Donald Trump recently shocked the world yet again by proposing that Muslims be barred from entry into the USA. He has been castigated for his remarks by the leaders of both parties, leaders abroad and a storm on social media. This article isn’t about them. It has been said, quite rightly, that his proposal is unconstitutional, un-American and borderline fascist. This article isn’t about that, either. No, this is about something far more notable about Trump’s idea, something around which the silence has been deafening; that it is not unprecedented.
In the last century of American history alone ideas just like his have not merely been proposed, but passed and enforced. In 1979, the USA banned Iranians from coming to the United States, a policy flawed for all the same reasons as Trump’s proposal. That law was passed by none other than President Jimmy Carter, who stated that
‘the Secretary of State and the Attorney General will invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States, effective today. We will not reissue visas, nor will we issue new visas, except for compelling and proven humanitarian reasons or where the national interest of our own country requires. This directive will be interpreted very strictly.’
That is not the worst of it, however: in 1943 hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in internment camps for the crime of being ethnically Japanese, a violation far worse than that proposed by Donald Trump, and it happened under the auspices of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who administered the internment programme, stated
‘I don’t want any of them [persons of Japanese ancestry] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.’
Think again of the outcry against Trump’s ideas for Muslims. Think how much greater it would be had he proposed imprisoning all American Muslims until the War on Terror was over, with the same reasoning as DeWitt. Now, again, Carter did something like the prior and Roosevelt did something like the latter and yet when accounts are written of Carter and FDR, are they remembered as abominable fascists for these policies? No. Carter is seen as a decent if naïve idealist, and FDR is held by many as a liberal hero. Why the discrepancy in their treatment relative to that Trump? Unlike the Donald, after all, Carter and Roosevelt actually enacted their discriminatory policies.
Some would justify this discrepancy saying that Carter and Roosevelt’s actions are made less abhorrent by context. Given the threat of domestic terrorism posed by groups like the Islamic State is arguably greater than that posed by Iranians in 1979 or Imperial Japan in 1943, Roosevelt and Carter were no more justified based on the threat they were facing than Trump. Perhaps they were men of their time, but men like President Nixon, Senator McCarthy and Cecil Rhodes, all very much men of their time, aren’t shown the same magnanimity by history.
Another line holds that Trump should know better because we live in a more enlightened age, but that is arrogant at best. We like to think we live in a more liberal age but dividing people by race, gender and religion is if anything more fashionable now than it was in the ‘70s, owing to a resurrection of identity politics on college campuses, social media and certain journals of opinion. The beneficiaries and victims of the new identity politics may be different from those of the past, but all identity politics share the same fundamental premises. With the right spin those premises can be used against any group one likes, as they have been and are, and with said premises so common in the modern intellectual milieu, their use by unscrupulous men like Trump against Muslims should come as no surprise. No more of a surprise than Carter generalising Iranians or Roosevelt discriminating against Japanese-Americans, at least. In fact Roosevelt and Carter give Trump precedent, so if anything he has more reason to feel he isn’t going beyond the pale than did they.
It is in the end quite simple, then. Carter and Roosevelt are esteemed because of a double standard. If what they did does not tarnish then then what Trump proposes does not tarnish him; if what Trump proposes makes him abominable then what they did makes them abominable. Either way, however, Trump’s idea is not novel. That matters, because what has been done before can be done again.