Donald Trump has a frightening habit of uttering things that many people apparently think, but would never express. And he blusters in such an off-putting and sloppy fashion that he alienates those who otherwise might agree with many of his critiques of political correctness.
Nonetheless, when the dust settles, we often see that Trump’s megatonnage strikes a chord — and, with it, sometimes has effected change. In an odd way, the more personally unpopular he becomes for raising taboo issues, the more resonant become the more refined variants of his proposals for addressing these festering problems.
Trump shouts back that their antics are only further proof of his general point: Illegal immigration and an open border have subverted our immigration laws and created a paradoxical movement that is as illogical as it is ungracious. After fleeing Mexico, entering the U.S. illegally, and being treated with respect (try doing the same in any Latin American country), some foreign nationals have been waving the flag of the country they do not wish to return to, while scorning the flag of the country that they demand to stay in. But apparently they are not fond of Trump’s larger point, disguised by his barroom rhetoric, which is that the old melting-pot protocols of rapid assimilation, integration, and intermarriage have been sabotaged — and now the American people can at last see the wages of that disaster on national TV.
For that matter, why suddenly during the past six months did 16 Republican primary candidates begin talking about enforcing immigration laws, avoid the very mention of “comprehensive immigration reform,” and promise to finish the southern border fence? While they all deplored Trump’s mean-spirited rhetoric, they all more or less channeled his themes. Until the approach of the Trump battering ram, outrageous developments like the neo-Confederate concept of sanctuary cities being exempt from federal law were off limits to serious criticism — even from the Republican congressional establishment.
Trump dismissively characterized Judge Gonzalo Curiel as a “Mexican” (the absence of hyphenation could be charitably interpreted as following the slang convention in which Americans are routinely called “Irish,” “Swedish,” “Greek,” or “Portuguese,” with these words used simply as abbreviated identifiers rather than as pejoratives). Trump’s point was that Curiel could not grant Trump a fair trial, given Trump’s well-publicized closed-borders advocacy.
Most of America was understandably outraged: Trump had belittled a sitting federal judge. Trump had impugned his Mexican ancestry. Trump had offered a dangerous vision of jurisprudence in which ethnic ancestry necessarily manifests itself in chauvinism and prejudice against the Other.
Trump was certainly crude, but on closer analysis of his disparagements he had blundered into at least a few legitimate issues. Was it not the Left that had always made Trump’s point about ethnicity being inseparable from ideology (most infamously Justice Sotomayor in her ruminations about how a “wise Latina” would reach better conclusions than intrinsically less capable white males, and how ethnic heritage necessarily must affect the vantage point of jurists — racialist themes Sotomayor returned to this week in her Utah v. Strieff dissent, which has been characterized as a “Black Lives Matter” manifesto)? Had not Barack Obama himself apologized (“Yeah, he’s a white guy . . . sorry.”) for nominating a white male judge to the Supreme Court, as if Merrick Garland’s appearance were something logically inseparable from his thought?
Trump was certainly crude, but on closer analysis of his disparagements he had blundered into at least a few legitimate issues.
What exactly was the otherwise apparently sober and judicious Judge Curiel doing in publicizing his membership in a group known as the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association? Raza — a term that will likely soon disappear from American parlance once belated public attention focuses on its 1960s separatist origins and its deeper racist Francoist and Mussolinian roots — is by intent racially charged. Certainly, an illegal-immigration advocate could not expect a fair trial from any federal judge who belonged to a group commensurately designated “the San Diego Race Lawyers Association.” From this tawdry incident, we will remember Trump, the racial incendiary — but perhaps in the aftermath we will also question why any organization with Raza in its name should earn a pass from charges of polarizing racial chauvinism. The present tribalism is unsustainable in a pluralistic society. I wish the antidote for “typical white person,” “punish our enemies,” “my people,” (only) Black Lives Matter, and “la Raza” were not Donald Trump, but let us be clear on the fact that his is a crude reaction to a smooth and unquestioned racialism that, in bankrupt fashion, has been tolerated by the establishments of both parties.
For seven years, Barack Obama has not deigned to explain to the American people why he abhors terms like radical Islam, Islamic terrorism, and Islamist, unlike European leaders and most Americans. Obama certainly in the past has had no problem with using far more sweeping and generic categories — for example, dressing down millions of Pennsylvanians as know-nothing clingers, or Christians in general for their purported centuries of “high-horse” sins. His administration has stereotyped and provoked plenty of groups, from supposedly parasitic entrepreneurs who did not build their own businesses to a nation of supposedly cowardly non-minorities.
In one area alone, Obama and his administration have created a vacuous and dangerous vocabulary of euphemisms — violent extremism, man-caused disasters, overseas contingency operations, a largely “secular” Muslim Brotherhood, and so on. Such nomenclature only confuses Americans about the dangers that they face from radical Islam while emboldening Islamists, who can suspect that if we are afraid to call them what they are, then we may also be defensive about their bogus grievances against the West. Neither ISIS and al-Qaeda nor the relatives of Omar Mateen and Rizwan Farook, the San Bernardino killer, have shown any gratitude to the U.S. for its politically correct tiptoeing around who is blowing up, beheading, and shooting whom — and why. Most recently, the administration, in disturbing 1984 style, edited out the Orlando terrorist’s explicit praise of and statement of solidarity with ISIS from the released transcript of his call to 911 — in an apparent effort to reinvent him as a generic rather than Islamic terrorist.
Trump in blunderbuss fashion has questioned the premises of the seven-decade-old NATO alliance. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic derided his simplistic critique of paltry European contributions to the defense of the West as a sort of know-nothing nativism. It may well have been. But then strangely, European governments — Germany’s especially — quietly began issuing statements that, in fact, they were planning to up their defense budgets. Why now such acknowledgments, if Trump were a mere buffoon? And how did it happen that Europe (in aggregate perhaps the largest economy in the world) has still relied on far greater U.S. defense expenditures 70 years after the end of World War II?
Two examples of Trump’s most controversial and in some sense reprehensible invective are his suggestions that we should temporarily bar Muslim immigration into the United States, and that we should hold the families of terrorists accountable for their silence. Critics rightly decry both suggestions as unworkable, creepy, and contrary to the American sense of decency, while privately perhaps acknowledging that something is wrong with current immigration from the war-torn Middle East, a problem by now spanning two generations.
Collate the profiles of the Boston, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, UC Merced, San Bernardino, and Orlando attackers, and four themes emerge: (1) the parents, spouses, girlfriends, or siblings of the killers had plenty of occasions to discover that something was wrong with the person in question, but chose to remain silent and not contact authorities; (2) many second-generation Americans of Middle Eastern heritage feel no gratitude to the U.S. for taking in their parents, much less for their own good luck of being born in the U.S. rather than in their parents’ war-ravaged hellholes; (3) even on the occasions when state or federal authorities did look into reports that, for example, the Boston or Orlando killers were jihadist extremists, agents did little proactively, perhaps out of worry that they might be pegged as Islamophobic or as unduly profiling those of Middle Eastern descent; and (4) the U.S., like Europe, has no mechanism for screening the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that are flowing across its borders, and thus no way of knowing whether terrorist cells are infiltrating the country.
The reaction to Trump’s rants was understandable. A chorus denounced him for his racism, nativism, and xenophobia. Yet, quietly, authorities now say that they may well bring up Omar Mateen’s wife and others on charges of conspiracy or accessory to terrorism, in a muscular fashion that we have not witnessed before in other terrorism cases, especially the outrageous exemption given the conniving girlfriend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. If there is a precedent set that remaining silent while a relative plots mass death means a long prison sentence, then such deterrence may save lives in the future.
Meanwhile, lots of politicians are now either calling for a temporary cessation of immigration from the Middle East or confessing that they have no idea who is entering the United States. They channel Trump’s outrage that unchecked entry from countries like Iraq, Syria, or Yemen is suicidal, but they clean up his invective by predicating possible future limitations based on the country of origin rather than on religious affiliation.
So what are we to make of these sometimes resonant messages from our often reviled messenger?
Is Trump an Ajaxian tragic figure who takes it upon himself to raise issues for the benefit of public debate — in overheated fashion garnering public attention with the full knowledge that his advocacy will earn him only hatred and ostracism?
A better metaphor is Trump as a loose nuclear weapon. Once he is dropped onto an issue, no one quite knows exactly the parameters of the ensuing explosion — only that it is going to blow up lots of things, and foremost Trump himself. In the subsequent charred landscape, no one emerges unscathed from the fallout, and many suspect that they should have adopted proactive solutions well before they were nuked by Trump.A final irony?
Would far more sober and judicious candidates like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, had they run again in 2016, have brought up these issues? If so, could they have called commensurate public and presidential attention to them? Is losing politely in a fairly close race always preferable to the risk of losing loudly by a large margin?
So we always return to the central truth of 2016: Trump is a symptom, not a catalyst. He was created by the hyperpartisan unconstitutional overreach of Barack Obama, and by the appeasement of much of the Republican establishment, who wished to be liked and admired for their restraint and Beltway moderation rather than feared for their insistence on adherence to the Constitution and the protection of the individual from an always growing and encroaching government.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.