How 'new screening' became 'extreme vetting'

6:17 pm on 17 August 2016

Opinion - This election so far is all about Donald Trump, and the narrative has become that of a campaign failing horribly because of an extraordinary combination of over-honesty and lies.

His favourite event is the big rally. It's a narcissist's dream: thousands of acolytes cheer your every word and give you the acclaim you're quite sure you richly deserve. They don't even seem to care what you say.

Mr Trump's rallies are impressive spectacles but they are also destroying his campaign, one misguided rant at a time.

To attempt to turn this around, his campaign held two set-piece policy speeches over the last fortnight. These speeches were written down - so surely there was less room for error?

Donald Trump veered off script at a rally in Ohio, telling the crowd he wanted "extreme vetting" for refugees.

Donald Trump veered off script at a rally in Ohio, telling the crowd he wanted "extreme vetting" for refugees. Photo: AFP

The Pew Centre for Research has asked voters how much time they think should be given to various topics in the September debates.

Responses varied by party, but two of the top five topics were economic in nature and the others were terrorism, foreign policy, and immigration.

His speeches - foreign policy and economics - were well aimed, at least.

But last week's economics speech couldn't have been much less helpful if it had been written by the Democratic Party.

The main impression was a billionaire asking for tax cuts for billionaires. It was an own goal.

A wise man would have announced he could afford more tax and wanted other wealthy people to pay more as well. His economic advisors were heavy on male billionaires and very light on economists, and it showed. The polls got worse.

Foreign policy and 'Trumpian evidence'

Campaign jump-start attempt two: the foreign policy speech.

First, a niggling technical point. Mr Trump has spent years mocking Barack Obama for using a teleprompter, despite this being commonplace for politicians of all stripes. So it always feels odd to see Mr Trump emulating him, but badly.

President Obama is a masterful public speaker who uses teleprompters effortlessly and seamlessly. By contrast, Mr Trump was a clown's head from a fairground sideshow, with a faulty mechanism that made it snap from hard left to hard right.

The speech, though, was all hard right.

It wasn't really foreign policy. It was mostly anti-'them' fear-mongering at a level that made George W Bush's "you are with us or you are with the terrorists" address to Congress appear nuanced.

It was certainly not the work of a professional politician wanting to ameliorate his image to win moderates, or to look presidential.

There was a succession of easy-to-disprove assertions and straight-out lies that distracted attention from the policy elements.

For example:

He also blamed President Obama and Hillary Clinton for Islamic State, and claimed they were in effect funding Iran to sponsor terrorism (which drew 'pants on fire' and 'false' ratings from Politifact). You get the idea.

When talking about refugees, he claimed that Germany's massive refugee influx had meant "crime has risen to levels that no one thought would they would ever see".

In fact, the evidence suggests refugee Germans commit fewer crimes than native Germans, and there has been no increase in crime caused by them.

Unless you count the fact that attacks on refugees have doubled, as have xenophobic offences generally.

It's worth noting that Germany's reported crime rate is just over half of the United States'.

Mr Trump also highlighted crimes or attacks in various countries over the last few years that had been carried out by Islamists, immigrants or their children.

With this Trumpian evidence all lined up, he then outlined his policy solutions. There were broadly three kinds: current policy, current policy trumped, and pure Trumpian ideas.

Current policy, none of which was acknowledged as existing, included (as CNN's national security analyst Peter Bergen succinctly outlined):

Partnering with Jordan and Egypt? Check.

Working with NATO? Check.

Cutting off IS funding? Cyber warfare against IS? Decimating Al-Qaeda? Check, check, check.

Some of these things he then trumped, such as his plan to shut down Islamic State's internet presence - which only served to show a profound lack of understanding about the internet.

From 'new screening test' to 'extreme vetting'

Immigration vetting is already so intense for refugees and immigrants that it can take two years. But Mr Trump is a born topper.

The prepared speech published on Politico says: "In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. 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."

During his delivery, Mr Trump interpolated a line and switched from apathetic to animated.

"I call it extreme vetting. Extreme, extreme vetting."

And there was the headline: "Trump vows extreme vetting".

When combined with the criteria he listed, including not admitting misogynists, homophobes and those against freedom of religion, it sounded very much like Mr Trump wanted to protect American from people just like him.

He also repeatedly undermined his own arguments, at one point stating that IS "recruits refugees after their entrance into the country" - which hardly makes vetting before they arrive a solution.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has been chaperoning Donald Trump this week.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has been chaperoning Donald Trump this week. Photo: AFP

He pointed out crimes committed by second-generation immigrants, which rendered vetting their parents before they're born a bit pointless.

He concentrated on immigration as a security risk but ignored tourists, who vastly outnumber immigrants but are relied on by the economy and Trump's own companies.

There were also the pure Trump ideas. Stopping all immigration temporarily. Repeatedly citing Russia as an ally (when a wise man would be downplaying that particular relationship). Or saying he would side with any regime against IS, which as retired four-star general Barry McCaffrey pointed out, included the same Iran that Mr Trump had just been railing against.

It's all relative of course. Mr Trump didn't kick any babies out, swear profusely or suggest assassinating the president.

Having moved the locus of expectation into raving lunatic territory he seemed almost reasonable by comparison. But even with a prepared speech and extra handlers to keep him on track, Donald Trump comes across as bellicose, unpresidential and irrational.

This performance was not going to rescue his campaign. I feel for Republicans as they watch the attempts. It's like a man trying to start a battery-drained car with jumper leads attached to the tyres.

Republicans rue Rudy, too

The Republican campaign has given Mr Trump seasoned political travelling companions to help keep him from going off the rails.

This week's handler was former New York mayor and perennial GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani, who showed you just can't catch a break when you're in a nose dive. He congratulated an Ohio crowd on having Mike Pence as their governor (he's from Indiana), and then forgot 9/11.

During a written speech, he too went off-notes and said that terrorism within America "all started when Clinton and Obama got into office", despite being New York's mayor when the 2001 Twin Tower attacks happened.

Whether that's down to cognitive dissonance or cognitive decline (though he's only 72) he's maybe not the ideal role model for Donald Trump.

*Phil Smith is a journalist who has wasted his adult life revelling in the entertaining minutiae of American politics and culture. He once shared a lunch of rare bison steaks with Jimmy Carter.