Donald Trump's fan base and Ben Carson's intransigence help stoke the right-wing bonfire of bigotry into an out-of-control firestorm.
Donald Trump loves to portray himself as a man of the people, and so throwing the mic open to his supporters at a recent town-hall gathering in New Hampshire seemed like a natural gesture. The first questioner at the Sept. 17 Rochester Republican presidential primary event – a man who identified himself as someone “from White Plains” – gave him the kind of blunt talk that Trump himself reveres.
“We have a problem in this country,” the man said. “It's called Muslims. You know our current president is one.”
“Right,” Trump answered, an unsurprising reply given that 66 percent of his supporters believe the Obama is secretly a Muslim.
“You know he's not even an American," the man continued.
Trump gestured to the audience: "We need this question. This is the first question."
"Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us," the man said. "That's my question: When can we get rid of them?"
"We're going to be looking at a lot of different things," Trump replied. "You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We're going to be looking at that and many other things." And then he moved on.
In the days that followed, Trump was questioned about his response to the man. Why hadn’t he corrected the man’s claim that Obama is Muslim? Or his claims about training camps?
Trump answered the first question – he didn’t feel “morally obligated” to defend President Obama – but ignored the remaining issues about his performance. In particular, Muslim-rights groups wanted to know why he seemed to condone the man’s rabid hatred of Muslims and his plans to “look at” rounding them up.
Then another Republican presidential candidate, Ben Carson, added fuel to the fire. Asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” about Trump’s response, Carson told host Chuck Todd that he didn’t believe Islam is consistent with the U.S. Constitution: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” he said.
That, too, provoked an outcry, with Muslim civil-rights groups calling for Carson to "withdraw from the presidential race because he is unfit to lead, because his views are inconsistent with the United States Constitution." Indeed, Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution specifically prohibits any religious test for persons to hold office.
Moreover, many Muslim Americans saw the candidates’ rhetoric as a sign that a fresh wave of the visceral, irrational ethnic loathing of all things Muslim was about to descend upon them. And while such sentiments have been part of the American landscape since at least Sept. 11, 2001, for reasons that are not altogether discernible, it has reached a fever pitch in the past several weeks – the culmination of a perfect storm of electoral politics, conspiracy theorizing and nativist fearmongering.
Those concerns are well grounded. One incident that caught national attention involved a Muslim teenager named Ahmed Mohamad who was arrested by police in Irving, Texas, after he brought an electronic clock of his own making to school to show his teacher, who mistook it for a bomb. It soon emerged that Irving’s mayor was well-known nationally for her role as a right-wing activist against the supposed threat (in reality, nonexistent) of “Sharia law,” and the mayor indeed continued to defend her police force’s actions in arresting the teen.
Though the teen’s trauma was ameliorated somewhat by becoming a national celebrity toasted by President Obama and various tech companies for his bravery, the incident also clearly demonstrated the dangers of succumbing to ethnic fearmongering. Eventually, the conspiracists got around to Mohamad, too, claiming he had carefully planned the whole fiasco from the start and was secretly a tool of Islamist radicals.
Islamophobia has infected small-town America, too, in places ranging from Duncan, S.C., to Twin Falls, Idaho – places where longtime operations that have carefully placed refugees from around the world in jobs and new lives in America are suddenly under siege from their own neighbors. These citizens, whipped up by anti-Muslim activists and right-wing media, are deeply fearful about Muslims – notably, those from Syria – destroying their communities.
The role played by local media in fueling these flames is especially noteworthy. In Twin Falls, local talk-radio hosts turned to topics and fears of refugees “changing our culture” and “bringing a threat to the community”. One caller was especially upset about the criticism of Ben Carson:
This makes me mad, and also scared to death. We’ve got a Muslim, a Muzzie leader in this country, telling a presidential candidate that he should resign because of what he said? I mean – it is against the Constitution! They have Sharia law, we do not!
Other callers waded into the waters of bizarre conspiracy theories that had nothing to do with reality:
I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the fact that bringing all these foreigners in, especially that bunch that [Secretary of State John] Kerry is proposing to bring in, they’re going to come here, and they will eventually overpopulate. And we’re going to be conquered by the sheer numbers of those overpopulated people.
The hosts, of course, did nothing to discourage this kind of talk, but instead blandly folded it in with their own discussions.
This sort of conspiracist discourse reached its apotheosis on a national scale the day after Donald Trump’s town hall, when popular “Infowars” radio host Alex Jones hosted Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch, a onetime respected Beltway insider who in recent years has gone off the rails in claiming that President Obama is secretly a Muslim conspiring to destroy America. And indeed, that very theory was the primary subject of his interview with Jones.
The twist in this discussion was Klayman’s belief that some generals might take out the president in a coup to prevent him from turning America into a subject nation of the Caliphate, noting that most of the current chiefs of staff are “yes men” too cowardly to take such heroic action:
Maybe Obama is pushing them to the point that maybe someday will wage a coup in this country. I’m not advocating that but I know that some of these retired generals and admirals have talked about it. I know that, it’s been in the public domain, because Obama, and I’ll say it straight up because no one else is, you will, Obama is a Muslim through-and-through. Obama sympathizes with a Muslim Caliphate, Obama sympathizes with the mullahs in Tehran, he sympathizes with the radicals in the Far East.
The bulk of the interview, however, was devoted to the depths of Obama’s supposed depravity, as limned by Klayman:
Yes, he wants to bring the United States down to its knees. He admired his father, his father was Muslim. His father was thrown out of this country because he overstayed his student visa, much like many Muslims are doing these days, and others. And Obama, in his heart, has disdain. But he’s very smart, because he pulled a number over all of us. He defrauded us. I don’t believe he’s a natural-born citizen to be a president of the United States. He’s told everybody he’s a Christian, he’s not. And actions speak louder than words. And yes, I do believe in his heart, he would like to see the world run by Muslims.
Though Klayman has wandered far afield from his salad days in the 1990s when Judicial Watch was filing numerous lawsuits against the Clintons and he was a well-regarded conservative insider, he still rates the occasional puff piece for his work in the right-wing press praising his crusades. And last year, he even scored a legal victory by getting a judge to agree with his lawsuit against the National Security Administration’s data-collection program, though that suit was later dismissed.
The spread of Islamophobia into the conservative mainstream, as evidenced by the rhetoric of Republican candidates, extends well beyond Trump and Carson. As Mondoweiss recently explored, most of the GOP’s candidates have indulged in Muslim bashing of some kind or another in recent months:
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor turned TV show host, has called Muslims departing mosques “uncorked animals,” and said that Islam is “a religion that promotes the most murderous mayhem on the planet.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has refused to back down from his groundless claim that certain areas of Europe are “no go zones” dominated by Muslims using Sharia law.
Ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hired as his political adviser Jordan Sekulow, who has a long background of anti-Muslim activism, and is noted for calling supporters of the so-called Ground Zero mosque “terrorists.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz hired as his Tennessee campaign chair a man noted for his history of anti-Muslim activism, Kevin Kookogey.
Rick Santorum has himself a long history of anti-Muslim comments, including a speech at the 2014 Values Voters Summit in which he claimed that “the West” was in an existential fight with the forces of “radical Islam,” noting that “you don’t have Baptist ministers going on jihad.” Santorum has also endorsed profiling Muslims in security and law enforcement work.
But Trump in particular, due to his current front runner status in the race, has been a catalyst for some of the most overheated Muslim-bashing. This week, he demonstrated how the fires of bigotry can just keep escalating.
Though he had told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News only a few weeks before that, in his view, there ought to be even more room for refugees from the Syrian crisis, on Wednesday, he abruptly changed his mind.
I’m putting the people on notice that are coming here from Syria, as part of this mass migration, that if I win, they’re going back – they’re going back! I’m telling you – they’re going back!
This was met with wide applause from audience. And then Trump explained his rationale, which appeared to come straight out of an Alex Jones radio show:
Because military tactics, you know, are very interesting. This could be one of the great tactical ploys of all time – a 200,000-man army, maybe! Or if you sent 50,000, or 80,000, or 100,000 – we got problems! And that could be possible! I don’t know that it is. But it could be possible. So they’re going back. They’re going back. I’m telling you. So if they come, that’s great. And if I lose, I guess they stay. But if I win, they’re going back. A lot of people will say, oh, that’s not nice. We can’t afford to be nice! We’re taking care of the whole world, we’re losing our shirts on everything we do! Everything we do!
And the flames just keep rising higher.