Among the things shocking observers of the Donald Trump Transition these past two weeks is the continued, casual discussion of some sort of registry for Muslims in this country. And for good reason.
Last week, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, one of many hard-liners involved in the president-elect’s chaotic transition, suggested to Reuters that the new administration was mulling a registry for immigrants from Muslim countries — a suggestion that a Trump surrogate defended on television by citing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a precedent. That sentence bears repeating: A possible registry for immigrants from Muslim countries was defended by a Trump surrogate on television, who cited the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II as a precedent.
A Trump spokesman, not surprisingly, tried to pretend otherwise, telling the New York Times that Trump “has never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion” and that “to imply otherwise is completely false.”
But Monday, in yet another example of the type of story that may well put the Onion out of business during the Trump administration, Kobach walked into Trump Tower with his “Strategic Plan for First 365 Days” exposed. Kobach’s plan calls for reintroducing the “National Security Entry-Exit Registration System,” a registry for immigrants from certain countries that was implemented after Sept. 11 and has since been suspended after it accomplished little more than the harassment of Muslim immigrants. Kobach, apparently, wants to bring it back.
Taken together, all of these things should hit a nerve, as they have. The proposal of secret government lists of people from a community the president-elect has repeatedly demonized, lied about and singled out for suspicion is frightening and should be opposed at the loudest possible volume. Outrage about this type of talk is not “crying wolf”; it is righteous.
But it is also, at least from some quarters, hypocritical.
The erosion of civil liberties has been a fact of life for Muslims in this country for more than a decade now, the result of post-9/11 policies enacted by President George W. Bush and continued by President Obama. Spying on mosques? Check. Secret government lists? Check.
Democrats, who in many cases criticized the excesses of Bush and continue to do so, have defended many of the same policies under Obama and in some cases sought to expand them. Last year, Democrats pushed legislation that would have seen the terrorist watch list — with all its well-known flaws and lacking due process protections — used to prevent people from buying guns, demagoguing the issue with slogans like “No Fly, No Buy” and the bill’s silly name: the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists Act of 2015. Liberal darlings such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were some of the worst offenders. She tweeted that Republican opponents of the bill had voted “to sell weapons to ISIS.”
None of this, of course, is to suggest that Trump isn’t as odious as he seems — he is — or that his proposals, and general attitude, are any less of a threat to civil liberties. Nor is it to imply that he simply represents more of the same as a president. He is uniquely terrible in a variety of ways and we have every reason to suspect that he sees restraint in these areas not as a virtue but rather as a weakness.
Still, it would be good if those who have made apologies for the expansion of the security state and the restriction of Muslim Americans’ liberty — because it was a time of emergency or because the president was a man they trusted — reckon with the fact that the worst-case scenario they were warned about has come. The Oval Office will soon be occupied by the world’s most powerful toddler, a man who has promised millions of his supporters that he will turn his ire on an already-marginalized group of Americans. And if a Nixonian, lawless impulse seizes him — as it seems almost certain to happen — who will be there to counsel him against it? Steve Bannon? Jeff Sessions? If you haven’t felt a shiver down your spine at any point during these past two weeks, consider this: When that moment comes, the voice of “better angels” will likely be that of former Republican Party chairman and incoming Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus.
For now, one can only hope that sane Republicans and Democrats find the backbone to oppose Trump’s likely attempts to bend the rules further and that they remember this nauseating moment the next time they are in power.