Bill Clinton's Lapse Into Trumpism

In his convention speech, he suggested that Muslims need to earn the rights that all other Americans enjoy.

Bill Clinton departs Istanbul's Blue Mosque in 1999 (Reuters)

I love Bill Clinton. But I didn’t love his speech Tuesday night in Philadelphia. Given the job of humanizing his wife, he came across as genuinely smitten. But he failed to do what he’s done in every convention speech he’s delivered since 1992: tell a story about where America is today and what can be done to move it forward. He called his wife a great “change maker” but didn’t define the change America needs right now.

But the worst moment of the speech came near its end, when Clinton began to riff about the different kinds of people who should join Hillary’s effort. “If you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes, you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over someone that wants to send you back,” he said. Fair enough. Under any conceivable immigration overhaul, only those undocumented immigrants who have obeyed the law once in the United States—which includes paying taxes—will qualify for citizenship. Two sentences later, Clinton said that, “If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid … help us build a future where no one’s afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future.” No problem there. Of course African Americans should be safe from abusive police, and of course, police should be safe from the murderers who threaten them.

But in between, Clinton said something dreadful: “If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together, we want you.” The problem is in the assumption. American Muslims should be viewed exactly the same way other Americans are. If they commit crimes, then they should be prosecuted, just like other Americans. But they should not have to prove that they “love America and freedom” and “hate terror” to “stay here.” Their value as Americans is inherent, not instrumental. Their role as Americans is not to “help us win” the “war on terror.”

Whether Clinton meant to or not, he lapsed into Trumpism: the implication that Muslims are a class apart, deserving of special scrutiny and surveillance, guilty of terrorist sympathies until proven innocent. I think I understand where the formulation came from. In the 1990s, one of Clinton’s key New Democratic innovations was his insistence that with rights, come responsibilities: To receive government assistance, welfare recipients must work. If people commit crimes, the government will punish them harshly.

The problem with transferring that formulation to Muslims today is that Muslims aren’t asking for benefits from the welfare state. They’re simply asking not to be discriminated against. Clinton’s formulation was like saying, in 1964, that as long as African Americans eschew violence and love America, they deserve the right to vote.

The entire tone of the Democratic convention’s first two nights suggests a defensiveness about Trump’s anti-Muslim attacks. Barely anyone has defended Barack Obama’s proposal to admit more Syrian refugees. And so, in keeping with that spirit, Clinton hedged his opposition to Trump’s Muslim ban by suggesting that America should welcome good Muslims, the ones who don’t secretly hate America.

There are, to be sure, times for the ideological triangulation that Clinton made famous in the 1990s. But a major-party nominee calling for a religious litmus test for entry into the United States is not one of them. It’s a time for clarity. And Bill Clinton failed to provide it last night, thus reminding even those of us who admire him that his political instincts sometimes overwhelm his moral ones.