The Morning Jolt

White House

Our Bipartisan Obsession with President Trump

President Donald Trump attends the NATO summit in Watford, near London, England, December 4, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: the dangerous habit of interpreting every development and bit of news through the lens of your opinion of the president; saluting some good reporting and a reminder that every fleeting news story reflects something happening in the lives of real, flesh-and-blood human beings; data that prove one of the bigest worries about our refugee policy simply isn’t based on the facts and history; and one more new bit of good news.

He’s Not a God or the Devil

I’m glad everyone enjoyed yesterday’s dose of underreported good news. Yesterday brought the lesson that you can tweet out figures from the Census Bureau about a change in the poverty rate and some people will insist it has to be a lie. A lot of people will respond “but what about inflation?” when given data on “real median earnings” — the real means that is already adjusted for inflation.

I pointed out that these good things were happening and deliberately didn’t mention the president, and in most cases, I didn’t mention any government policy at all. While the president can affect policy, he’s not directing medical researchers. The president’s policies don’t single-handedly fuel the economy, and no White House or Congressional policy or directive is fueling the rise in the number of independent bookstores. The improvement in the environment is occurring in many places, including far beyond our shores, and U.S. policies probably had only a marginal effect on the flourishing population of humpback whales to the South Atlantic. No U.S. policy can single-handedly make lithium-ion batteries 87 percent cheaper over a decade.

Quite a few people insisted that they were happening because of President Trump or that they couldn’t possibly be true because he’s the current president. This is a form of obsessive insanity. I would argue we have an obligation to push back against this. If you see the president as a Munificent Sun-God or the living embodiment and personification of a “dark spiritual force” who single-handedly controls the condition of the country, you are a cultist and exactly the kind of person the Founding Fathers feared.

Real Human Beings Are at the Heart of Every Fleeting News Story

We all seem to agree that which news you watch, hear and read greatly affects how you see the world and what you believe about the world, particularly in the realm of politics. You’ve probably seen those tweets that compare the chyrons on Fox News and MSNBC, covering the same event and offering two contradictory assessments.

But I think this goes well beyond politics. The first ten items of yesterday’s list were about breakthroughs in medicine and treatment of serious diseases — and one or two readers pointed out that sometimes these breakthroughs just don’t pan out because they can’t be independently replicated by other researchers. (I tried to find the most reliable and reputable sources covering those developments.) If you were hearing about these every day, do you think you would have a little more spring in your step and smile more often? Do you think news helps shape whether we see strangers as part of the problem or part of the solution?

The news audience hungers for those stories, but the more visible and probably larger hunger is for stories that amount to, “here is new evidence that everything you thought yesterday is right.”

The Washington Post, like many publications, lists on its web site its most-read stories of the day. On any given day, the top five articles are variations of “isn’t Trump the worst?” or “thank goodness we have Democratic lawmakers standing up to him.” Today’s top five includes two exceptions: “Phone logs in impeachment report renew concern about security of Trump communications,” “Heil Trump and an anti-gay slur scrawled on a church lead to an unlikely suspect — and a hoax” a column entitled “This moment was made for Nancy Pelosi,” “Armed robbers hijack a UPS truck and lead police on a chase that ends in a deadly shootout,” and “Unruly, pouty, and boastful: A field guide for Trump’s journeys abroad.”

Notice the Post’s Peter Jameson did a deeply-researched, deeply reported in-depth report of a hoax hate-crime that tried to frame Trump supporters as Nazis that the average reader had probably long forgotten about. It features video of the perpetrator, the church’s organist, confessing in a conversation with the local sheriff’s deputy; the deputy had noticed that the graffiti included an anti-homosexual slur, and let only a few people in the community knew the church performed gay weddings, leading him to turn his attention towards those who knew the church well. The article lays out that even the people who choose to fake hate crimes are human beings — and the church organist was left to live with the consequences of his actions and the long path of contrition; “Although Stang avoided 30 days in jail, he would spend many months trying to atone for what he had done. Some of that work was court-ordered, some voluntary. He collected trash, cleaned toilets and did other maintenance jobs for 150 hours in Brown County State Park. He wrote a letter of apology, published in the Bloomington Herald-Times, and volunteered at a Jewish community center on campus. He traveled twice to Puerto Rico to provide hurricane relief on trips organized by Canterbury House, IU’s Episcopal ministry, where he also volunteered and would eventually become the chapel’s keyboard player.”

In fact, a quote in that story is particularly relevant to our discussion of how the media shapes public perceptions:

[County Prosecutor Ted] Adams, a Republican, still thinks Stang should have served time for an act that “turned 65 percent of the county against 35 percent of the county for no need.” He also believes Stang’s crime was abetted, in a sense, by reporters too ready to embrace a caricature of Trump voters. The prosecutor ultimately called or emailed 92 news organizations that initially covered the vandalism as a hate crime, asking that they update their stories.

“Our media outlets — I don’t care what side you’re on — they actually pump people up with fear,” Adams said. “That’s why this case frustrates me. It just shows where we are at in this society.”

Keep that in mind the next time you hear “the mainstream media never reports this stuff.” Every once in a while they do, and they do an impressive job in the process.

Our Policies on Refugees Make No Sense

When you hear the word “refugee,” what do you envision?

Under the current administration policy, the United States is likely to admit a record-low number of refugees next year. The cap is set at 18,000, and most years the United States admits significantly fewer refugees than the cap allows. For most of the Obama years, the cap was around 70,000; in his final year in office, President Obama pushed it up to 110,000. Once in office, Trump quickly lowered it to 45,000.

President Trump administration is allowing states to opt in or opt out of the refugee resettlement program. Republicans in the state of Utah are asking the president to send more. “I have to be honest: I don’t have any idea why it’s a partisan issue nationally. It’s never been one here,” said Brad Wilson, the state’s Republican speaker of the House, told the Washington Post. “Regardless of political party, we value these people.”

For obvious reasons, Americans worry that foreign terrorists could sneak into the United States by posing as refugees. Two Iraqi terrorists who were caught before launching an attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky were admitted to the U.S. as refugees.

It is not accurate to say that refugees never commit terrorist attacks in the United States. But it is accurate to say that refugee terrorists are exceptionally rare — so rare that no refugee has committed a deadly terrorist attack on American soil since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.

Alex Nowrasteh ran the numbers; your chances of the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is about 1 in 3.86 billion per year, By contrast, the chance of being murdered by a tourist on a B visa, the most common tourist visa, is about 1 in 4.1 million per year. The United States does have a threat of foreign terrorists attempting to sneak into the country to commit attacks. But so far, by and large, the terrorists have attempted to enter the United States through tourist visas or other legal forms of entry.

According to Nowrastreh’s data and calculations, the United States admitted 3.39 million refugees over a 42-year-span from 1975 to the end of 2017. Out of those millions, 25 were or became terrorists; the death toll from these particular terrorist attacks was three people. In fact, it is accurate to say that no refugee has committed a deadly terrorist attack on American soil since Jimmy Carter was president: “Two of the three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed attacks in the 1970s; the other was Croatian. All three were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the current rigorous refugee-screening procedures.”

My suspicion is that many Americans see all immigration programs and systems as pretty much the same; it all amounts to “they’re coming over here and they want to kill us.” But not all forms of entry into the United States are the same. Refugees have to prove they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear that they will be harmed in the future. Any evidence that a person “ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of their race, religion, nationality” or any other group, automatically disqualifies them. So far, terrorists are not finding ways to manufacture that evidence or find this process too long and arduous to gain entry to the United States.

For those wondering, foreign terrorists are, by and large, not entering the country illegally either. Nowrastreh identified 192 foreign-born terrorists in the United States who killed 3,037 people in attacks on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2017. Nine were illegal immigrants, although it’s worth noting he counts those who entered on a legal temporary visa and overstayed are counted under their legal visa of entry. Probably the most high-profile recent case of illegal immigrant terrorists was the “Fort Dix Six,” where three of the perpetrators entered the country from the former Yugoslavia illegally . . . as children.

(It should also be noted that there is a distinction under U.S. law between refugees and asylum seekers. The brothers who bombed the Boston marathon were admitted as political asylum seekers in 2002; the older brother was 16 years old at the time and the younger brother was nine.)

In fact, the one proven example of someone who entered the country as a refugee and then committed an attack that injured many people, his radicalization had to happen long after he entered the United States. The terrorist who committed a mass stabbing in St. Cloud, Minnesota in 2016 immigrated to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of two.

Even if five percent of the refugees admitted had malevolent intentions or Islamist sympathies, that would leave ninety-five percent not being terrorists, just scared, desperate people who have been driven from their homes and who have few other options. The data tells us that the percentage of refugees who are potential terrorists is much smaller than one percent, something along the lines of one-ten-thousandth of one percent.

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to see that a lot of refugees would be grateful and productive legal permanent residents or citizens if given the chance. (Exhibit A: Albert Einstein.) Past American refugees include Henry Kissinger, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, actress Mila Kunis, singers Gloria Estefan and Rita Ora, novelist Gary Shteyngart. (God doesn’t waste any material.) Of course, we need to continue our existing systems of background checks and tracking any potential links or ties to terrorist groups or extremist beliefs, but so far, that seems to be working well, at least among refugees.

Why would we keep out good and desperate people, based upon a one-in-135,648 chance that the person could attempt a terrorist attack at some point in their lifetime?

ADDENDA: Right as I’m about to send this off to the editors, one more bit of good news: “The jobs market turned in a stellar performance in November, with nonfarm payrolls surging by 266,000 and the unemployment rate falling to 3.5 percent, according to Labor Department numbers released Friday . . . Average hourly earnings rose by 3.1 percent from a year ago, while the average workweek held steady at 34.4 hours.”

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