A little while ago, Slate’s Isaac Chotiner pointed to one of the ways that conservative entertainers like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News have aided Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Rather than defend Trump’s more outlandish remarks—like claiming that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy—O’Reilly and his ilk seek to explain them. In doing so, Chotiner argues, they’ve helped normalize his extreme behavior and made it seem palatable to a large segment of the electorate. I see his point.
Nevertheless, I’ve found myself doing a fair bit of Trumpsplaining over the past few months, both in my writing and in conversations with friends and relatives. This is not because I support his candidacy—I do not—or because I want to legitimize Trump’s wild-man shtick. I Trumpsplain because millions of voters have embraced his campaign, and I want to understand why. Why are Trump’s Republican supporters willing to overlook his many ideological heresies, on issues ranging from abortion to socialized medicine to Israel? Why are they so indifferent to his many flip-flops? I have a working hypothesis. The short version of my Trumpsplainer: Many conservatives believe first and foremost in the importance of keeping Americans safe, and Trump has emerged as their candidate.
This thought first occurred to me late last year. Back in December, the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling played a trick on Trump voters, asking them if they’d favor bombing Agrabah, the fictional setting of the animated film Aladdin. Forty-one percent of them said that yes, they would favor bombing Agrabah, while only 9 percent took a definitive stand against doing so. The share of Republicans overall who favored bombing Agrabah was 30 percent.
Rather than take PPP’s poll-trolling lying down, WPA Research, a conservative firm, asked Democrats if they’d support the resettlement of refugees from Agrabah in the United States. Lo and behold, 44 percent said they’d support resettlement while 27 percent said they’d oppose it. Among Democrats aged 18 to 34, support for welcoming these fictional refugees was 66 percent. In a press release announcing this result, WPA Research explicitly contrasted their finding with PPP’s: “PPP may have proven that some Republicans will support bombing a fictional country, but fully 44 percent of Democrats will allow refugees from anywhere into the country, whether they are potential ISIS supporters from Syria or potential cartoon characters on a magic carpet ride.”
So, what did we learn from this frankly quite stupid exercise? Several acquaintances of mine told me that these polls revealed that the first instinct of many Trump supporters was to kill strangers, while that of many Democrats was to welcome them.
I’d argue that there is a bit more to it. Yes, those who support bombing Agrabah are willing to inflict pain and suffering on foreigners they know nothing about. But they’re willing to do so because they believe that it will make Americans safer. And to them, keeping Americans safe is more important than anything else. Those who want to resettle refugees from Agrabah, meanwhile, care enough about helping foreigners about whom they’re completely ignorant and are willing to live with the possibility that a few radicals might enter the country and threaten the lives of Americans. If we have to sacrifice some degree of safety to do the right thing, so be it.
If our goal, then, is to persuade the bomb-Agrabah voters to give peace a chance, we’d have to make the case that bombing Agrabah will not in fact make Americans safer. If our goal is to make the case against welcoming refugees from Agrabah, we’d have to establish that there are morally acceptable alternatives to doing so, like helping the people who are fleeing Agrabah to find refuge closer to home.
These dueling polls, silly as they may seem on the surface, actually tell us a lot about Trump’s appeal. Byron York, a columnist for the Washington Examiner, observes that in the biggest GOP primary contests, large majorities of Republican voters have supported “temporarily banning Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the U.S.” Support for a Muslim ban among Republicans far surpasses support for mass deportation, and it is closely correlated with support for Trump.
One straightforward interpretation of these high levels of support for a Muslim ban is that there are more bigots out there than many of us had assumed. The Trumpsplainer in me sees things differently.
Donald Trump’s call for a Muslim ban came in the context of a larger debate over the resettlement of Syrian refugees and of Muslim immigration more broadly. In March, I argued that this debate has been based on faulty premises. On one side, you have people who maintain that Muslim immigrants represent a threat to Western democracies. On the other side are those who argue that Muslim immigrants pose no threat—that racism and a failure to provide immigrants with the resources they need can lead to the alienation of the children of Muslim immigrants, some of whom might then embrace radical ideologies. What this debate has so far neglected is the possibility that both sides are right: Muslim immigration does pose a long-term threat to Western democracies, because citizens of Western democracies are unwilling to devote the resources necessary to integrate Muslim immigrants and their children.
More recently, Claire L. Adida, David D. Laitin, and Marie-Anne Valfort offered a sobering look at the place of Muslims in Western democracies. Drawing on the experiences of Christian and Muslim immigrants from Senegal, they found that the Muslims faced greater discrimination while also expressing more attachment to their country of origin and less to their host country than their Christian counterparts. Moreover, they observe that these patterns don’t meaningfully improve from one generation to the next. “As a result,” they wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Europe is creating a class of under-employed immigrants who feel little or no connection with their host societies.” So far, everything that Adida, Laitin, and Valfort argue resonates with my own understanding: Muslims often struggle to integrate into Western democracies, both because they face discrimination and because they are reluctant to embrace the culture of their host countries. These two forces can be self-reinforcing. If I’m not embraced by my host society, I might cling all the more tightly to my native culture, and I might grow to resent the foreigners around me. One takeaway from this analysis is that it makes sense for the citizens of Western democracies to be cautious and deliberate with respect to large-scale Muslim immigration, at least until we learn more about what it takes to make integration work.
But that is not the conclusion Adida et al. draw. After exhaustively detailing the many ways efforts to integrate Muslim immigrants into Western democracies have failed, they don’t propose taking a step back and acknowledging that these efforts are likely to prove expensive and difficult and that we might want to welcome smaller numbers of Muslim immigrants in the future. Instead, they make the opposite argument, calling for doubling down on anti-discrimination efforts and for a transformation of social norms around gender within Muslim communities. (Suffice it to say, transforming gender norms is not the easiest thing in the world to do.) They insist that the one thing Western democracies must not do is ban Muslim immigration, as doing so will alienate Muslims and make it harder for them to integrate.
To some liberals, it is obvious that Western democracies ought to welcome as many traumatized Muslims as possible, even if that means accepting that some small number of second-generation Muslims might embrace violent jihadism. Those who oppose this approach are, according to this line of thinking, blaming the victim, because the vast majority of Muslims pose no threat.
My sense is that Trump supporters believe in a different principle: better safe than sorry. Sure, most Muslim immigrants are fine people who pose no threat. But some of them might pose a threat. Moreover, there is no guarantee that spending large sums of money and promoting tolerance will prevent every second-generation Muslim from feeling alienated, because most people are partial to those who are similar to them and at least mildly suspicious of those who are different. Why take any chances?
Those who embrace safety-first conservatism don’t care all that much about whether doing what it takes to be safe means violating some universal moral principle or whether they’re blaming the victim. They care about keeping themselves, their families, and the members of their national community safe. They see liberals as dangerously naïve. Calling out Trump for his appeals to racial and ethnic resentment, or his ignorance of policy detail, won’t dissuade them from supporting him, because they believe that for all his faults, he understands their fears in a way that other politicians simply do not.