Trump Time Capsule #24: 'There's No Real Assimilation'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
George W. Bush with American Muslim leaders in Washington, less than one week after the 9/11 attacks. He celebrated Muslim inclusion in the national family, rather than warning that it was impossible. (Doug Mills / AP)

Executive summary: what’s most wrong with Donald Trump’s latest statement about Muslim immigrants is not its bias. What most wrong is its stupidity.

  • A real president, or real presidential candidate, would be informed enough to know that Muslim immigrants to the U.S. have been notable for their assimilation, not the reverse.
  • A real president would be wise enough to recognize that the major threat to that ongoing process would be making Muslim Americans feel that they are on thin ice, unwelcome, and under suspicion. This is why George W. Bush began his very honorable (and strategically important) outreach to Muslim Americans soon after the 9/11 attacks.

But this year’s presumptive Republican nominee is not informed enough to recognize the first point, nor wise enough to grasp the second.

Now the details.

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Time Capsule #24, June 14, 2016. There’s no real assimilation.

Yesterday, in a Fox News discussion with Sean Hannity, who straddled the roles of campaign spokesman and interviewer, Donald Trump said that a ban on Muslim immigrants was justified, because Muslims didn’t assimilate:

Hannity: If you grow up under Sharia law, and as a man, you think you have the right to tell a woman how to dress, whether she can drive a car, whether she can go to school, or whether she can go to work … if you grow up there, you want to come to America, how do we vet somebody’s heart and ascertain if they're coming here for freedom or if they want to proselytize, indoctrinate, and bring the theocracy with them?

Trump: Assimilation has been very hard. It’s almost, I won’t say nonexistent, but it gets to be pretty close. And I’m talking about second and third generation — for some reason there’s no real assimilation.

Hannity: Right.

Set aside the “essentialism” of Trump’s suggestion that the most important thing about some second- and third- generation immigrants is their ethnic or religious background. Just as a matter of being in touch with reality, to make the claim is to reveal that you have spent no time asking or learning about this issue, as opposed to dreaming up agitprop.

From a world perspective, the striking trait about Muslim immigrants to the United States has for a long time been how much better they have assimilated than their counterparts in most other nations, notably including all of Europe. In the years after the 9/11 attacks, one terrorism expert after another pointed out the big American advantage over France, Germany, Holland, the U.K., and other countries in this regard. Second- and third-generation Muslim Americans mainly thought of themselves as American, in common with other U.S. immigrant groups and in contrast to many new immigrants in Western Europe.

Extensive surveys taken more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks showed that Muslim Americans had more in common with other U.S. immigrant groups than with any extremists overseas. (For instance, this 2011 Pew study: “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.”) I know first-hand from interviews with counter-terrorism officials in the years after 9/11 that they viewed the continuing integration of Muslims as a huge U.S. advantage. The corresponding danger would be a shift in U.S. attitudes that made Muslim immigrants feel they could not be accepted.

Another illustration of Muslim-American assimilation, from a Gallup poll in 2010:

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Where might a shift to an estranged and “other” status for Muslim Americans arise from? And why might Trump be taking the tone? The data displayed in the chart below are a few years old but may suggest a clue. The Republican base that Trump has been appealing to differs from the rest of the country in having a strong anti-Muslim outlook:

A real president or presidential candidate would know enough about reality to understand that assimilation was progressing.

A real president would realize that the greatest danger was saying or doing things that would make this group of Americans feel suspect or unwelcome.

Extra reading: from Vox, Pew Research, Talking Points Memo, CFR, and again this by Pew in 2011: “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.”

Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus, John McCain, Jon Huntsman, most of the Republican delegation of the Senate and House: you’re willing to stand behind this man?