Opinion writer

In a speech that just concluded a little while ago, Donald Trump cranked up the volume of the clash-of-civilizations rhetoric to 11.

“When I’m elected, I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe, or our allies, until we fully understand how to end these threats,” Trump said. That seemed, if anything, like an expansion of his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

Making this worse, Trump said this about the Orlando shooter:

“The killer, whose name I will not use, or ever say, was born an Afgan, to Afghan parents who immigrated to the United States….The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here. That is a fact, and it’s a fact we need to talk about.”

It is not true that the killer was “born an Afghan.” Omar Mateen was born in New York and his family moved to Florida when he was a child. However, this falsehood is of a piece with other rhetoric Trump has been using about the Orlando shooting. This morning, for instance, he said that “we have thousands of people right now in our country” and “people that were born in this country” who are susceptible to being “radicalized,” adding that it was time to “turn them in.”

Taken all together, then, Trump is not merely saying we have to suspend Muslim immigration into the country — or from areas of the world with a proven history of terrorism, however that would work in practice — to combat the terror threat. He’s saying there are thousands currently here who also potentially constitute such a threat. We must address this growing menace in some new, more aggressive way. That’s in keeping with his previous lie that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims celebrated 9/11. The enemy is everywhere among us.

Which raises the question: How far is Trump willing to go to address this threat, both external and internal? He said again and again in today’s speech that we have to “get tough” before it’s too late. When he says we have to “talk about” this threat, what does he really have in mind?

It’s time to press Trump for specifics on this point. I spoke to some civil liberties experts, and they suggested a line of questioning for Trump that goes something like this:

In the case of a major terror attack or a terror threat that you deem to be particularly serious, would you rule out the possibility as president of launching active efforts to round up Muslims who are currently in this country — including American citizens — and place them into internment camps?

Nadine Strossen, the former president of the ACLU and a professor at New York Law School, points out that some of Trump’s rhetoric carries echoes of the justification for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

After all, in today’s speech, Trump flatly called for a suspension of immigration from all areas of the world with a history of terrorism, while simultaneously saying that we have no effective means for screening those who are coming here or for preventing the radicalization of their children. The internment of tens of thousands of Japanese people — aliens and citizens alike — was justified at the time on the grounds that there was no way of screening people who were loyal to America from people who were disloyal.

Strossen notes that Trump should be pressed on whether he might see internment or some other effort at rounding up Muslims to be appropriate, on the grounds that “we can’t distinguish between those who are threats and those who aren’t.” She notes that Trump might be asked: “Should we do with Muslims in this country now what we did with Japanese Americans during World War II?”

Another question for Trump might be whether he would rule out any effort to root out Muslim Americans working in the government, as happened to suspected communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era.

Is it far fetched to imagine that a President Trump might resort to such tactics? Well, recall that Trump himself said this last November, in the course of saying that we’d have to “look at” whether to establish a database of Muslims:

“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”

Now, it’s perfectly possible that Trump would never dream of measures as drastic as those taken against Japanese-Americans and suspected communists. It’s perfectly possible that he’d flatly rule these things out if he were asked about them. But wouldn’t it be a good idea to settle this question right now?

There have been some fascinating online debates over whether it’s accurate to call Trump a “fascist” or whether the term “populist demagogue” suffices. (Dylan Matthews recently ran a good piece featuring experts talking about this.) But perhaps trying to label Trump is futile. Perhaps it might be more useful to try to pin down what he is capable of with as much specificity as possible.

Trump obviously won’t ever deign to talk to your humble blogger. But he calls into cable shows regularly, and there will be plenty of occasions to ask him specific questions such as this. How about it, TV hosts? Let’s figure this out sooner rather than later, shall we?