This is Donald Trump’s America now. If Trump does not win the nomination, it no longer matters: He has moved the debate into an ugliness that gives cover to almost all bigotry.
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“I’m no racist, but I think the one bunch it’s okay to hate is those Muslims.”
I thought to myself, “Did I really just hear him say that?” I have replayed this moment in my mind every day in the six months since I heard the man, an acquaintance of mine, say this to me. Shocked into complacency, I did not speak up.
An elderly women was beside us. She is the sort of person who looks like the meanest thing she might say in her day is something like, “A dozen cookies! That’s too many! Have another.” She chimed in: “They believe in the devil. They lie when they say they pray to God.” Her eyes flared and she repeated herself. “They know it’s a lie, and they do it anyway.” I excused myself, shocked into a mortified silence, which was an inexcusable silence.
Others were nearby, and no one spoke up. I asked a couple people later about what they heard the man say, and each of them expressed surprise but offered some variation of the excuse, “I guess he needed to get that off his chest.”
This is Donald Trump’s America. My first-hand report. These voters may not have the opportunity to vote for Trump for President of the United States next November, as he may not win the Republican nomination, but whomever they vote for next year is being shown the blueprint detailing how to win their support. With his status as the front-runner for the Republican nomination and his open espousal of complete racism, his promises of policies of brutality towards American citizens of one religion, Donald Trump has moved the debate into a region where less ugly racism, less obvious brutality, appears acceptable, becomes accepted. It will still be brutal racism. The moment has arrived when we can not shrug it off and say to ourselves, “I guess he needed to get that off his chest.”
At its best, Donald Trump’s campaign for President has been ham-handed as the man lurches from barnyard epithet to schoolyard demagoguery. He is nothing if not socially awkward, but his brilliance in his 30 years as a public figure has been his masking of that awkward social incompetence behind an audacious, over-the-top self-confidence. Put that man behind a podium and run him for office and we have people applauding his audacious, refreshing, “truth-telling.”
He is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for President. The first votes that will officially be registered will come in Iowa on February 1. Even if his campaign somehow vanishes like a thin cloud in the jet stream, and it will not, his effect on Campaign 2016 is permanent, from the race for president down to the local races across the country.
At its worst, Donald Trump’s campaign has shifted the terms of rational, acceptable political debate smack into the middle of the darkest fever-dream imaginings of our current generation of racists.
There is a phenomenon in politics nicknamed the “Overton window,” a column in today’s Guardian reminds us. The Overton window is the window through which any policy, left or right, is viewed as “acceptable,” and anything outside it is viewed as “extreme.” The window can be pulled to the left or right, however, and policies that used to be outside the “acceptable” window will fall into that area when someone popular has started to push the envelope of the extreme.
We see it most frequently in American presidential politics; this year, progressives hoped that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would run so that the presumed front-runner, Hillary Clinton, would see how popular the senator’s progressive stances are and would at least “move to the left.” It is possible that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is playing the Warren role instead. Donald Trump’s demagoguery is moving the Overton window into open hatred as political policy.
By now you have seen that yesterday Trump called for and pledged to pursue a “total and complete shutdown” (his words) of Muslims entering the United States of America. A “total ban,” he called it. His policy was not delivered in his usual fashion: off-the-cuff in front of a crowd of supporters egging him on, but in an official campaign document, a policy paper. “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,” it reads, so we must have a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
To their credit, many of his rivals for the Republican nomination disagreed with Trump’s possible anti-Muslim policy. Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged.” Senator Ted Cruz said that he has more focused plans and wants to root out “radical Islamic terrorism.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney replied to a question about it with, “Well, I think this whole nation, that we can say, ‘No more Muslims,’ that we can just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in.” Senator Rand Paul said, “I think it’s a mistake to base immigration or moratoriums based on religion. But you know, I’ve called for something similar, which is a moratorium based on high risk.”
Senator Paul’s sentence is a pitch-perfect imitation of the sound of the Overton window being moved to the right.
The Washington Post raised these questions: “Like most of the ideas Trump has floated, the proposal is both far-reaching and vague, raising numerous questions that his aides declined to answer Monday: Which Muslims would be included in the ban? How would they be identified? Would the U.S. bar American-born citizens who practice Islam and are returning from an overseas trip? What about holders of green cards visiting family overseas, or wealthy Middle Eastern businessmen journeying to the United States to finalize a deal?”
(For example, let’s say a Saudi businessman needs to meet with American businessman Donald J. Trump, Jr. in New York. What happens then?)
The Post reports that “Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told the Associated Press that the ban would apply to ‘everybody’ but did not elaborate. Later, Trump said in an interview on Fox News that the ban would not apply to Muslim members of the military or ‘people living in the country.'”
The United States of America frequently, annually, adjusts its immigration policies. Most of the time, the basic regulations remain the same, but we adjust the numbers of people who can move into the country. We have quotas. Sometimes we overhaul our policies, and that is what Mr. Trump is demanding. Membership, active or passive, in a religion is not at present a part of the formula. In the past, specific groups that we have decided that we dislike have been banned. Further, in a move that is now almost universally decried as tragic, during World War II we arrested people who were born in Japan but had become citizens and those who were merely of Japanese descent and kept them in internment camps. Men and women, children and the elderly were forced to live (and many died) for several years in camps, which is a polite word for prisons.
Most people seem to understand the history of the Japanese internment camps as tragic. These people were citizens, many of whom were born here, and were imprisoned because their parents were Japanese. Trump and his supporters do not see this history as a tragic one, but view the camps as having been a sad necessity of the times and perhaps as a perfectly sound idea for today’s world.
NPR reports that “a co-chairman of Trump’s state veterans coalition in New Hampshire defended Trump’s statement, arguing that it’s the same policy used against Japanese-Americans during World War II. ‘What he’s saying is no different than the situation during World War II, when we put the Japanese in camps,’ New Hampshire state Rep. Al Baldasaro said. ‘The people who attacked innocent people in Paris came through open borders. From a military mind standpoint, all Donald Trump is saying is to do what needs to be done until we get a handle on how to do background checks.'”
On Good Morning America this morning, Trump was asked about the internment camps and replied, “Franklin D. Roosevelt created Japanese internment camps during World War II and they named highways after him!”
I opened with an anecdote about American anti-Muslim sentiment this year; it is just one anecdote but it reflects something that social researchers and pollsters are watching happen in real time across the country: American Muslims are a vulnerable group.
A Pew Research Center survey from 2014 asked Americans to rate members of eight religious groups from 0 to 100, where 0 reflects the coldest, most negative possible rating and 100 the warmest, most positive rating. “Overall, Americans rated Muslims rather coolly—an average of 40, the Pew Center reported. The survey was the result of interviews with 3217 Americans; Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians ranked above 60 each.
That “coolness” is being transformed into fire: violence in America against Muslims and against their homes and places of worship is increasing. There are incidents that show how the violence that is born of fear that is born of conscientious misunderstanding can claim other lives: people who “look Muslim” (not that there is such a “look”), such as Americans who are of Sikh heritage (who are Hindu but to an uneducated American “look Muslim”), have been murdered without cause.
That “coolness” felt toward Muslims is now a fire, and that fire is being perceived and used as a voting bloc. My anti-Muslim acquaintances whom I told you about at the top, they are in that voting bloc. What would my friends have done if a person of the Muslim faith was in the room with us and expressed his or her discomfort with their hate-filled words? I doubt my friends would have been violent, but I am confident they would have been violently cool towards the person.
Once upon a time, I worked for a weekly newspaper. Even though it was a small-circulation publication, the fact that we ran a Letters to the Editor page meant that we received letters. Lots and lots of letters. Our editorial policy was simple: no profanity or personal abuse. I, a young editor at the time, did not understand it. The letters were often awful, hate-filled documents, even when they were free of profanity and free of personal abuse. My boss, the editor, explained that these individuals wanted their thoughts exposed and we were helping to expose them. “Let them show the world what it looks like,” was her reply to me concerning ugly racism. “It is better when they are out in the open.”
Donald Trump is out in the open. His supporters are out in the open.
Earlier today, an evangelical Christian writer named Rachel Held Evans published a brief essay on Facebook that led me to confront the incident I opened with at the top. She wrote,
Time for all of us to speak up. This isn’t a joke anymore. To the cheers of thousands, Donald Trump has called for committing war crimes against women and children, for banning Muslims (including U.S. citizens) from entering the U.S., for shutting down mosques, and for tracking religious minorities with a database and possible ID badges. (In addition, he shared false information from a white supremacist Web site to spread lies about African Americans and crime, and has called for the deportation of millions of immigrants.) We’ve seen a Christian college president urge his students to take up arms and “end those Muslims before they get here.” And across the country, Muslims report that their mosques are being vandalized, that they are receiving death threats by the hour, and that women in head coverings are being harassed when they go out in public. Needy families fleeing terrorism in their own countries, who have spent years being vetted to receive refugee status and a safe home, are arriving to the U.S. only to be turned away by state governors. The hysteria and xenophobia has gotten completely out of control, and it runs totally contrary to our country’s commitment to religious freedom and especially to the teachings of Jesus. If a pastor, family member, friend, or acquaintance expresses support for violent rhetoric against minorities, speak up. Call it out. It’s not okay.
We can stop wondering if we would have protested the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. This is exactly how it begins. Now’s the time to speak up and to act.
It was shared 50,000 times in 17 hours. One person disagreed vehemently and wrote that this is a false analogy, because, “During the years before WWII and the holocaust (sic), Jews did not commit acts of terrorism or rebellion in Europe or the US. They simply lived their lives and conducted peaceful business. It is not accurate to compare then with now. They were hated for who they were and not their actions. Hate mongering is never right. It is very different with the threat we have today. We are experiencing actions that are killing innocent people. This threat must be stopped now to insure the safety of our society.”
“Hate mongering is never right,” so he hates, but without the mongering, I suppose. Hatred can sometimes sound educated. The writer is justifying his own hatred of Islam behind the screen of condemning (unnamed) specific acts of violence.
It is the sound of the Overton window being shifted into open, brutal ugliness.
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