Late last week at a political rally in New Hampshire, presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed that if he was elected, he would send all Syrian refugees back to Syria. Naturally, this argument was met with enthusiastic applause.
Now, Trump gets accused of racism all the time, but that’s not really what’s going on here. It’s not racism; it’s nationalism. That’s different–and probably worse. He’s not saying “The Arabs” or “The Muslims” are the problem, at least not here. Rather, he’s singling out a group of people based on their nationality, in this case, the Syrian refugees, just as he has previously singled out Mexican people. However, Trump’s anti-foreign rhetoric is not universal. Thus, his wife is actually an immigrant from eastern Europe (Slovenia), and Trump has been quoted recently saying he would not build a wall on the US-Canadian border. So when I suggest Trump is a nationalist, it should be understood that his bias appears to favor Western nationalities generally, not exclusively Americans. But again, it’s not really racist.
This distinction is important because discriminating against non-Western people based on their nationality is entirely mainstream. This past week, a gunman killed 9 Americans in Oregon and is restarting the debate on gun control. Meanwhile, yesterday, our government bombed a hospital in Afghanistan killing at least 22 people. All, or at least most of these people were Afghans. Does anyone sincerely believe this is going to start a national conversation about ending the War in Afghanistan (again)?
One could argue this is an unfair comparison. Afghanistan’s a war-zone; Roseburg, Oregon isn’t. But then we could look at another recent example to illustrate the same point. Spencer Ackerman at The Guardian tells the story in detail, but I’ll summarize it here. A Yemeni man’s family was killed in a US drone strike in 2013. The US implicitly admitted this by paying the man a $100,000 by way of the Yemeni government to compensate him for the loss (a common practice in collateral damage incidents). However, the US never publicly acknowledged the strike or apologized for it. The Yemeni man thus sued the US government for wrongful death, but ultimately offered to drop the case if the Obama administration would just issue a public apology. Unsurprisingly, the US refused to do so. However, this outcome contrasts sharply with another recent case in which a US drone strike accidentally killed two Western hostages (an American and an Italian) in a strike against Al-Qaeda. These victims promptly received a formal apology not just from the US government, but from Barack Obama himself. There’s only one thing that can reasonably account for this disparate treatment. Some of the victims were from Yemen; the others were from Europe and America. Politically, some collateral deaths cost more than others; and this week, we received still stronger evidence thatYemeni deaths cost almost nothing at all.
Yet even as the US government denied the Yemeni man an apology in the case described above, the National Security Council spokesman issued a statement in defense of their policies that went as follows (emphasis mine):
The US government takes seriously all credible reports of non-combatant deaths and injuries – irrespective of nationality – and recognizes that every loss of innocent life is tragic. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, we have, when appropriate, provided acknowledgement and compensation to the victims or their families.
The US government and leading politicians describe their policies in ways that sound perfectly objective. But their actions often convey a far different reality.
So perhaps we should still be outraged about Trump’s overtly nationalist rhetoric. But it’s dishonest to suggest he’s really out on a limb here, either within the GOP or even within our broader political culture. No, you’re not going to hear President Obama say we should send the Syrians back home because they’re all terrorists-in-waiting. But Obama hasn’t changed the policies that have helped contribute to the refugee crisis, and the US is still planning to accept far fewer Syrian refugees than some other countries like Germany that have a far smaller population.* And let’s not forget our complicity in the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Yemen. So it’s certainly worth asking, is Trump really that different? Or is he just openly saying that which we’ve already embraced in all but name?
*It is an open question whether bringing more refugees to the US and Europe is the optimal solution, practically or politically, to this crisis. We’ll take on this question tomorrow.