The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The right unleashes a new wave of fear-mongering over refugees

Afghan refugees arrive at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Canada, on Aug. 13. (Cpl Rachael Allen/Dnd/Via Reuters)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that for some on the right, the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover of the country simultaneously presents an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, of course, this offers a good chance to blame something terrible on President Biden. On the other, it means that the United States may soon welcome a new group of refugees.

Can they simultaneously argue that Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan is causing a catastrophe and that we should slam the door on Afghans who hope to find refuge in the United States? Of course they can.

Even as the threat of a humanitarian disaster looms — and anyone with an ounce of morality understands that at a minimum we should resettle the thousands of Afghans whose lives are now in danger because they worked with the Americans — prominent conservatives are warning that these desperate people asking for our help are actually a dire threat to America.

“If history is any guide, and it’s always a guide, we will see many refugees from Afghanistan resettle in our country, and over the next decade, that number may swell to the millions,” said Tucker Carlson. “So first we invade, and then we are invaded.”

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“Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” asked his fellow Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “All day, we’ve heard phrases like, ‘We’ve promised them.’ Well, who did? Did you?”

Stephen Miller, architect of Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policies, saw a political conspiracy at work:

But perhaps the most interesting response to the Taliban takeover came from something else Carlson said. In addition to warning about the coming non-White horde, he made what was practically an endorsement of Taliban rule.

“Why did the Taliban win?” Carlson asked. This was his answer:

The population of Afghanistan has firmly rejected what our leaders were selling it over 20 years. It turns out that the people of Afghanistan don’t actually want gender studies symposia. They didn’t actually buy the idea that men can become pregnant. They thought that was ridiculous. They don’t hate their own masculinity. They don’t think it’s toxic. They like the patriarchy. Some of their women like it too. So now they’re getting it all back. So maybe it’s possible that we failed in Afghanistan because the entire neoliberal program is grotesque.

The idea that the war in Afghanistan was, from the perspective of the Afghan people, a referendum on the “gender studies symposia” that so terrify Carlson is of course bizarre and absurd. But this is not the first time an influential conservative has argued that our enemies are right about America.

After 9/11, Dinesh D’Souza — later a felon, recipient of a Trump pardon and near-constant presence in right-wing media — wrote a book claiming that liberals were responsible for the attacks because they had turned America decadent and depraved. Making this case required arguing that murderous though it may be, al-Qaeda was right in its critique of our society.

It’s a sideways version of “They hate us for our freedoms,” the idea conservatives repeated so often as a way of explaining terrorism. But while that cry was meant quite intentionally to obscure the foreign policy and military decisions that contributed to anti-Americanism — our support for corrupt and dictatorial governments, our military adventurism — in this formulation it turns into a condemnation of American society, or at least liberal influence over it.

In that story, the foreign enemy still doesn’t hate America because of what our government has done. But rather than hating something so fundamental about us we could not possibly change it (the vague and all-encompassing “our freedoms”) the enemy supposedly hates only the social changes conservatives don’t like.

For Carlson, this makes a kind of sense: If the Taliban is understood as merely a group of extremely traditionalist conservatives, then of course he’d imply that American conservatives should see them as allies in the real battle, the one against liberalism.

Does this idea sit uncomfortably alongside Carlson’s crusade to keep America White? Only a little. You can find momentary common cause with a foreigner while still believing that anyone who looks like him is a threat who should be kept out of your country.

Carlson may give a thumbs-up to the Taliban, but its fighters are not the ones trying to flee Afghanistan. It’s the Afghans who embrace American values that Carlson sees as the real threat, because they might come here. And just imagine if the Afghan refugees we accepted were not only non-White and not only Muslims, but turned out to be liberals!

That, of course, is the dark heart of the conspiracy Carlson warns his viewers about on a near-nightly basis, and that Miller echoes: The fight to keep immigrants out of the United States is both civilizational and political, since Democrats are supposedly scheming to bring them in by the millions so they can become Democratic voters. It’s not xenophobia and racism for their own sake, it’s also about maintaining Republican rule.

What about the idea that we might accept Afghan refugees simply because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of how it might affect our politics in 10 or 20 years? If only we could agree on that.