Donald Trump’s “Ban Muslims” Proposal Is Wildly Dangerous But Not Far Outside the U.S. Mainstream

Trump is not an outlier, and it's dangerous to treat him as one. There's a sprawling cottage industry devoted to demonizing Muslims as the supreme threat, and much of it is quite mainstream.

(updated below — Update II)

Hours after a new poll revealed that he’s trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a statement advocating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what’s going on.” His spokesperson later clarified that this exclusion even includes Muslim-American citizens who are currently outside the U.S. On first glance, it seems accurate to view this, in the words of The Guardian, as “arguably the most extreme proposal to come from any U.S. presidential candidate in decades.”

Some comfortable journalists, however, quickly insisted that people were overreacting. “Before everyone gives up on the republic, remember that not even a single American has yet cast a vote for Trump,” said New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. The New York Daily News opinion page editor, Josh Greenman, was similarly blithe: “It’s a proposal to keep Muslims out of the U.S., made in a primary, being roundly condemned. We are a long way from internment camps.”

Given that an ISIS attack in Paris just helped fuel the sweeping election victory of an actually fascist party in France, it’s a bit mystifying how someone can be so sanguine about the likelihood of a Trump victory in the U.S. In fact, with a couple of even low-level ISIS attacks successfully carried out on American soil, it’s not at all hard to imagine. But Trump does not need to win, or even get close to winning, for his rhetoric and the movement that he’s stoking to be dangerous in the extreme.

Professional political analysts have underestimated Trump’s impact by failing to take into account his massive, long-standing cultural celebrity, which commands the attention of large numbers of Americans who usually ignore politics (which happens to be the majority of the population), which in turn generates enormous, highly charged crowds pulsating with grievance and rage. That means that even if he fails to win a single state, he’s powerfully poisoning public discourse about multiple marginalized minority groups: in particular, inciting and inflaming what was already volatile anti-Muslim animosity in the U.S.

As The Atlantic’s Matt Ford put it yesterday, “The immediate danger isn’t Trump’s actual policy, but the bigotry and violence that it both legitimizes and encourages.” Muslim Americans (and, for that matter, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans) don’t have the luxury that people like Douthat and Greenman have to be so dismissive. That’s what Al Jazeera’s Sana Saeed meant when she said that she’s “tired of people telling us to not be afraid — Trump may not win but his words will last & there are people who support” the bile he’s spewing.

All that said, it’s important not to treat Trump as some radical aberration. He’s essentially the American id, simply channeling pervasive sentiments unadorned with the typical diplomatic and PR niceties designed to prettify the prevailing mentality. He didn’t propose banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. because it’s grounded in some fringe, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. He proposed it in part to commandeer media attention so as to distract attention away from his rivals and from that latest Iowa poll, but he also proposed it because he knows there is widespread anti-Muslim fear and hatred in the U.S. Whatever else you want to say about him, Trump is a skillful entertainer, and good entertainers — like good fascist demagogues — know their audience.

Trump’s proposal yesterday, though a new low, is not that far afield from what other credible GOP presidential candidates previously proposed. Jeb Bush previously urged that the U.S. be wary of Syrian Muslim refugees but eagerly accept “proven Christians.” Ted Cruz advocated an outright ban on Syrian Muslim refugees and then introduced a bill to bar refugees from multiple predominantly Muslim countries unless they’re Christians. Ben Carson argued that no Muslim could be president because their beliefs are anathema to constitutional principles. Those proposals are more limited than what Trump advocated yesterday, but they’re hardly in a different universe; they’re grounded in the same principle that Muslims are uniquely dangerous and antithetical to American values.

Lest liberals become self-satisfied about all this, this obsession with demonizing Muslims is by no means confined to the GOP presidential field. Residing — or so they claim — outside the far-right and Fox News swamps, there’s a sprawling cottage industry of pundits, academicsauthors, TV hosts, think tanks, and “anti-extremist” activist groups devoted primarily to one idea: that Islam is supremely dangerous and Muslims pose the greatest threat. Beloved Democratic Gen. Wesley Clark, while on MSNBC earlier this year, explicitly called for “camps” for radicalized American Muslims. CNN’s role in all this is legion.

These are the people who have laid the rancid intellectual groundwork in which Trump and his movement are now festering. Just yesterday, the Daily Beast’s supremely loyal Democratic partisan columnist Michael Tomasky — who in 2013 instructed us all to celebrate the Egyptian military coup of the brutal tyrant Abdel Fattah al-Sisi because it got rid of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood — repulsively demanded that American Muslims first prove they are loyal and can be trusted before they are “given” their rights.

Praising Obama (as always), this time for saying that religious fundamentalism is “a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse,” Tomasky wrote: “If anything Obama should have been more emphatic about this. He should now go around to Muslim communities in Detroit and Chicago and the Bay Area and upstate New York and give a speech that tells them: If you want to be treated with less suspicion, then you have to make that happen. That would be real leadership, and a real service.” The liberal pundit added, “That doesn’t mean just reading them their rights. It also means reading them their responsibilities.”

The imposition of this sort of collective responsibility — telling Muslims, as CNN anchors did after the Paris attacks, that they are all legitimately regarded with suspicion when individual Muslims engage in violence — is unthinkable for almost any other group. Indeed, it’s the defining hallmark of bigotry: imputing the bad acts of individuals to all members of a group or to the group itself. But it’s commonplace when it comes to discussions of Muslims.

It’s not hard to see why this demagoguery is so effective, why it spreads so easily and rapidly. Tribalism is a potent component of human nature, one of the most primitive and instinctive drives. Stoking it is and always has been easy. It’s particularly easy to do in an overwhelmingly Christian country that has spent 14 years and counting waging a relentless, seemingly endless war in predominantly Muslim countries and that touts Israel as its closest ally. Numerous factions have all sorts of lurking incentives to demonize Muslims as the greatest menace, and Trump has simply become an unusually unrestrained vehicle for expressing all of that and an unusually aggressive exploiter of it, but he is not its creator nor its prime mover.

All of this preexists Trump’s candidacy and is fueled by a wide array of groups with all sorts of cultural, religious, ideological, financial, and tribalistic motives for isolating and demonizing Muslims. Trump is not an outlier, and it’s dangerous to treat him as one.

As for the American media, I hope nobody harbors any hope that they’re going to be some sort of backstop preventing the emergence of dangerous extremism. They simply do not see that as their role. For most of them, a posture of “neutrality” and “opinion-free” blankness are the highest values. Here, for instance, was CNN anchor and dynastic prince Chris Cuomo last night vehemently scorning the suggestion that the U.S. media has any role to play in sounding the alarm bells on Trump’s growing fascism:

In Cuomo’s TV journalism-trained mind, Trump’s call for the complete exclusion of all Muslims from the U.S. is nothing more than “a suggestion that perhaps offends certain sensibilities,” and it’s not for him or other journalists to “strike him down.” When people objected, he said: “Characterize? Hmm. Test him on the implications, bring on other opinions and analyze the potential … that’s the job.” In response to an angry individual denouncing Trump’s extremism, Cuomo added (emphasis added): “Absolutely. That’s your role in voting. Accept and reject. Your role, not mine.”

Here’s what Mark Halperin — whose little-watched Bloomberg TV show was just picked up by an increasingly desperate MSNBC — had to say about Trump’s announcement:

No matter how extreme and menacing Trump becomes, that’s all one can expect from large sectors of the U.S. media: cowardly neutrality, feigned analytical objectivity (how will Trump’s fascism play with New Hampshire independents?) as an excuse for not taking any sort of stand. We are indeed a long, long way away from Edward R. Murrow’s sustained, continuous, unapologetic denunciations of Joseph McCarthy.

So by all means: unleash the contempt and the righteous indignation for Trump. It’s well-deserved. But that should not obscure everything that led to this moment, nor exonerate those who for years have been spewing unadorned anti-Muslim animus from multiple corners and under various banners. They’re more subtle and diplomatic (and thus more insidious) than Trump, but they’re reading from the same script.

* * * * *

Shortly before this article was published this morning, Cuomo re-appeared on Twitter and apparently had a change of heart from last night’s proclamation. Faced with a tidal wave of anger over his posture of neutrality, he did a complete reversal, seemingly thanking his critics by writing, “Thank you for stepping up and saying is not about sensitivities or PC but core American values.” He added, “We have crossed a line in campaign and it deserves attention.” He then basically spent the whole morning atoning for last night’s statement by arguing that Trump’s “ban Muslim” policy is a “defining moment” and telling people they “should be angry.” Sometimes, social media shaming works.

On a different note: Trump gave a speech last night in South Carolina where he defended his “Ban Muslims” proposal. Speaking on an aircraft carrier underneath a suspended bomber jet (picture above), Trump added a new policy proposal about internet freedom that provoked substantial anger and mockery:

We’re losing a lot of people because of the internet. We have to see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening. We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that internet up in some ways. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.

As Trevor Timm noted, Trump’s statement — both in substance and even in words — was strikingly similar to what Hillary Clinton said the day before while delivering a foreign policy address at the Brookings Institution:

We’re going to have to have more support from our friends in the technology world to deny online space. Just as we have to destroy [ISIS’s] would-be caliphate, we have to deny them online space. And this is complicated. You’re going to hear all of the usual complaints, you know, freedom of speech, et cetera. But if we truly are in a war against terrorism and we are truly looking for ways to shut off their funding, shut off the flow of foreign fighters, then we’ve got to shut off their means of communicating.

Again, it’s easy and fun for elites to mock and scorn Trump. But he knows what he’s doing, and he’s not speaking to those elites. He specifically knows that what he’s saying will find a large, enthusiastic audience because of the ideas that have been mainstreamed in the U.S. for many years now: by political and media figures widely respected in the same elite circles that patronizingly mock Trump and his supporters.

UPDATE I: The always-smart Teju Cole with a related but somewhat different point, a crucial one:

UPDATE II: After Trump’s campaign spokesperson said his ban would also apply to American Muslims outside the country, Trump in an interview said the opposite: “If a person is a Muslim and goes overseas and come back, they can come back. They are a citizen, that is different.” How generous. It’s a small point — it hardly makes the proposal less repugnant — but it’s still worth noting.

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