When the hawkish former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney becomes a voice of moderation, America has reached an odd and disturbed place. “Well, I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say ‘no more Muslims,’ just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in,” he said on conservative radio. Hours earlier, Donald Trump called for a full closing of the border to Muslims, his latest bit of demagoguery in a presidential campaign fuelled by demagoguery.
For those who wonder why President Barack Obama devoted only 132 words of his Oval Office address to his Sisyphean mission on gun control, consider the urgent and rising need for words (333) to quell the latest surge of paranoia about U.S. Muslims. The suspicions never really died after 9/11, hit another high with the “Ground Zero mosque” panic of 2010, and have continually spiked in the last 18 months as Islamic State beheaded Americans, Paris was attacked and a radicalized California couple unleashed a massacre this month at an office party.
Trump may have the most prominent bullhorn, but he’s tapping into a rich vein of xenophobia some commentators shamelessly exploit because it sells.
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Fifty-six per cent of Americans find the values of Islam at odds with the American way of life, according to a survey released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute; the figure is 73 per cent among white evangelicals, and 77 per cent among Trump supporters. In a widely shared TV screed aired last weekend, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said Americans should close the borders—”even Mexico and Canada, pure and simple”—and don’t fear being called Islamophobic, because that’s “part of the Islamic terrorist plan.” Pirro, who is of Lebanese descent, concluded: “Ladies and gentlemen, the jackals are at the door.”
In 2001, George W. Bush and Cheney took care to draw distinctions between declaring war on overseas radicals and a war against a whole race or religion. “This is by no means a war against Islam,” Cheney said five days after the World Trade Centre attacks. Like Obama, he also stressed that the violent jihadism was a “perversion” of the Muslim faith. Fourteen years later, some top Republicans vying for base support in next year’s presidential primaries see leverage, rather than hazard, in conflating the threat of terrorism and the threat of “them.” Whether or not Trump capitalizes long-term from his blatantly unconstitutional views, he appears to have brought the discourse of hatred into the mainstream.
Comparisons between Trump and Hitler have also become popular fodder. But there is a more recent, accurate one. The day before Trump went ballistic, the anti-immigrant National Front trumped major parties in several French regional elections, the latest success for far-right factions throughout Europe. Should Trump actually take the party nomination, wrote Ben Domenech in The Federalist, “it would set America’s political path on a direction along the lines of what we have seen in democracies in Europe.”
Even if he loses, his views could thrive well beyond Trump’s poll position.