After descending an escalator of his hotel at Central Park West on a June day in 2015, Donald Trump ascended a podium and proceeded to accuse Mexico of “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” (Time 2015). It was a moment that marked the launch of his bid for president of the United States. From that point forward, Trump made immigration restriction one of the centerpieces of his campaign. Paired with an economically populist message, the nativist rhetoric shaped a narrative that helped launch him to the White House. His effectiveness partly lay in his ability to understand and exploit preexisting insecurities, partly in his outsider status, and partly in his willingness to tap into apparently widespread public sentiment that is uneasy with, if not overtly hostile to, migrants.
This paper will try to make sense of the restrictionist logic that informs the Trump administration’s worldview, alongside some of the underlying cultural, philosophical, and political conditions that inspired support for Trump by millions of Americans. This paper contends that the Clash of Civilizations (CoC) paradigm is a useful lens to help understand the positions that President Trump has taken with respect to international affairs broadly, and specifically in his approach to migration policy. This paradigm, originally coined by the historian Bernard Lewis but popularized by the political theorist Samuel Huntington (Hirsh 2016), provides a conceptual framework for understanding international relations following the end of the Cold War. It is a framework that emphasizes the importance of culture, rather than political ideology, as the primary fault line along which future conflicts will occur. Whether Trump ever consciously embraced such a framework in the early days of his candidacy is doubtful. He has been candid about the fact that he has never spent much time reading and generally responds to problems on instinct and “common sense” rather than a conceptually defined worldview developed by academics and intellectuals (Fisher 2016). Nevertheless, during the presidential campaign, and continuing after his victory, Trump surrounded himself with high-level advisers, political appointees, and staff who, if they have nothing else in common, embrace something roughly akin to the Clash of Civilizations perspective (Ashford 2016).
The paper will focus primarily on Trump’s approach to refugee resettlement. One might think that refugees would elicit an almost knee-jerk sympathy given the tragic circumstances that drove their migration, but perceptions of refugees are often tied up with geopolitical considerations and domestic political realities. Following 9/11, the threat of Islamic-inspired terrorism emerged as a national security priority. With the onset of the Syrian Civil War and the significant refugee crisis that ensued in its wake, paired with some high-profile terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe, the “Islamic threat” became even more pronounced.
The perception that Islamic-inspired terrorism is a real and imminent threat has contributed to a growing antagonism toward the resettlement of refugees, and particularly Muslims. When viewed through the lens of the CoC paradigm, victims of persecution can easily be transformed into potential threats. Insofar as Islam is understood as an external and even existential threat to the American way life, the admission of these migrants and refugees could be deemed a serious threat to national security.
This paper will begin by examining some of Trump’s campaign promises and his efforts to implement them during the early days of his administration. Although the underlying rationale feeding into the contemporary reaction against refugee resettlement is unique in many respects, it is rooted in a much longer history that extends back to the World War II period. It was during this period that a more formal effort to admit refugees began, and it was over the next half century that the program developed. Understanding the historical backdrop, particularly insofar as its development was influenced by the Cold War context, will help to clarify some of the transitions that influenced the reception of refugees in the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Such an exploration also helps to explain how and why a CoC paradigm has become ascendant. The decline of the ideologically driven conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union has, according Huntington’s thesis, been superseded by culturally based conflicts that occur when competing civilizations come into contact. The conceptual framework that the CoC framework embodies meshes well with the cultural and economic dislocation felt by millions of Trump supporters who are concerned about the continued dissolution of a shared cultural and political heritage. It is important to keep in mind that the CoC paradigm, as a conceptual framework for understanding Donald Trump and his approach to refugee resettlement and migration more broadly, is at its core pre-political; it helps to define the cultural matrix that people use to make sense of the world. The policy prescriptions that follow from it are more effect than cause.
* The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
 It is worth noting that proponents of the CoC worldview are just one bloc within the Trump administration, albeit at the moment an influential one. Other competing blocs (e.g., establishment Republicans) are also in the mix.