Trump’s ‘Ideological Test’ for Immigrants Will Tear America Apart
A federal program to screen foreigners traveling to the United States wouldn’t just fail to stop terrorism – it would pour gasoline on America’s culture war.
By revealing his apparently final plan for fighting terrorism and fixing immigration in one fell swoop on Monday, Donald Trump managed a rare feat of political clarification. Unfortunately for Trump, what he clarified were the cultural tensions within his own campaign.
In his address on foreign policy and national security, Trump promised one simple way to keep jihadis away from American shores. With an updated version of a Cold War-era “ideological screening test,” Trump’s federal government would bar those “who support bigotry and hatred,” admitting only those who “embrace a tolerant American society.”
As Trump already showed during the Republican National Convention, his vision of bigotry is paradoxically broad. Despite courting the most virulent of nationalists, Trump — who counts Peter Thiel and Caitlyn Jenner as supporters — went out of his way to call the attack on the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida, “the worst mass shooting in our history” as well as “the worst attack on the LGTBQ community.” Those lines must have gone down sideways at best for the many Trump supporters who rail against the influence of Jews, Mormons, Latinos, and other non-Muslim minorities. But the reasons why Trump’s plan should not be adopted go well beyond the hurt feelings of anti-Semites and xenophobes.
Obviously the easiest cases for any anti-jihadi screening program are the easiest to agree upon: You show up wrapped in an Islamic State flag, you don’t enter the country. But Trump’s seemingly liberal, ecumenical standards of decency and Western values promise a never-ending series of hard cases — even for a government with a ruthlessly lean and mean bureaucracy, and even in a society that isn’t riven by a draining and bitter culture war. The fact is that neither Americans nor their government can handle Trump’s would-be screening test. Given where the United States is today, an ideological exam of the sort Trump is proposing would purport to foster greater cultural unity but promise even fiercer disunity.
And, adding injury to insult, it wouldn’t even solve America’s terrorism problem.
An early warning sign comes from fresh evidence in Europe about what a Trump-style test would entail. Our Western allies have proven that U.S. officials could at least design such a test. Just this March, the Dutch, a people on immigration and terror tenterhooks, launched a new entrance exam aimed at ensuring immigrants “are at least aware of the Netherlands’s liberal values, even if they do not agree with all of them.” Supplying Muslim candidates with some free test prep, the Dutch government created an instructional feature-length film dramatizing Dutch values. And so: a topless woman illustrates the Dutch way of nudity; a kissing gay couple underscores Dutch laws and mores concerning homosexuality.
It isn’t hard to imagine some American agency putting together similar content, even if many of Trump’s more reactionary and traditionalist supporters would recoil in horror at the process. But it is impossible to imagine the thing ever getting out the door — whether an intransigent member of Congress bottlenecked the process or fierce public disagreement made compromise impossible. It would make comprehensive immigration reform look like a layup.
Thrown open to national political infighting, what expression of a common American culture would survive? Even if some standard were forced through by executive order, how often, and how acrimoniously, would it be replaced? Americans wouldn’t even agree on the way to test subjects. Beltway bureaucrats sifting through social media profiles, on the hunt for signs of bigotry? Not in a country where post-Snowden disillusionment is so extreme that few really believe officials can be trusted to keep their hands off citizens’ private data. And amid an endemic culture of spin, where even U.S. intelligence about the Islamic State threat was massaged and manipulated, possibly even fewer Americans will consent to a profiling system conducted by federal shrinks.
The problem is not restricted to offending one (conservative) faction in the culture wars or another. The politicization of America’s culture conflict is systemic, complete with vested, moneyed interests ready at a moment’s notice to turn the slightest provocation or compromise into yet another “all-out war.” The most likely outcome of a push for a “Trump Test” would be interminable debate, incoherent and contradictory half-measures, and another failed federal initiative.
A more realistic litmus test for U.S. immigrants would ask whether they were prepared to join daily battles over how much official support should be granted to the ways they and others live. But the whole idea of limiting immigration is to put the brakes on the crippling culture conflict that has made it so difficult for Americans to govern and be governed. Even adding hundreds of thousands of people just as cantankerous as natural-born citizens would increase that burden.
Of course, the strong argument in favor of accepting many more foreigners is that, no matter how burdensome or impractical, we have a moral obligation to do so, especially if they hail from areas where our policies have harmed people. That’s why Trump, and others who generally appreciate those high standards, characteristically appeal to the extraordinary exception posed by the very real threat of continued jihadi terror attacks. Without the threat, in other words, we wouldn’t need the test. However nativist Trump’s base, the logic of Trump’s test appeals to decent people’s abundance of caution.
But again, unfortunately, there just isn’t much evidence that a Trump Test would manage to measurably decrease that threat. As many strictly observant Christians and Jews would attest, simply because you reject today’s ascendant sexually progressive ideology does not mean you want to commit mass murder. Critics will counter that Islam is special, and not in a good way: that this religion, unlike the others, primes true believers to kill infidels. Were that so, the proper policy would be something like what Trump once suggested at the outset of this debate — a hard stop to Muslim immigration, period. But now even Trump has abandoned that untenable idea.
And as Trump himself might eventually concede, the best way to stop terrorist infiltration is by destroying the Islamic State, ramping up targeted surveillance, combating sponsors of terror, and keeping up robust international policing. At first blush, perhaps, an ideological immigration test sounds like a plausible way to supplement that effort. But Trump’s attempt to advance an exam that could actually work has resulted in a putative policy too overbroad and too underbroad to be anywhere near viable. Until Americans bring their politicized culture war to some kind of conclusion, they’ll be hard-pressed to use culture to bring the homeland closer to peace.
Photo credit: GREGG NEWTON/AFP/Getty Images