Campaign 2016

What Trump's National Security Speech Was Really About

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, August 15, 2016, 9:26 PM

Donald Trump is a very strange man. And he gave today a very strange speech on national security.

Its weirdnesses are several and probably each worth exploration at length. There’s his persistent, overt lying about his supposed past opposition to the Iraq war, combined with his self-congratulation for having taken a stand against a war he, in fact, does not appear to have opposed. In this speech, he cites as evidence of his wisdom on Iraq an interview he gave in 2004, long after the imbroglio had begun, and an interview conducted before the war, in which he did not oppose it. He helpfully footnotes both, in case anyone wants to check.

Then there’s the weirdly mercantile fashion in which he talks about the Iraq war. He devotes a whole paragraph to his earlier pleas to “keep the oil”: “I was saying this constantly and to whoever would listen: keep the oil, keep the oil, keep the oil, I said—don’t let someone else get it. . . . If they had listened to me then, we would have had the economic benefits of the oil. . . .” This is not extemporanous impulsiveness on the stump. It’s in the written text. So is this: “In the old days, when we won a war, to the victor belonged the spoils.” Ah, the good old days when we did that pillage and plunder part of the famed trio! (Actually, Trump is engaged in a bit of linguistic appropriation here; the old saying that “to the victor belong the spoils” comes from American electoral politics. But never mind that. I’m sure Trump believes in keeping those spoils too.)

Fun and games aside, I actually don’t want to focus here on what is weird about Trump’s speech, though that subject is certainly what the military would call a target-rich environment. I want to focus instead on what ideas Trump is actually contributing to the discussion. His speech was long, and it contained a lot of words. A lot of those words are about Muslims killing people. A lot of the remaining words blame Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the fact that those Muslims are killing those people and the additional fact that several Arab states have imploded or seen their governments toppled in the last few years.

But there is a real idea behind this speech, and I want to do Trump the favor of teasing it out: The gravamen of this speech is the rejection of the idea that Muslims can selectively assimilate into America. That is really what this speech is about.

Before we get into the underlying ideation of the speech, let’s sweep off the table some stuff the speech isn’t about. Though billed as a major policy address on national security matters and terrorism, and though the speech contains a lot of nasty words about Obama and Clinton and their records, most of Trump's actual promises to do things involving things that are already being done. How is Trump going to go after radical Islamic terrorists? His answers, mostly, sound a whole lot like those of the current and former administrations:

  • "We will . . . work closely with NATO on this new mission.” Check.

  • “I also believe that we could find common ground with Russia in the fight against ISIS.” Alas, so does the Obama administration, which is why John Kerry has been spending so much fruitless time trying hanging with Sergey Lavrov.

  • “My Administration will aggressively pursue joint and coalition military operations to crush and destroy ISIS, international cooperation to cut off their funding, expanded intelligence sharing, and cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable their propaganda and recruiting.” In which case Trump’s administration will look a heck of a lot like this one, and the one before it.

  • “We will decimate Al Qaeda, and we will seek to starve funding for Iran-backed Hamas and Hezbollah. We can use existing UN Security Council resolutions to apply new sanctions.” Yeah, the old cut-off-terrorist-financing bit—a favorite strategy of both the current and former administrations.

  • "Drone strikes will remain part of our strategy.” Continuity again—this time even acknowledged.

  • “[W]e will also seek to capture high-value targets to gain needed information to dismantle their organizations.” This barely a week after the so-called “Playbook” on drone strikes and other direct actions was released, revealing the current administration’s preference for capture operations.

  • “[W]e will pursue aggressive criminal or immigration charges against anyone who lends material support to terrorism.” Check. Whatever one says about the Obama and Bush administrations, neither has exactly been soft on material support.

In other words, where Trump in this speech is talking about actual national security policies, he puts forth an angry, semi-literate expression of a set of consensus ideas that are largely already in practice. To be sure, there are a couple of areas where instead of promising a reprise of exactly the policies about whose alleged failures he complains, he promises boilerplate GOP policy ideas in counterterrorism. “We will also keep open Guantanamo Bay,” he says, as though the location of one’s detention facility is going to make a big difference in the defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda. And there’s the obligatory “Foreign combatants will be tried in military commissions.” Leaving aside the merits of these ideas, they are old fights, and they’re not Trump’s fights. They’re toss-off lines in this speech. They are not his focus.

So what is his focus? If we take out all of the stuff that’s already happening, and all of the standard-fare Republican critiques, what’s left? Just one thing, really: a burning hostility to unassimilated Muslims.

The speech contains a lot of rhetoric about the importance of calling radical Islamic terrorism by its name: “Anyone who cannot name our enemy is not fit to lead this country. Anyone who cannot condemn the hatred, oppression and violence of Radical Islam lacks the moral clarity to serve as our President.” And indeed, the speech's major theme is that the entire focus of a Trump administration in the national security arena will be to counter radical Islam: “If I become President, the era of nation-building will be ended. Our new approach . . . must be to halt the spread of Radical Islam. All actions should be oriented around this goal. . . .”

To accomplish this goal, beyond what’s already happening, Trump proposes several things. First off, “[A]ny country which shares this goal will be our ally.” (Memo to China and Mexico: It's easy to get on Trump’s good side, after all.)

Trump also promises to talk a lot about the nature of Islam: “As President, I will call for an international conference focused on this goal.” Moreover, “[t]o defeat Islamic terrorism, we must also speak out forcefully against a hateful ideology that provides the breeding ground for violence and terrorism to grow.” And what’s more, "one of my first acts as President will be to establish a Commission on Radical Islam, which will include reformist voices in the Muslim community who will hopefully work with us. We want to build bridges and erase divisions. The goal of the commission will be to identify and explain to the American public the core convictions and beliefs of Radical Islam, to identify the warning signs of radicalization, and to expose the networks in our society that support radicalization.” Imagine a presidential commission deciding what is acceptable Islam and what is unacceptable, radical Islam.

Some hint of what lies on the unacceptable side comes when Trump discusses his immigration ban—what he calls “extreme screening,” combined with a temporary ban on immigration from countries that produce terrorism while those screening procedures are developed and put in place. Who's the target? "In addition to screening out all members or sympathizers of terrorist groups, we must also screen out any who have hostile attitudes towards our country or its principles—or who believe that Sharia law should supplant American law." So now we have a presidential commission devoted to "identify[ing] and explain[ing] . . . the core convictions and beliefs of Radical Islam" and exposing its networks and a definition of Radical Islam that includes anyone with any hostile attitudes towards American principles or belief in the divinity of shariah.

Here's the thing: I'm not exaggerating the coerciveness of Trump's proposals. The remarkable thing about the speech is just how overtly Trump describes these proposals as an attempt to force assimilation, indeed how French is Trump’s vision of the assimilation of the minority into the polity. “Just like we couldn’t defeat communism without acknowledging that communism exists—or explaining its evils—we can’t defeat Radical Islamic Terrorism unless we do the same. This also means we have to promote the exceptional virtues of our own way of life—and expecting that newcomers to our society do the same. . . . Assimilation is not an act of hostility, but an expression of compassion. Our system of government, and our American culture, is the best in the world and will produce the best outcomes for all who adopt it” (emphasis added).

This is the core of the speech. When you put it all together, Trump is saying that Radical Islam is the problem; that because radical Islamists are insufficiently distinct from other Muslims to separate them and exclude only them, we should exclude all Muslims until we can put together screening procedures of particular vigor with respect to insight into people's beliefs and core religious and civic commitments; we should exclude all Muslims for now, and ultimately exclude all who do not wish to assimilate into each and every one of the “exceptional virtues of our own way of life.” We should conduct ideological warfare, as he puts it, against a whole category of religious convictions. In other words, we should make Muslims choose, and we should make the choice very stark indeed.

It is a remarkable statement by a would-be president of the United States. By its lights, this country has no room for Amish, for Orthodox Jews, for Mormons, or for that matter, for the many dissenting Protestant sects that found haven here and have mellowed over the years and become mainstream. Selective assimilation, in which religious and ethnic groups come here and drink however much of our KoolAid they feel like downing and hand back the rest with a “no thanks,” lies at the core of Americanism. The policy Trump is really advancing here, in the name of national security and keeping America safe, is a rejection of that vision of religious freedom.