a position.
“The killer was born an Afghan, of Afghan parents who immigrated to the United States,” the Republican nominee said of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, who was born in the United States — and thus only “an Afghan” in the sense that federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel is a Mexican. (Which is to say, he was only an Afghan from the standpoint of someone who believes the U.S.-born children of non-European immigrants are not truly Americans.)
“The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here,” Trump continued. “The Boston Bombers came here through political asylum. The male shooter in San Bernardino … was the child of immigrants from Pakistan.”
Trump went on to argue against America accepting any Syrian refugees on the grounds that we’re incapable of preventing “the radicalization of their children.” Of course, no “screening process” will ever be able to detect the ideological leanings of an immigrant’s unborn progeny. So it’s not clear how America could ever be in position to “perfectly screen” Muslim immigrants, under Trump’s definition. And thus, it’s not clear how the ban wouldn’t be permanent.
Earlier in the day, Hillary Clinton had delivered her own speech in response to the tragedy in Orlando. In it, she argued that America’s “open, diverse society is an asset in the struggle against terrorism, not a liability” — and suggested Trump’s Muslim ban threatened this openness.
“Inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and threatening to ban the families and friends of Muslim Americans — as well as millions of Muslim business people and tourists — from entering our country hurts the vast majority of Muslims who love freedom and hate terror,” Clinton said.
But Trump argued the exact converse Monday afternoon — that banning Muslim immigrants was the only way for America to remain “a tolerant and open society.” Unlike many other conservative politicians, Trump characterized the Orlando shooting as an attack on the freedom of LGBT Americans, specifically.
“A radical Islamic terrorist targeted the nightclub not only because he wanted to kill Americans, but in order to execute gay and lesbian citizens because of their sexual orientation,” Trump said. “It is an assault on the ability of free people to live their lives, love who they want and express their identity.”
Trump argued that he is a better “friend” to the “LGBT community” than Hillary Clinton because he is willing to confront “anti-gay” radical Islam with requisite toughness.
While Trump promised to work with the NRA to “ensure Americans have the means to protect themselves in the age of terror,” he said that Clinton plans on “abolishing the 2nd amendment, and leaving only the bad guys and terrorists with guns.” Trump explained that the Democratic nominee then plans to let hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into the country (guns presumably in tow), so they can “have all the fun they want,” while slaughtering defenseless patriots.
“That is the choice I put before the American people,” Trump said in summation. “A mainstream immigration policy designed to benefit America, or Hillary Clinton’s radical immigration policy designed to benefit politically-correct special interests.”
One might quibble with the idea that Syrian war orphans qualify as a “special interest” group. And Trump’s entire speech was framed around the false premise that radical Islam is the sole inspiration for terrorist violence in America.
“The media talks about ‘homegrown’ terrorism, but Islamic radicalism, and the networks that nurture it, are imports from overseas,” Trump declared.
The notion that there is no such thing as truly “domestic” terrorism was contradicted the very day that we learned of the shooting in Orlando, when a non-Muslim, American citizen was arrested en route to the Los Angeles gay pride parade, in a car full of firearms and explosives.
But for all its demagoguery and preposterous lies, Trump’s speech gave his campaign message a coherence it previously lacked. Trump connected his immigration stance to a foreign policy that would give no weight to humanitarian concerns. The GOP nominee inveighed against Clinton’s interventionist foreign-policy instincts, her decision to overthrow the “regime in Libya” and her desire to depose Bashar al-Assad in Syria, “without plans for the day after.” Trump argued that such efforts had only strengthened ISIS while costing the United States trillions of dollars that could have been spent rebuilding our own infrastructure.
"That is why our new goal must be to defeat Islamic terrorism, not nation-building," Trump said. "I pledge to protect and defend all Americans who live inside of our borders."
Earlier that afternoon, Clinton had taken a swipe at Trump’s propensity for both self-aggrandizement and divisiveness, by declaring, "This has always been a country of ‘we,’ not ‘me.’”
But the GOP nominee is also offering a vision for enhancing national unity — one that would bring "us" together by keeping "them" apart. This November, the American people will get to decide who we are.