As I wrote yesterday, I think America is facing a two-fold Trump problem. The proximate problem is that Donald Trump has been the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination since this summer, and the durability of his support suggests that he could in fact be the party’s nominee. The underlying problem is that America has a two-party political system, and one of the parties is receptive to a candidate such as Trump.
I don’t have a solution to the latter problem. But the former problem, the proximate Trump problem, is going to be resolved soon enough, as follows: Ted Cruz is now tied with Trump in Iowa. On February 1st, if not before, Trump’s dreams of winning the White House will be destroyed. To unpack that, let me review what we know about Trump and Cruz.
Trump is a candidate whose entire pitch, such as it is, rests on the illusion that he is a winner. He claims to be a successful businessman; in reality, he would have been better off investing the money he inherited in an index fund forty years ago. He claims to know more about ISIS “than the generals do”; in reality, the little he knows about the armed services is drawn from his experience at a military-themed boarding school. He thinks that he has “better” hair than Marco Rubio; I mean, can a sentient adult offer a straight-faced response to that?
We already know how Trump responds when his braggadocio is exposed for the posturing it is: he lashes out. He’s still brooding about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who committed the cardinal sin of asking him questions during a debate. When Ben Carson challenged his status as frontrunner in the polls, Trump responded by flapping his belt around and comparing Carson to a child molester.
Cruz, meanwhile, is a student of Sun Tzu: “Every battle is won before it is fought. It is won by choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought.” He has won unwinnable arguments before. He has won unwinnable elections before. Cruz does not pick fights he doesn’t think he can win, with the asterisk that sometimes he picks fights with an eye to winning the battle rather than the war. His fight to defund Obamacare, for example, was a fight he picked with an eye to winning the Republican nomination in 2016. And Cruz is now in a position to win the Iowa caucus, which is the kind of fight that he is optimally equipped to win: like Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, his support in the polls is an indicator of the passion of the grassroots conservatives, particularly evangelicals, he has carefully cultivated throughout this campaign.
Trump has two choices. He can withdraw from the race for the Republican nomination prior to Iowa’s vote, on February 1st. If so, he sacrifices the prospect of running as an independent candidate. He pledged not to do so back in September, and has recently suggested (entirely predictably) that he might renege on that pledge. Trump’s stated reason for thinking about breaking his own pledge, however, was as follows: “GOP getting ready to treat me unfairly.” That would be a piteous situation. But for the voters of Iowa to select Cruz over Trump would hardly qualify as unfair treatment on the part of the establishment.
Alternatively Trump can take his chances against Cruz. If so he will come to grief, and he will have no one to blame but himself. Though Trump has more than a dozen rivals for the Republican nomination, none have come so close to earning his approval as Cruz has. Trump has even floated the idea of picking Cruz as his running mate. “Well, I like him,” Trump said last week, and that may be the case. Cruz is nonetheless running for the nomination, not to be Trump’s running mate, and Trump has no chance of dissuading the cold, careful Cruz from that goal.
In August, I noted that Republicans were “starting to get seriously nervous about their Trump problem, without fully understanding the nature of the problem, or its severity.” Donald Trump, at that point, was the frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, and had been for much of the summer. Many on the right were clearly inclined to disavow him—historically, Trump has not been a Republican, much less a conservative—and to dismiss his popularity as a mirage, a sort of sinister summer fling on the part of a cynical electorate with an appetite for political theater.
Now here we are in November, barely two months away from the Iowa caucuses, which will be held on February 1. Trump remains the frontrunner for the Republican nomination; his lead has actually grown since I wrote that ominous post in August. At this point, Americans on both sides of the aisle are starting to get nervous about Trump’s apparently durable popularity. “‘We’re potentially careening down this road of nominating somebody who frankly isn’t fit to be president in terms of the basic ability and temperament to do the job,’’ as one Republican strategist told the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa earlier this month. And as he continued, Americans can’t take much comfort in the fact that a major party’s suboptimal presidential nominee will inevitably mitigated by the candidate chosen by the other: “What if Hillary hits a banana peel and this person becomes president?”
At the same time it remains the case that many Americans are failing to fully grapple with the Trump problem. Those who would like to see Trump’s popularity as a mirage have been forced to retool their arguments. The “summer fling” theory is no longer tenable. A new hypothesis has emerged in its place: the polls are wrong.
Exhibit A comes from the New Yorker’s November 16 issue, which contains one of those amazingly long essays for which the magazine is rightly famous—a historically well-sourced and analytically compelling piece of reporting from Jill LePore on the role of polls in American politics, which concludes that contemporaneous polling is unreliable, and vaguely pernicious:
Exhibit B comes from Nate Silver, the founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight, who published an open letter yesterday—“Dear Media, Stop Freaking Out About Donald Trump’s Polls”—in which he argues, based on his expertise as a statistician, that today’s polls are snapshots of an electorate that has yet to begin voting, and which may be swayed by intervening events:
I would encourage you to read both of the aforementioned pieces, which are well-informed and well-argued. At the same time, I continue to think that the Trump problem is real, and I can’t second Silver’s call for calm, for three reasons.
First: Regardless of how reliable any of these individual polls are, these are the only polls available, and for months now, they’ve shown Trump as the frontrunner. Silver is correct to say that their predictive value may be affected by unanticipated events, but since those events are unanticipated we have no reason to revise our expectations in anticipation of them.
Second: People are second-guessing the polls because they can’t get their heads around the idea that Trump could be the Republican nominee. I’m sympathetic to that intuition, because I agree that the prospect is gruesome; Trump is an abhorrent individual who is in no way equipped to lead a canned-food drive, much less the free world. But the grim reality is that many Republicans don’t see it that way. In August, I passed along Greg Gutfeld’s warning for Republicans who felt that Trump had crossed some imaginary line with his comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly: “Again, once you’re okay with the McCain joke, there are no limits up or down.” Trump’s supporters applauded him for sneering at a prisoner of war; on what basis would we expect such people to recoil at his plan to put American mosques under government surveillance?
And if you look at the RealClearPolitics polling averages—setting aside Trump—the results for the other candidates “make sense,” more or less. Ben Carson surged this autumn, on the basis of his appealing personal story and temperament, only to see his support coming down after his surge in the polls elicited a corresponding surge in media scrutiny, which exposed a troubling, Sarah Palin-esque tendency to vacuity. The other candidates with notable trendlines are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both of whom are a cut above most of the candidates running and are campaigning accordingly.
And third: As I wrote in August, Trump’s defeat would only mean the end of America’s proximate problem. The underlying problem is that one of our two major parties is so receptive to someone so hateful, toxic, divisive and belligerent; Trump is only a symptom of that problem.
The good news, though, is that the proximate problem does have a proximate solution. I’ll save that for tomorrow, in anticipation of the holiday weekend.
Earlier this week, noting that two Democratic governors had already joined Republican governors, including Greg Abbott, in announcing their disinclination to accept Syrian refugees, I wrote that the ongoing backlash to Barack Obama’s plans was “not entirely polarized along party lines.” On Wednesday, Bloomberg Politics released a poll finding that 53 percent of Americans are opposed to accepting Syrian refugees; just 28 percent are in favor of continuing as planned. And earlier this afternoon, 47 Democrats in the United States House, including five from Texas, voted with the Republican majority in favor of more stringent new screening procedures for Syrian refugees seeking resettlement in the country.
It’s easy to understand why so many people are disappointed in the ongoing backlash. There’s no question that the vast majority of the 4.3 million Syrians displaced by the country’s ongoing civil war are innocent victims seeking to escape extraordinary carnage. One would think that a country the size of ours should have no problem screening and resettling a mere 10,000 of them. As my colleague R.G. explained Wednesday, Texas alone has managed to welcome greater numbers of refugees on many occasions, without falling into disarray. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic representative from El Paso, explained yesterday that he voted against the expanded screening procedures because the ones already in effect are sufficiently robust, in his assessment.
And the backlash to this particular subset of refugees is undeniably related to the fact that most Syrians are Muslim. Obama has sternly rebuked such arguments as “shameful,” un-American, and short-sighted. At the same time, scolding the American public for Islamophobia has apparently done little to sway public opinion in favor of the refugees. I suspect that this is in part because high-minded calls for religious tolerance have sometimes been accompanied by flat denials of any religious dimension to the events that have necessitated the lectures about religious tolerance.
The debate over the Syrian refugees will continue, and tensions will surely remain high in the immediate future—especially in Texas, thanks to Breitbart Texas’s report that eight Syrians were taken into custody on Monday, in the Laredo sector. And we’ll no doubt return to the subject soon here at BurkaBlog. For now, I’ll just refer everyone once again to Graeme Wood’s examination, from March of this year, on what ISIS actually wants—an invaluable piece of reporting that can help everyone approach the issue with more clarity.
In January 1914 Pancho Villa’s army was slowly closing in on the outnumbered Mexican federal forces defending the city of Ojinaga, just across the Rio Grande from the Texas town of Presidio. Villa, the colorful Mexican revolutionary, was ruthless with soldiers and civilians loyal to the dictatorial and murderous President Victoriano Huerta, executing any who were captured. The dead littered a plateau near Ojinaga, and The New York Times described buzzards “wheeling overhead lazy on their feasts of human flesh.” A “stream of suffering humanity” traveled the “Camino del Muerto—the road of death” to a river crossing into Texas, where an El Paso physician had set up a refugee hospital. When the federal collapse came, General Salvador Mercado led 3,300 Mexican soldiers and 1,269 women and children on a march to Marfa. The U.S. government moved the refugees to El Paso, where the soldiers were interred at Fort Bliss, but the women and children were allowed their freedom in the city.
“I hope the world will understand,” General Mercado said, “that our flight was on the grounds of humanity, to save the lives of women and children as well as soldiers who ran out of ammunition. The rebels would have killed us. What is to become of us? I do not know. We shall wait and see.”
Mercado’s men and women were not the only refugees from the Mexican Revolution to make their way to Texas. A wagon train of almost 1,000 people stopped in Beeville, where local farmers put the men to work clearing fields. U.S. citizens living in Mexico fled the violence by boat and landed in Galveston.
Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to Texas to escape persecution or political violence, and Texans have often offered their hearts, lands and money to the dispossessed. What has changed that makes it so easy for Governor Greg Abbott to declare Texas closed to Syrian refugees fleeing the murderous violence of ISIS and other rebel factions in their homeland? (Of course, Abbott cannot keep Syrian refugees out of Texas, but he can make certain the state does not cooperate in their re-location.) I spent a few minutes searching old newspaper archives to see how Texas handled refugees in the past.
When Russia began a purge of Jews in 1888, a Texan named J.B. Brown offered to give 100 acres of land to each Jewish family who wanted to relocate to Motley County on the plains of West Texas. Similarly, in 1939, a search was made around Texas for land that might be purchased for the relocation of European Jews. The city of Plainview notified Governor James Allred that 46,000 acres could be made immediately available if needed. There’s no evidence that any families took these offers, but the offers were at least made.
In 1956, when Hungarians revolted against oppressive Soviet control, people in Dallas welcomed refugees. Eighty-seven were greeted at Love Field by a local delegation, with the Southern Methodist University band playing the Hungarian national anthem, and the Lone Star flag of Texas joined by the national flags of the United States and Hungary. As The Dallas Morning News reported: “Refugees from blood-drained Hungary representing such diverse occupations as laborers, musicians, teachers, knitters and typists, Saturday will land in hospitable Dallas—their peaceful haven after bloody riots.” However, one group of six refugees had refused to come to Dallas because they believed the city was still the Wild West that they had seen in Hollywood movies. It was our violence they feared, not us fearing theirs.
(Indeed, Dallas continues to exhibit its welcoming spirit. The Morning News reported yesterday that Mayor Mike Rawlings said “he didn’t see what authority any mayor or governor had to keep legal U.S. residents out of a city or state. He said no one has contacted him about Syrian refugees but, if they did, it would be ‘the spirit of Dallas’ to help in a crisis.”)
When Cuban refugees started arriving in 1961, Texas Methodists, Baptists and the Catholic Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth organized to find them new homes and new jobs. “No church is too small to help meet the refugee problem,” the Texas Methodist wrote in an editorial. Will the churches of Texas be as welcoming to the Syrians now?
Similarly, Texas Quakers and Catholics in 1982 organized an underground railroad to help those fleeing violence in El Salvador find refuge in Texas by going around federal immigration officials. At one point, it was estimated that 25,000 Salvadorans were living illegally in Houston alone. Both sides in El Salvador’s civil war engaged in terroristic acts and death squads. Nothing could guarantee that some terrorists had not entered the country, nothing except the belief that most, if not all, of these people simply wanted to live their lives in peace, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the 1970s, Texas welcomed 27,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia.
The only instances I could find in the archives of Texans rejecting refugees both occurred in 1981. The city of Big Spring objected when the federal government moved 99 Haitians to a detention facility there. In East Texas, people complained that they didn’t want 2,000 Cuban refugees from the Mariel boatlift. Most of the refugees who still needed placement were young, single men, and East Texas leaders said there were not enough jobs. But, as now, there was an element of fear because Fidel Castro was known to have released criminals from prison to join the boatlift. In the end, the Cubans were relocated elsewhere.
Abbott’s rationale in a letter to President Obama for rejecting refugees from Syria is based on fear of a repeat of the Paris attacks. “American humanitarian compassion could be exploited to expose Americans to similar deadly danger.” Abbott went on to say:
The two men killed in the Garland incident were both born as U.S. citizens. One was from an Illinois suburb called Westmont, and the other from Dallas. They were roommates in Phoenix when they became radicalized and travelled to Garland to attack an anti-Muslim group. The Iraqi-born man arrested in Mesquite was trying to join ISIS in Syria. As for the two Austin men arrested on charges that they were recruiting fighters for ISIS, one was a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh and the other was native-born in Houston. Both were sentenced to prison earlier this year, one will be free in six years and the other in ten years.
The most stunning act of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism was Major Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood that killed 13 people and injured 30 others. Hasan was a native of Arlington, Virginia.
What these cases prove is that home-grown terrorists can be as big of a threat as foreign refugees. All the Paris terrorists were home-grown except possibly one. Nothing can guarantee our safety or guard against someone sneaking into the refugee pipeline, but most of these refugees are victims of war and many are escaping Muslims who are killing other Muslims for not being strict enough in their faith or for following alternative Islamic teachings. As with the Cubans of the Mariel boatlift, the Syrians can be held in detention until screened, and while that is not perfect, it provides some assurance we’ve tried to weed out infiltrators.
Rather than living in fear, perhaps we could find inspiration in the Dallasites who 60 years ago welcomed the Hungarian refugees in the spirit of humanitarianism.
This morning Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter to Barack Obama saying that following Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, for which ISIS quickly took credit, Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria. In Abbott’s assessment, such resettlement constitutes a potential security risk:
About a dozen other Republican governors have taken the same stance. So have most of the Republicans running for president, though Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz added that if the United States must continue with its plans for Syrian refugee resettlement—Obama has said that the country will accept 10,000 of the more than four million Syrians who have been displaced since its civil war began in 2011—we should restrict our welcome to the Christian Syrians.
Needless to say these developments have been accompanied by a fair amount of malicious rhetoric, with Republican leaders alleging that Obama doesn’t care about the safety of American citizens, and Democrats countering that Republicans are being heartless and bigoted. Setting all that aside, the issue is not entirely polarized along party lines: Democratic governors in New Hampshire and Montana have also said that they do not want Syrian refugees resettled in their states. Nor can all the skeptics be fairly accused of brazen Islamophobia. A number of Republicans, including Joe Straus, Nikki Haley, and Marco Rubio, have indicated that they share the concern Abbott specified, over whether refugees from Syria are being adequately vetted. This may not be an insuperable concern but to assume that it’s motivated by prejudice would be unwarranted.
At the same time, the governors who are drawing the line are being unrealistic. While states may have the right to decline to accept refugees on the basis of nationality—there’s some debate about that point—no state can ban interstate travel. Nor can any one expect that closing the country’s doors to all Syrian refugees will be sufficient to preclude all terrorism. The attack Abbott mentions in his letter illustrates both points: the two shooters were apparently inspired by ISIS, but neither was from Syria; they lived in Phoenix.
And it’s worth noting that in Texas, the shooters were thwarted. Having arrived in Garland with ambitious plans for carnage they wounded one person before being shot and killed by police. Many Americans, evidently, are alarmed by the idea of Syrian refugees being resettled here. If the president proceeds as planned, maybe it’s Abbott who should reconsider, if not for humanitarian concerns, then for the safety of Texas’s fellow states.