Over the past few days, rumors have swirled around how President-elect Donald Trump may adopt what critics are calling a Muslim registry, one that could require immigrants from Muslim-majority countries to register with the government.
The idea sounds abhorrent — if not a violation of the Constitution, at least a violation of its principles. But it’s not without precedent: Dara Lind explained for Vox that this is something the Bush administration did before.
On Fox News on Wednesday, the chair of a pro-Trump Super PAC, Carl Higbie, tried to cite another precedent for it: Japanese internment camps, in which the US, during World War II, put more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent in prison camps without trial after it declared war on Japan. “We did it during World War II with Japanese, which, you know, call it what you will,” Higbie said, before he was interrupted.
Pressed on this by anchor Megyn Kelly, Higbie said that he’s not proposing we go back to putting people in camps. He argued, instead, that “there is precedent for it” — a reference to Korematsu v. United States, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that Japanese internment was allowed.
This sounds bad, but it’s actually not the first time a high-profile figure on Trump’s side has pointed to Japanese internment camps to defend anti-Muslim polices. Shortly after Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, Trump himself cited Japanese internment by pointing out that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “one of the most highly respected presidents,” was the one who instated Japanese internment camps. “What I’m doing is no different than FDR,” Trump said.
Trump later clarified that he would not establish internment camps for Muslim Americans and hates the concept of them, but stated that “we would have to be very vigilant” when it comes to dealing with Muslim Americans.
This is not normal
Okay. Stop. Let’s just think about what is going on here. A Trump supporter and Trump himself are citing Japanese internment camps as a justification for policies. While it’s true that there is a legal and historical precedent for Japanese internment, it is still widely considered a very dark spot in US history. These camps are supposed to be regarded as a lesson in what not to do and why you shouldn’t overreact to the fears of the day — yet people on Trump’s side, including Trump, have cited them to defend policy ideas.
As Kelly told Higbie, “That’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl. … You can’t be citing Japanese internment camps as precedent for anything the president-elect is gonna do.”
Even the US Office of the Solicitor General, which defended the country’s internment policy in front of the Supreme Court back during World War II, has acknowledged it made a big mistake:
The Ringle Report, from the Office of Naval Intelligence, found that only a small percentage of Japanese Americans posed a potential security threat, and that the most dangerous were already known or in custody. But the Solicitor General did not inform the Court of the report, despite warnings from Department of Justice attorneys that failing to alert the Court “might approximate the suppression of evidence.” … Nor did he inform the Court that a key set of allegations used to justify the internment, that Japanese Americans were using radio transmitters to communicate with enemy submarines off the West Coast, had been discredited by the FBI and FCC. And to make matters worse, he relied on gross generalizations about Japanese Americans, such as that they were disloyal and motivated by “racial solidarity.”
If you ever wonder why people of color look at the Trump administration in horror, it’s because of this kind of stuff. Time and time again, Trump has put forward policy ideas that target certain minority groups. Then, when asked about those policies, he and his supporters often validate people’s worst fears about what exactly is going on.
What’s worse, Trump’s circle seems to be aware that it can get away with this kind of thing. Not only did Trump win the election, but Higbie is also totally right that internment camps are valid law — Korematsu has never been officially overturned by the Supreme Court (although many legal experts doubt it could stand up to legal scrutiny today). That makes comments like Higbie’s all the scarier, because at the end of the day, people might not even be legally protected from these kinds of abuses of power.