Recently, Donald Trump asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement criticizes him because he believes that “all lives matter.” It is clear from Trump’s reckless and irresponsible rhetoric in regards to Muslim Americans that he does not in fact believe that all lives matter. Trump has called for a total ban on all Muslim travel to the U.S. and has suggested that the location of all Muslim Americans be tracked at all times.
He has been roundly condemned for these statement by key GOP figureheads like Senator Lindsey Graham, who called him a “xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot.” But the GOP should understand Trump’s popularity as a case of their chickens coming home to roost. The modern Republican Party has secured its base by pandering to the worst impulses of white male, working class, and white Christian fundamentalist rage. Only Trump doesn’t use a dogwhistle. He barks. And every time he does the GOP base responds by replenishing his poll numbers.
Although this doesn’t seem like a viable longterm strategy, the short-term effects are important to watch. The responsiveness of the American public to his rhetoric of keeping white people safe reminds us again of the extent to which narratives about white safety drive U.S. social policy particularly on the right. For the cause of white safety much of the American public finds it reasonable to restrict the movement of Muslims both inside and outside of the U.S. But we don’t restrict conservative white men on the grounds that they disproportionately commit mass shootings at public places – churches, schools and colleges, movie theaters, and health care facilities.
Another major effect of Trump’s rhetoric is the increased threat of violence that Muslim Americans face, because a front-running candidate for the presidency is using reckless discourse to substantiate the legitimacy of Islamophobic views. Since the Paris attacks last month there has been a sharp uptick in vandalism and violent rhetoric against mosques in the U.S. and abroad. My Muslim colleagues and friends have described feelings of heightened anxiety and fear as they move through public space and send their children to school. In New York, a young school girl was attacked by classmates who called her “ISIS” and tried to rip off her hijab.
The GOP base is not merely racially ignorant; they are also prone to violence. By Trump’s logic, we should be placing tracking devices on all socially conservative white men who own guns. We should be interrogating the source of these white men’s radical views. We should understand the Church, particularly the conservative evangelical church as a breeding ground for white terrorism. White evangelicalism is the fundamentalist ideological arm of white social conservatism and of white American male terrorism.
The story of 21st century U.S. state violence is not only a story of anti-Blackness. It is also a story of state-sanctioned Islamophobia that uses the tragic terroristic acts of 9/11 as a framework to mistreat Muslim Americans, and other Americans who appear to be of Arab or Middle Eastern descent. (There is no acknowledgement that not all Arabs are Muslims.)
Using the extreme acts of a few to condemn the peaceful lives of the many is a hallmark of the American script of racism. White Americans do this to Black people when they suggest that Black intraracial violence justifies the overpolicing of all Black people. Americans do this to Muslims when we demand that key Islamic religious leaders step forward to quickly condemn the violence, so that we will not mistake lack of censure for allegiance.
Yet, we did not require or expect conservative white male politicians and religious leaders to issue statements after the Planned Parenthood shooting affirming that Christian social values are anti-violent and condemning the actions of the shooter as an egregious mischaracterization of Christian values and principles. We did not ask all white men to feel shame over the actions of the shooter. The myth of white individualism absolves white people of a collective reckoning with the ways that white fundamentalism breeds violence against people of all colors and social backgrounds.
This is why we must begin to understand whiteness as a kind of violent fundamentalism, one at the heart of the American project. Fundamentalism is always a struggle over values and an attempt by those who feel marginalized to order the universe through a set of moral absolutes that not-so-coincidentally also concede power to their particular worldview. Donald Trump is not particularly religious, despite his meeting with Black pastors. But he deploys whiteness as ideology with the fundamentalist zeal of the worst kinds of religious zealots and proselytizers. His rhetoric about protecting the U.S.-Mexico border—rhetoric that has been unfortunately taken up by two misguided Black female Trump enthusiasts—is just one more example of the kind of power laden demands for purity that adhere to fundamentalist ideologies. Whiteness as a fundamentalist ideology frames all others as enemies of the project of white supremacy. It authorizes violence against all who divest from the project of whiteness. It uses a narrative of marginalization and the need to regain power (to take America back) to justify aggressive and violent acts towards non-white groups. And it values and seeks to perpetuate whiteness as a way of life.
Until we dismantle white fundamentalism, no people of color will be safe. All fundamentalist belief systems view other belief systems in zero-sum terms. Evangelical Christianity believes that the truer it is, the less true every other belief system is. White/American fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism also engage each other in zero-sum geopolitical terms. They will be locked into an endlessly violent battle of wills. To make it more plain, on the homefront, white Americans respond so strongly to acts of Islamic terror and with such fear, because they recognize this same capacity for fundamentalist rage in themselves. In a zero-sum battle of fundamentalism, either we are invading their shores or they are invading ours. Game recognize game.
But terror and violence are not a game. People of color frequently become casualities of war in these internecine battles of competing fundamentalisms. Reinscribing whiteness and pedaling white fundamentalism as an ideology befitting of the 21st century will cause innumerable harm to all people of color. As a case in point, Trump used the Japanese internment to justify his current ideas about Muslims. And this is perhaps one of the most fundamental lessons that this Black Lives Matter moment can teach us: a nation that is wholly adversarial to Black life is not a nation fit for any non-white lives to inhabit. In America, Islamic fundamentalism is not our biggest threat. White fundamentalism is. And it is long past time for us to do something about it.