Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Daily Face Palm - October 4, 2015

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 that Yemeni 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.


  1. I think the distinction you've drawn between racism and nationalism better explains U.S. foreign policy than it does Trump's seemingly incessant aspersions against non-Americans. Nationalism only requires putting one's own country on a pedestal, although such feelings of superiority may, in some cases, manifest themselves in more extreme sentiments. But nationalism doesn't require the kind of sweeping and calumnious statements Trump continually makes about Syrians and Mexicans and so forth. You're going well beyond nationalism when you label Mexican immigrants as rapists, as Trump did a few months ago. Such opprobrium rests comfortably in the realm of "racism." Similarly, Trump continues to intimate that Syrian refugees are all cowardly men who left their wives and children in an effort to overthrow the U.S. government on behalf of ISIS. These are generalizations that, as best I can tell, mix nationalism and racism, creating, perhaps, a toxic concoction designed to appeal to the nationalists and the racists in the Republican Party.

  2. It's in our nature as humans to care more about the welfare of our own than others. You'd never drop a drone strike on Boston or London to kill a terrorist because even a single civilian death would be an unacceptable cost to most folks. 1 terrorist != 1 western civilian. I'm not even sure where the calculus lies, but it's very highly tilted towards civilian protection rather than terrorist killing because the whole idea of the war on terror is to prevent unnecessary western deaths, so if we wind up doing essentially doing the terrorist's job for them it completely undermines the entire objective.

    Versus if you're firing in Yemen, you aren't endangering any Western lives. You are "potentially" taking out some terrorists. It's morally dubious and the effectiveness is questionable, but if you start from the premise of 'we must protect our own', then any collateral damage en route to that goal is unfortunate but acceptable.

    (Disclaimer: I'm not saying I agree with this moral calculus or strategy, but I do understand the rationale behind it.)

    1. Andy, I do agree with your analysis. We tend to care about more about those we can relate to. There's no way to make a legitimate argument in defense of such preferences without being overtly racist / tribalist, but it is certainly the underlying rationale as you say.

      It's also why you virtually never see any information about the people that get killed in strikes in the Middle East; you're lucky if you get a name or an acknowledgement that civilians and not just terrorists were killed. But if anything happens in the West, profiles of the victims will dominate the news cycle for the next few weeks. So you're certainly right that that's the underlying rationale, and it's consistently reinforced by our tradition of marginalizing the victims of our policy. It's also the main reason why the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz is getting so much more press than normal. There's just no good way to ignore a bombing on a Western-run hospital...

  3. Sam, I agree that Trump's general demeanor is outrageous on these issues, but I honestly don't think the difference is meaningful between him and the de facto views of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, that's kind of my point. Trump is more overtly critical and insulting of Mexicans and Syrians, but he's also just more insulting in general. So part of his vitriol towards foreigners is just the character he's decided to play. And as you noted, it seems to be working for him. That said, he's still doesn't seem to play the race card quite as overtly as some other objectionable politicians. For instance, he hasn't yet pulled a Bibi Netanyahu yet to my knowledge.

    (In particular, I'm thinking of the time before the most recent Israeli elections where he said "The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are going en masse to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses." Replace Arab with "Black" and it feels like the 1960s again. Here's the link for that by the way: )

    I think this is sort of analogous to the police brutality / black lives matter issue. I don't think that most cops are legitimately white supremacists. The NYPD isn't holding a Klan meeting on the weekends; and I'd be surprised if the group of officers who killed Eric Garner even used racial slurs. But if the effect of their ostensibly objective policies leads to disproportionately negative outcomes for minorities--and no accountability for the perpetrators--the fact that they don't use the N word regularly doesn't really matter you know? A lot of times, I think this line of reasoning could be described as "institutional racism" though that seems to have the undesirable effect of exonerated the individuals that implement the system. Similarly, Obama invited the clock-maker Ahmed to the White House, which was a nice gesture I guess. Trump probably would have just called Ahmed 'a wimp' from the podium in the Rose Garden if he was president. But either way, the fact remains that if Ahmed got swept up in a similar counterterrorism operation in the Middle East instead of Texas, we'd probably be paying someone a bounty.

    If the actions are manifestly racist, the words we use to describe them don't really matter. In some ways, Trump's overt xenophobia is preferable because at least there's no pretension to the contrary, and maybe ordinary people would start to recognize our policies for what they are.

    As an aside, do you think it's meaningful that Trump, at least as far as I've seen, still seems to stick to national labels? For instance, he'll talk about the Mexicans but not Latino people in mass (thereby not discriminating against Latinos who are already American, presumably).

    1. If some of Trump's remarks aren't racist, then I'm not sure the term has much of a substantive definition at this point. Surely labeling Mexican immigrants "criminals" and "rapists"—essentially calling into question the moral character of an entire group of people—is at least as bad (and probably a lot worse) than Bibi's remark about Arab voters. Racists in the '60s, and well before, consistently justified unequal treatment under the law on the basis that blacks were less civilized and more prone to criminality. And if Bibi's comment counts as pulling the race card, then Trump's speculation that Syrian refugees are ISIS recruits sent to overthrow the U.S. government—an assertion nearly analogous to the one Netanyahu made, if even more scornful—must count as well.

      On the other hand, I don't hear the Obama administration using racial language to describe people in Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Iran, or Iraq, or Syria, or even Palestine. Obama's foreign policy isn't framed in that language. It's much more overtly nationalist, in both tone and practice, I think.

      "If the actions are manifestly racist, the words we use to describe them don't really matter."

      I don't really disagree with this, but I think you're moving the goalpost a bit here. You argued that Trump's rhetoric smacks of nationalism, not racism, and that, when you get right down to it, he's resting comfortably in the same vein as the Obama administration. But I think that's too simple. Many of Trump's remarks have exuded racism, not just nationalism. That sets him meaningfully apart from the Obama administration, even if both display strong nationalist tendencies.

      Like I said before, it's too simple to characterize Trump as either a racist or a nationalist. He clearly exhibits both.

    2. I think we're quibbling a bit over semantics here. I'm drawing a distinction between Trump referring to the Mexicans as opposed to the Hispanics or the Latinos. Maybe it's useless, but Mexican isn't a race and neither is Syrian. I know it's kind of a minor point, but that's why I'm saying he's more nationalist / xenophobic than racist in a very literal way. Often, racism is used to describe all forms of bigotry, so I think in some ways you're distinguishing racism from nationalism by seeing them as different degrees along the same continuum (with racism being the more extreme). I'm suggesting that there is a qualitative difference between the terms, in that they describe distinct, though related phenomena. Does that make sense? In my mind, some of Trump's comments on Islam would be more in the realm of racism (since religionism isn't a term) than his comments on immigrants. But again he still talks about countries a lot and not just religion / ethnicity. For instance, he denounces Iran and he wants to steal Iraq's oil. Again, awful things all. But he doesn't seem to exclusively do the broad brush Giuliani thing all the time.

      Don't get me wrong. Trump's diatribes are appalling collectivist nonsense and are dramatically more extreme than anything most Democrats or the current administration would countenance. I'm not disagreeing with you there at all.