Trump’s Immigration Tests for Muslims Recall Disturbing Echoes for American Jews

GOP candidate opts to dub himself 'extreme,' even though the same tactic led Barry Goldwater to a crushing defeat in 1964.

Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, U.S., on Monday, Aug. 15, 2016.
Bloomberg

Donald Trump proposed Monday night that the U.S. carry out “extreme screening” of potential immigrants from “dangerous and volatile regions that export terrorism.” The word “extreme” did not appear in the original text of the speech distributed by the Trump campaign.

Trump added the word because he wanted it to feature in news headlines. He wanted the word “extreme” to be associated with his name. Improving his dire situation in the polls, one must admit, does indeed require something “extreme.”

Nonetheless, the last time a Republican candidate tried to don the mantle of "extreme,” things didn’t work out all that well. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” Barry Goldwater said in his 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. The sentence, coined by Jewish historian Harry Jaffa, is still revered by many conservatives, but it certainly didn’t help Goldwater: the label “extreme” enabled Democrats to depict him as a dangerous candidate who cannot be trusted with America’s  nuclear codes, a taunt that probably sounds familiar to Trump. In November of that year, the Republicans suffered their worst popular vote defeat in history.

Trump chose to deliver his speech in Youngstown, Ohio, which is often cited as a symbol of white despair in the Rust Belt and of interracial tensions. He read his prepared speech from the teleprompter in yet another effort to reset his failing campaign and to depict him as a candidate with sufficient grasp of national security affairs to serve as president. Given that his main objective right now is to stop further defections of Republican and independent voters, Trump played on two of their worst fears: Jihadist terrorism and an influx of would-be terrorists into the U.S.

In terms of combatting terror, Trump didn’t make too many headlines; most of his supposedly innovative policies are already being carried out by the Obama administration, albeit without Trump’s adoring tone towards Russia. Trump proposed setting up a public council, called The Commission on Radical Islam, that would wage a propaganda war against Muslim extremism, as well as an overhaul of the immigration procedures that would include the above mentioned “extreme vetting,” which, Trump said, in another deviation from the prepared text, would be applied “viciously.”  In addition to temporarily suspending immigration “from some of the most dangerous and volatile regions of the world that have a history of exporting terrorism,” Trump suggests an ideological screening test that would allow only “those who share our values and respect our people” to enter the U.S.

Trump’s proposal was immediately lambasted by the Clinton campaign, as well as human rights groups and several Jewish organizations, as racist and un-American. It’s the kind of policy that can accentuate the big psychological gaps between Israelis and American Jews; the former would find nothing objectionable in a proposal to apply stringent immigration procedures for Muslims from suspect countries, while the latter are bound to be horrified. Over the course of the 20th century, ideological and literacy tests have been the traditional instrument of choice for anti-Semites barring Jews from entering the U.S.

This was the case in the 1917 Immigration Act, which was mainly aimed at Japanese and Chinese immigrants, but filtered out “anarchists,” which was code for Jews. The 1924 Johnson Reed Act, which was more specifically targeted at the common euphemism for Jews and Catholics - “Eastern and Southern Europeans,” and probably prevented hundreds of thousands of Jews from escaping the approaching Nazi Holocaust. And the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act was supposedly meant to keep out communists at a time, like anarchists half a century earlier, most were considered to be Jews. In 2012, Nevada Senator Harry Reid called for Sheldon Adelson’s Las Vegas to finally rebrand its airport, named for the late Democratic Senator Pat McCarran, perpetrator of the Act, who, Reid said “was one of the most anti-Semitic, one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people who has ever served in the Senate.”

The revered Senator Henry Cabot Lodge lobbied against Jewish immigration at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. He was the driving force behind the literary test that was aimed at keeping Jews out. He equated new immigrants with “criminals, paupers and juvenile delinquents” and referred to them as “races with which the English speaking people have never assimilated.” But in a famous speech in 1897, Lodge refrained from specifying that it was the Jews who were bothering him the most; 120 years later, Trump has had no constraints in identifying Mexicans as murderers and rapists and pinpointing Muslims as problematic immigrants who had no intention of assimilating.

Most Jews, however, won’t be voting for Trump anyway, even if he did promise that “our greatest ally Israel" would be invited to his proposed international conference on defeating ISIS. And despite the launch of the Trump campaign in Israel this week, even if Trump got 100 per cent of Jewish votes it would make only a slight dent in the daunting lead that Clinton now holds over him, especially in battleground states.

Quickly approaching the point of no return from which he will be unable to recover, Trump returned to the single issue that has shaped and defined the American right since the September 11 attacks - fear of radical Islam and of the terror that is carried out in its name, abroad and at home. Trump’s speech wasn’t daring enough to change his current predicament, and his wooden and often comically artificial rendering of the teleprompter texts certainly didn’t help. All of which can change, of course, if ISIS carries out a large scale terror attack, God forbid: with the exception of a major league catastrophe that will befall Clinton, it’s the only thing that can save Trump from the disaster that’s about to overcome him and the GOP.