The White House’s temporary ban on visitors from seven Muslim majority countries threw the Donald Trump administration into its first constitutional conflict over the weekend when multiple federal judges blocked parts of the executive order. Media attention has justifiably focused on the legal proceedings underway to release travelers from detainment at airports across the country and prevent deportations. But it’s worth reexamining the deeply flawed and unscientific polling that inspired Trump’s targeting of Muslim travelers.
The roots of Trump’s Muslim ban go back to his embrace of non-existent Pew Research data and an unscientific poll undertaken by one of his top advisors (who claims that she disseminates “alternative facts”) and commissioned by a renowned anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist with close ties to Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Yesterday, apparently in response to protests across the U.S., Trump issued a statement claiming that his executive order was misinterpreted as a ban on Muslims entering the country. He said:
To be clear, this is not a Muslim ban, as the media is falsely reporting. This is not about religion—this is about terror and keeping our country safe.
But Trump explicitly called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” back on December 7, 2015.
In that statement, Trump cited polling by Pew Research and the Center for Security Policy to back up his statement that “there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
Trump didn’t link to a specific Pew Research poll but none of their polls appears to support that conclusion.
Pew’s 2011 report on Muslim Americans concluded there are “no signs of growth in alienation or support for extremism” and found that only 21% of Muslim Americans say there is either a “great deal” (6%), or a “fair amount” (15%) of support for extremism in their communities.
The study also found that Muslim Americans were by and large happy with their lives in the U.S. The authors concluded:
[…] Muslim Americans have not become disillusioned with the country. They are overwhelmingly satisfied with the way things are going in their lives (82%) and continue to rate their communities very positively as places to live (79% excellent or good).
Pew’s vice president for global strategy, James Bell, responded to Trump’s statement, saying, “The statement released by Mr. Trump’s campaign does not specify a data point, so we can’t identify the report that he may be referencing.”
Although the Pew research cited by Trump simply doesn’t exist, the Center for Security Policy poll certainly does. But the poll’s origins and methods are highly suspect.
The poll, according to Trump’s statement, showed that: “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled, “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.”
The polling was a highly unscientific online opt-in survey of 600 Muslims, a fact that the Center for Security Policy did not initially disclose. The American Association for Public Opinion Research, which sets ethical standards for pollsters, cautions that opt-in surveys can be misleading and inaccurate. “The pollster has no idea who is responding to the question,” it warns, noting that such surveys lack a “‘grounded statistical tie’ to the population. As a result, estimates from self-selected volunteers are subject to unknown error that cannot be measured.”
The Center for Security Policy and the pollsters they commissioned, Polling Company/Woman Trend, are also questionable sources for research used in forming public policy.
The Center for Security Policy is a hawkish think tank largely dedicated to combating efforts to reduce defense spending (they have received funding from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and General Electric) and promoting unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about Muslim Americans.
The group’s president, Frank Gaffney, has claimed, without evidence, that Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and former George W. Bush appointee Suhail Khan were part of a vast Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the U.S. government. He also claimed that the Missile Defense Agency logo “appears ominously to reflect a morphing of the Islamic crescent and star with the Obama campaign logo.”
Gaffney maintained a close public relationship with Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, before Bannon joined the Trump campaign, appearing 29 times on Bannon’s radio show and regularly contributing as a columnist on Breitbart.com, where Bannon served as chairman.
Last week, LobeLog revealed that Gaffney was playing a behind-the-scenes role in the formation of a new interfaith group that supports Trump’s anti-Muslim agenda.
Gaffney’s choice of polling firm, Polling Company/Woman Trend, is interesting as well. Its president is Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, who recently made headlines last week when she described the administration supplying the media with “alternative facts,” leading to comparisons to the totalitarian regime in George Orwell’s novel 1984.
Following Trump’s campaign announcement proposing a ban on Muslim immigration, an unnamed representative of Conway’s firm told New York magazine that the poll was statistically unreliable and that Trump was misusing the data. They said:
As this poll was conducted among an online group of opt-in respondents, we did not publish a margin of error or otherwise advise our client that the data were statistically representative of the entire US Muslim population. In addition, Mr. Trump’s premise and policy proposal has no backing in the survey.
In other words, the chaos unleashed over the weekend by Trump’s executive order banning the entry of citizens from seven Muslim majority countries may very well be rooted in Trump’s acceptance of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and the anti-Muslim conspiracy theories espoused by Washington’s most infamous Islamophobe.