Marco Rubio and Donald Trump — who, if you squint at them sideways while super high on Rand Paul’s bluegrass-grown private stash, are the two most plausible Republican presidential nominees of the moment — joined forces this week to attack Barack Obama for going to a Baltimore mosque and giving a thoroughly uncontroversial speech. That part was a slam-dunk, although it’s dispiriting to realize how far our country, or at least the “Republican base,” has fallen into the bottomless pit of Know-Nothingism over the last 15 years. What startled me was that Obama has been president for seven years, attending services in any number of churches, cathedrals and synagogues, without once setting foot inside a Muslim house of worship. That says a lot, and none of it is good.
For once I’m not beating up Obama from the other side; I get it. It never seemed like the right moment. Why get the haters and the birthers all stirred up again? We have an election to fight, a budget bill to pass, and so on. But the fact that one of the world’s major faiths has become so toxic, as an element in American public discourse, that the contamination reached the daily strategic planning of the Obama White House, however indirectly, is remarkable. And no, the Muslims did not bring this on themselves, by being all weird and crazy and beheading people on YouTube. The number of Americans killed in the name of militant Islam since 9/11 barely registers as a statistical asterisk. Add the more serious attacks in Paris, London and Madrid over that period, and Western casualties from Islamic terrorism are still less than one week of highway fatalities in the United States.
I won’t bother harping on the fact that the amount of death dealt out in Arab and Muslim countries by the United States and its allies, whether through military means or less directly, is on a completely different scale. Nobody much cares, or wants to think about that. We are conditioned to believe that people unlucky enough to be born in some nutty Allahu akbar country pretty much accept that their lives and their children’s lives are worthless. Who is to say they aren’t all terrorists anyway? No, what has changed the ideological climate around Islam is not the looming threat of Sharia rule in the Mall of America — enjoy those Wendy’s Bacon Fondue Fries without bacon, infidel dog! — but the endless torrent of fearmongering and propaganda feeding into our national slough of cultural stupefaction. This is the sense in which, as I have repeatedly argued, ISIS and the Republican Party are effectively pursuing the same agenda.
Fearmongering and propaganda are where Trump and Rubio come in, for sure. What came out of Rubio’s mouth after the Obama mosque visit was, as usual, entirely baffling but calibrated to appeal to the hateful right-wing zeitgeist while somehow sounding sunny and upbeat. “I’m tired of being divided against each other for political reasons like this president’s done,” said the 11-year-old senator from Florida. “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today — he gave a speech at a mosque.” (This in a tone of “doesn’t that just figure?”) “Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”
As Salon’s Simon Maloy observed earlier on Thursday, Rubio’s point is exceptionally difficult to parse, which might serve as a hint that he doesn’t have one, and is simply making animal sounds that resemble speech. Obama spoke at the Baltimore mosque about our national traditions of religious freedom and tolerance (more or less), and assured American Muslims that they were just as entitled to their citizenship rights as anyone else. He even threw in the standard proviso that it was important for Muslims to speak out against terrorism, which in other circumstances might have drawn some flak from the left.
How Rubio gets from Obama’s anodyne comments in favor of religious tolerance and against discrimination — if we walk back to the library shelf and grab our Edmund Burke, I think we will find those are conservative principles — to a president who is constantly “pitting people against each other” involves more magic than logic. I have to admit that while Rubio comes across as earnest and not too bright, like a Home Depot salesman way too eager to debate competing brands of drywall, the level of dog-whistle at work here, of almost but not quite saying what you mean, is sophisticated. I think Maloy has it right: The division Rubio perceives is not between Muslims and other Americans, but between people who agree that Muslims face vicious bigotry and discrimination in the United States and people who resent any such assertion and who are sick of all this p.c. groveling over the precious so-called rights of wacky, made-up minority groups who want to make us all pee in the ladies’ room, drive a hempen Prius and turn our backs on Jesus. And bacon.
That, I suppose, marks out Rubio’s path to the Republican nomination. He began as a so-called mainstream conservative, slightly soft when it came to manly American hatred (and manly American footwear). That didn’t sell and now he has fully embraced the paranoid, apocalyptic worldview that drove up the poll numbers of Trump and Ted Cruz, coating it in a genial blandness that resembles expensive hair gel and prevents all thought from entering or getting out. Instead of Trump’s horror fables about murderous invading hordes or the Cruz mythology of the Last Christian Hero standing against chaos, Rubio is positively chirpy about the terrible state of everything: It’s really too bad that our president cares more about Muslims than about actual Americans!
I’m going to try to crash Rubio’s Super Bowl party at a New Hampshire country club on Sunday (shh--don’t tell him!), and I’m fully expecting it to be a tiny bit cool, at least by Republican standards. Hip-hop hits of the ‘90s may well be heard. Someone may get jiggy with it. It seems possible that something will be kicked Gangnam Style. I’m not worried about encountering any such phenomena at a Trump function. This week’s micro-moment of mosque-mania offered Trump one more chance to play a right-wing hit record that still clings to the charts, even thought it’s almost nostalgia: Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, a Kenyan, a Commie — certainly a something. Maybe the president went to a mosque “because he felt comfortable there,” Trump suggested. Oh snap! Because if you “feel comfortable” visiting a place you’ve never been to before, you must be … oh, forget it.
In fairness, Trump seemed visibly bored by this line of attack and quickly let it drop. (Not as bored as he will soon get with this whole presidential-candidate business, I suspect.) There are lots of other places Obama could go, Trump mused, without coming right out and saying that the only possible reason for this visit was treason and surrender. Trump is not running against Obama, unfortunately, and couldn’t quite see an opening to suggest that Ted Cruz, because Canadian by birth, must also be a frequenter of mosques.
Meanwhile, in the doldrums of the Republican race and his own private Koch-funded purgatory, Jeb Bush actually praised Obama’s mosque visit to radio host Hugh Hewitt. In the neocon interventionist ideology of his big brother’s administration, that would have made sense: Those guys needed compliant Islamic despots to act out their imperial reconquest of the Middle East, and deliberately avoided any rhetoric of religious war. (George W. Bush visited a Washington mosque a few days after the 9/11 attacks, and said all the same stuff Obama just said.) You can’t feel too bad for Jeb, who has reaped as he has sown, pretty much. He has no idea what hit him, but he knows this: When you say something nice about Barack Obama, as a 2016 Republican, it’s all over.