It was bound to happen, what with calls for special Muslim IDs, mosque closures, and unfounded claims that Arabs were dancing in New Jersey streets following 9/11. On Monday afternoon, the GOP’s bombastic front-runner, Donald Trump, decided that the only thing more rigid than his peroxide mane would be the central plank of his campaign’s 2016 platform: Islamophobia.
The 69-year-old real estate mogul provoked condemnation from across the political spectrum with a press release calling for an outright ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. The announcement came just one day after President Obama addressed Americans from the Oval Office and urged them to reject prejudice and discrimination.
And here we are today, as it has been following his other outlandish statements, talking about Trump. That’s precisely how he likes it. Ever the narcissist, even his bigotry is a path to self-glorification.
Yet as worrying as his proclamation is (let there be no question that he awakened the ghost of Mussolini), it’s a fool’s errand to believe that this latest bout of xenophobic rhetoric is only about Trump.
Rather, it speaks volumes about the Republican Party, its primary voters, and the message that sizable swaths of that group crave.
Take my home state of North Carolina, for example. A survey conducted by the Public Polling Institute in late September found that 40 percent of Republican voters believe that the practice of Islam should be illegal. Seventy-two percent of the GOP in that state believe, like Trump’s closest rival, Ben Carson, that a Muslim should never be allowed to serve as president; the same percentage also agree with Trump’s claim that Obama is waging a war against Christianity.
This week, PPP’s new North Carolina poll shows Trump getting stronger. Alarmingly, 67 percent of his voters support national database of Muslims; 62 percent believe his unfounded claim that thousands of New Jersey Arabs cheered 9/11; and 51 percent want to see mosques in this country shut down.
In Iowa, where Trump now trails Ted Cruz, the numbers aren’t much better. The same public opinion poll found that 30 percent of Republican voters want to criminalize Islam. A Des Moines Register poll showed that nearly 40 percent of GOPers think Islam is an inherently violent religion.
Top that off with the fact that 76 percent of the GOP nationwide thinks that Islam is un-American, and 54 percent of Republican voters across the country believe that Obama is a Muslim (remember the Trump “birther” kerfuffle?).
Suddenly, the reasons for Trump’s paroxysms of prejudice sharpen into fuller relief.
These numbers are not insignificant. And Trump is not stupid. He’s a calculative politician who, like Richard Nixon, understands how to manipulate a primary electorate. In the unfortunate event that he should be the Republican nominee, there’s every reason to believe that he’ll swing back to the center in an effort to shore up support from segments of the population that may be offended by his sharp tone now, but whom he needs in order to win the general election.
“Muslims? I love the Muslims,” one can imagine him saying. “Just wait and see. I’m going to do great things for the Muslims. The Muslims will love me.”
Whether or not that will be the case (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s unlikely) doesn’t really matter, though. The biggest obstacle facing American Muslims isn’t the opportunism of election season rhetoric, however nasty it may be. Instead, it’s the pockets of sustained prejudice across the country that give the Trumps of the world reason to pipe off such nonsense in the first place.
Shortly after Trump’s campaign released the controversial statement, the crowd at a rally in South Carolina pulsated with enthusiasm. Six of eight supporters interviewed by CNN claimed that the candidate’s idea of an immigration ban was a good one. And according to a Bloomberg Politics survey, almost two-thirds of likely Republican voters favor Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
With that type of response, what incentive does he have to suddenly start preaching inclusiveness and understanding (beyond morality, which is just as foreign to Trump as Muslims)?
“It's a violent blood cult. OK? That's what Islam is ... all they know is violence, that's all they know. It's not a peace-loving religion,” said one 68-year-old veteran.
That cesspool of toxic worldviews is the illness. It’s demagogues like Donald Trump who fish from it, that are the symptoms. Drying up anti-Muslim prejudice within the GOP — a task that is undoubtedly difficult — is the only way to ensure that future presidential candidates or politicians in that party don’t pander to the crazies who line their ranks and use Muslims as political pawns to gain advantage.
In the end, the result is a world where religious minorities aren’t targeted with rhetoric and rage, and one where polarizing trolls like Trump don’t have a shot at occupying the highest office in the land.