The perverse thing about ideologues is that they're easy to dismiss when they say something blatantly outlandish.
About a week ago, Donald Trump said President Barack Obama was the founder of the terrorist group ISIS, also known as the Islamic State. When a conservative radio host subsequently gave the GOP nominee a chance to back down, Trump doubled down, saying, "No, I meant he's the founder of ISIS ... I do ... I don't care. ... He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, OK?"
Ridiculous. And few people took it seriously. And, in fact, the very next day Trump said he was being sarcastic.
It's far more frightening when Trump says things that contain a kernel of truth — and are worthy of careful consideration — like his comments about the manner in which we should screen people coming into the U.S.
During a speech in which he outlined his foreign policy platform, Trump suggested that our country should have an "extreme vetting" process for foreign nationals who attempt to enter the U.S., so we can ban terrorists and their sympathizers, those who believe in Shariah law, those who don't believe in the U.S. Constitution and those who "support bigotry and hatred."
Let's get the obvious out of the way: With his polling numbers in the dumps, it's safe to say that plenty of people believe that Trump is a prime example of someone who supports bigotry and hatred. Hatred toward Mexicans, Muslims, women, disabled people and "the media," just to list a few.
But should such a vetting process be considered? Would it work?
Actually, the United States already does have a process for allowing a president to limit entry of any noncitizen deemed "detrimental to the interests of the United States."
According to a Cornell University press tip sheet, "Historically, presidents have suspended the entry into the United States, whether as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of noncitizens who advocate anti-democratic policies. Government officials from several African countries, the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Nicaragua, Nigeria and Panama have been affected by this provision. In fiscal year 2015, 46 nonimmigrants and one immigrant were declared inadmissible under this provision."
Would we really want to expand such powers?
How would such a test be designed? And how could it possibly be administered in a timely manner to each of the millions of people from all over the world who flow in and out of the country for legitimate business or pleasure? Would we be willing to pay the untold billions to significantly broaden these rules in exchange for a safer nation?
Scariest of all is the idea that a president who would take such extreme measures in the name of homeland security would impose those same ideological tests on legally present immigrants and refugees.
"It's a problem to think about trying to vet every person for their commitment to some amorphous ideals that I think very few Americans would be able to agree on," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School. He told me that even if it didn't come to that, even just musing about ideological screening hurts immigrants. "Mr. Trump only continues to hurt any prospects for comprehensive immigration. It will take a bipartisan consensus to fix our broken immigration system, and his rhetoric only makes the issue more partisan and therefore makes it harder to enact any meaningful reforms."
Yale-Loehr also wondered what would stop such tests from being expanded to U.S.-born citizens, but as it is, studies have shown that when Americans attempt the civics portion of the current immigrant naturalization test, one out of three U.S. citizens fails. A full 85 percent of 1,000 voting-age Americans could not define even simple terms such as "the rule of law" and 71 percent were unable to identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land." We'd have to expel untold millions of Americans who wouldn't be able to credibly support the U.S. Constitution because they don't really know what it is!
It's not wrong to want to keep out those who would do us harm — we should absolutely be thinking about better screening. But restricting entry to only those who can traverse (or fake) an ideological purity quiz doesn't even pass the smell test.
— Esther Cepeda's email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.