Donald Trump on Monday called for the United States to bar any and all Muslims from entering the country for the foreseeable future. “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” the GOP front-runner said in a statement.
The announcement was, in the words of the New York Times, “an extraordinary escalation of his harsh rhetoric aimed at members of the Islamic faith.” Nancy Morawetz, a professor of clinical law at New York University School of Law, who specializes in immigration, told the paper that the proposal was “antithetical to the history of the United States,” and said she couldn’t recall “any historical precedent for denying immigration based on religion.”
The shock over Trump’s proposal is certainly warranted. Here is the Republican Party’s long-time polling front-runner putting forth a clearly xenophobic plan that is as disgusting as it almost certainly is unconstitutional. Still, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For starters, Trump has already suggested the government may need to shutter U.S. mosques and create a mandatory registry to track Muslims in the United States. While many of his rivals took issue with those remarks, they don’t sound all that different from him on the stump. Many have called for the same type of no-Muslims religious test for Syrian refugees looking to resettle in the United States. Ben Carson has proposed a similar test for future presidents (while also likening Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs”). And Ted Cruz has vowed to “shut down the broken immigration system that is letting jihadists into our country.” The common conservative refrain on the campaign trail, meanwhile, has long been that the first step in fighting ISIS is to define it as “radical Islamic terrorism.” (Republicans feel noticeably differently, however, about terrorist attacks committed by Christians.) The GOP field, then, is already on the record that they believe the Islamic faith itself poses a threat to the United States. Trump’s proposal is the logical conclusion to the type of illogical belligerence that Republicans have increasingly directed at Muslims in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris and last week’s massacre in San Bernardino, California.
Furthermore, Trump’s new position is cut from the same cloth as his old one—the anti-immigration demagoguery that has been the centerpiece of his unexpectedly durable campaign from the get go. This summer he went from late-night punch line to late-night-punch-line-who-is-leading-the-GOP-polls thanks in no small part to branding many Mexican immigrants as rapists, murderers, and drug dealers. One of the bigger differences between his wall-building and deportation-heavy plan and this no-Muslims-allowed one is that he’s not promising to make Muslims pay to implement the latter.
Much like he has on immigration, Trump is playing to his base with his latest proposal. As the Washington Post pollsters pointed out last month, the dual issues of immigration and Syrian refugees help explain Trump’s enduring popularity with his fans. I’ve stopped trying to predict how Republican voters will react to the billionaire and his particular brand of bluster, but there’s also evidence to suggest that his latest unapologetically inflammatory proposal won’t necessarily hurt him in the primary. According to a pair of Pew polls taken last year, Republicans view Muslims more negatively than they do any other religious group and 82 percent of them said they were “very concerned” about the rise of Islamic extremism. Previous surveys, meanwhile, suggest Americans have a much more unfavorable view of predominantly Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iran than they do Mexico, on which they’re generally split. (For obvious reasons, Gallup doesn’t ask Americans “who do you hate more: Mexicans or Muslims?” though they might need to under a Trump administration.)
One reason Trump—and the GOP at large—has so seamlessly shifted from the larger immigration issue to post-9/11 terrorism fears is because that conflation was already happening long before Paris. As my colleague Joshua Keating noted last year, baseless worries that ISIS terrorists would travel to Mexico and then sneak in over the United States’ southern border predate this campaign. Rick Perry suggested back in 2014 that there was a “very real possibility” that members of ISIS or other terrorist groups were entering the U.S. illegally via Mexico. Scott Walker made a similar case this summer when he said that Islamic terrorists were “most likely” smuggling themselves across the Mexican border. Once Trump learned he had an immigration hammer, it was only a matter of time before he saw every Muslim as a nail.
Thankfully, many of Trump’s GOP rivals scrambled to criticize his latest outlandish plan. Chris Christie called it a “ridiculous” proposal, “the kind of thing that people say when they have no experience and don’t know what they’re talking about”; Bush took to Twitter to call Trump “unhinged”; and other candidates offered similar assessments. Still, it’s worth remembering how quickly some of these same candidates have come around to Trump’s general worldview in the past.
The Donald had been warning that Syrian refugees were an ISIS “Trojan Horse” for months before the GOP-controlled House—with the blessing of GOP candidates like Christie—passed legislation effectively affirming that view. It was a similar story following Trump’s anti-immigrant jeremiad that launched his campaign. Despite the GOP establishment’s well-documented fear about alienating Hispanic voters as Mitt “Self-Deportation” Romney did four years ago, Trump’s theoretically more sober-minded rivals have been willing to entertain the ideas of building a 1,989-mile wall along the Mexican border and tracking foreigners like they’re FedEx packages. Even Jeb, a man who only a year earlier described coming to the United States illegally as “an act of love” people undertook for their families, began using the derogatory term “anchor babies” while his party talked opening about repealing the 14th amendment.
Trump’s rivals, then, might not like the wordings of his policy prescriptions. They’ve already made it clear, though, that they don’t disagree with the hateful worldview underpinning them.