Kobach, Trump and the ‘Clash of Civilizations’
Topeka ? In Kansas and throughout the nation, Secretary of State Kris Kobach is known as a conservative hard-liner on immigration policy.
At home, he championed some of the toughest voting laws in the nation, requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls and to show documentary proof of citizenship in order to register.
And elsewhere in the country, he has helped craft state and local laws, many of which have been overturned, aimed at barring illegal immigrants from obtaining jobs, public services and even housing.
But close observers of Kobach say his worldview didn’t come out of a vacuum. It was shaped in his college years at Harvard University where he studied under a controversial professor, the late Samuel Huntington, who argued in his later years that immigration, particularly from Mexico and Latin America, represented the single biggest threat to what he called the “American identity.”
Huntington served as Kobach’s student adviser at Harvard, where Kobach studied from 1984 to 1988, and many have described him as Kobach’s philosophical mentor. As recently as 2007, when Kobach was teaching law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Huntington’s writings were required reading in one of Kobach’s courses.
Kobach did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed. But now, as he serves as a leading adviser to President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team and is said to be a candidate for a post in the Trump administration, some experts say they see a direct connections between Huntington’s writings and the worldviews shared by both Kobach and Trump.
“I sure do,” said professor Paul Schumaker, who teaches political theory and public policy at the University of Kansas.
In particular, Schumaker said, Huntington’s worldview is reflected in Trump’s most memorable campaign slogan, “Make America great again.”
“I think it’s being read by many people as ‘Make America white again,'” Schumaker said. “Make it less multicultural. Make it less receptive to Latinos and so forth.”
Clash of Civilizations
Huntington began articulating that idea in writing in the early 1990s, shortly after Kobach graduated, although Schumaker says it was an idea he probably began formulating in the 1980s while Kobach was still a student there.
It was during that time that the Soviet Union was collapsing and the Cold War was coming to an end, and political theorists like Huntington were trying to imagine what the new world order would look like.
In 1993, Huntington wrote an essay for the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Clash of Civilizations?” In it, he argued that future conflicts would no longer be based on clashes between nations or ideologies, but rather between civilizations and their cultures.
Specifically, Huntington divided the world into roughly eight civilizations, most of which he saw as potential threats to Western civilization, and that the U.S. should change its foreign policy and immigration policy to maintain its dominance on the world stage.
“If one looks at the evidence,” Huntington said in a 1996 interview on PBS’s Charlie Rose program, after he’d expanded the essay into a book, “it seems to me that it is overwhelming that nations are going to be aligning themselves along cultural lines, that those countries with similar cultures are coming together. Those countries which historically have been culturally different are coming apart.”
“We’ve seen the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia along cultural lines,” he continued. “And the lines of conflict in this post-Cold War world will basically fall along the fault lines of the world’s biggest cultural entities, which are civilizations.”
Among the civilizations that he said could challenge Western dominance were Latin America; the Orthodox world of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; Islam; the Far East; the Indian subcontinent; and sub-Saharan Africa.
Taking it further
Huntington’s book ignited a firestorm of debate in political circles, and many give it credit for forming the foundation for a neo-conservative view of America’s role in foreign affairs.
“The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ was extraordinarily controversial,” Schumaker said. “Most academics didn’t receive it very kindly. They thought that it was a recipe for dividing the world into eight zones — civilizations, he called them — with irreconcilable cultures and values, whereas most scholars after the breakdown of the Cold War were seeing a movement toward a more universal kind of conception that basically would have had Western values dominant.”
Schumaker, who said he also required students to read Huntington in his classes, said that with 20 years of hindsight, he believes Huntington got many things right. But he said Huntington drew criticism from the left for suggesting that the differences between cultures could not be reconciled and that conflicts could not be resolved peacefully.
“I think the main thing was that a lot of the hostility toward it was that he kind of made it seem like Islamic culture in particular was much more monolithic, and Western culture was more monolithic than it in fact is,” Schumaker said. “Most Islamic people are quite taken by Western values. It’s only the political Islam, or the fundamental Islamic people that we see in ISIS and those kinds of movements, that have really disliked Western civilization.”
But in 2004, a few years before his death, Huntington took his theory even further with a new book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity.”
In that book, Huntington argued that contrary to popular thought, America is not a nation of immigrants, but rather a nation of settlers who came here to establish a new civilization based largely on British and Protestant values.
The waves of immigrants who came after the founding of the nation largely accepted those values and assimilated into the culture. But by the dawn of the 21st century, he argued, new waves of immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Latin America, were flooding into the country, often illegally.
And because many of them were not assimilating into the culture, but instead setting up ethnic-based “sub-national” cultures, Huntington argued that America was at risk of losing its national identity to such forces as “multiculturalism” and “bilingualism.”
“Historically, the substance of American identity has involved four key components: race, ethnicity, culture (most notably language and religion), and ideology,” Huntington wrote. “The racial and ethnic Americas are no more. Cultural America is under siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak glue to hold together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic, and cultural sources of community.”
The Trump-Kobach era
Schumaker said he sees clear similarities between Huntington’s idea of a lost American identity and the major themes of the Trump campaign.
“I guess in this election what we really saw was a lot of people were buying into that kind of thesis, that multiculturalism is the source of why America isn’t great anymore, that we have lost that kind of national identity,” he said. “So what you’re really seeing is the people who don’t like multiculturalism, the people who don’t like the fact that there’s been so much attention given to Latinos, to Asians, to Native Americans, to African Americans and so forth, believe that has been the source of the problem.”
“I don’t know if they’re racists, nativists or ethnicists, but they do have this sense that we’ve just lost that cultural bond that we used to have, and I think that’s why Trump did so very well in the election,” he said.
Whether Kobach is ever chosen for an administration job or not, his role as a campaign surrogate and, now, transition team adviser suggests he is playing a key role in shaping the new administration’s agenda.
And while it’s not known how directly Huntington’s writings may have influenced Kobach’s own views, there have already been signs that he is suggesting policies that are completely in line with Huntington’s writings.
On Monday, Nov. 21, The Associated Press released photographs, now widely shared and reported on, showing Kobach going into a one-on-one meeting with Trump, holding a paper with his proposed “strategic plan” for the Department of Homeland Security.
The front page of that document, which was visible to cameras, included proposals to bar people from certain parts of the world from entering the country and to greatly expand efforts to remove “criminal aliens” from the United States.