You know you’ve gone off the deep end when the human incarnation of Darth Vader says your proposal “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” But that is exactly how former Vice President Dick Cheney assessed Donald Trump’s latest and most disturbing idea to prohibit all Muslims from entering the United States “until we can figure out what the hell is going on here.” It’s an utterly awful, despicable and un-American idea — so bad, in fact, that I’m having trouble coming up with adjectives that don’t understate the inanity. The news contains just one silver lining: the fact that every other candidate for president, everyone from Bernie Sanders to Ted Cruz, rushed in to condemn it.
But watching CNN at 8:00 pm on Monday night, the news station did its best to hack away at that delicate silver lining and leave behind a tattered mess. Anderson Cooper, like most cable TV news hosts, trades on a head-to-head (or a head-to-head-to-head) format in which people on different sides of a contentious issue have it out on air. It’s an exciting approach, often with yelling and much pathos, and very occasionally it can even be enlightening. It’s also a format that might make sense when the issue is, say, gun control or what to make of the downing of the Russian jet by the Turks.
Cooper’s show, AC360, doesn’t feature debates about anything and everything. It isn’t a forum for questions like whether slavery might actually have been a good idea, or if women really deserve the right to vote. He doesn’t invite skinheads on his show to defend neo-Nazi views. (“Aren’t you painting with too broad a brush,” he might ask, “in saying that all Jews are subhuman scoundrels?”) No: Not every question gets debated because there are questions that should not be debated. And the proposal to discriminate against every one of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims by banning them from entering the country as an appropriate response to two radical Muslims who committed an atrocity is one of those questions that should not be debated.
Yet there was Anderson Cooper, quietly aghast at Trump’s comments but determined to be fair-minded. So he reacted to the news of Trump’s gobsmacking proposal by asking a few people to come on to debate it. He had one very sober journalist, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times; Jeffrey Lord, identified only as a “Trump supporter”; and Van Jones, a CNN commentator. With a mixture of fascinating understatement and an apparent unfamiliarity with the explicit strictures of the 1st and 5th amendments that speak directly to her point, Haberman began by quietly asserting that there may be some “constitutional problems” with Trump’s idea. Lord then stepped in to defend the indefensible: Trump is just echoing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s call for labeling Italian nationals “enemy aliens” during World War II. We’re in a war, he said, and we need to act the part.
Thank goodness for Jones, who barely held back his impatience and incredulity when he added his voice to the “debate.” After Haberman’s pusillanimity and Lord’s hearkening back to the good old days of 1940s-style government-sponsored racism, it was refreshing to finally hear someone give the Trump plan the skewering it deserved.
But before the commercial break, Cooper exacerbated his journalistic sin of giving equal time to even the worst of ideas by declaring the exchange “a very important discussion” and giving Lord another 10 or so minutes of prime time to expound his views on a leading cable news station. A “very important discussion” would have focused on the tactics of Trump’s stunt, or the specific constitutional and legal obstacles to implementing it. AC360 could have inquired into how Trump’s racist blather would play abroad, or what implications it might have for the texture of the presidential race. It is a mistake, however, to portray as a “very important discussion” a debate on the merits of a plan that is completely devoid of merit — and antithetical to America's founding principles.
Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. He is author, most recently, of American Justice 2015: The Dramatic Tenth Term of the Roberts Court.
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