Trigger warning: islamophobia, racism, genocide
By this point you’ve hopefully seen the brief clip of Donald Trump in New Hampshire being asked a somewhat rambling question, which to make matters worse he interrupted. What was asked went something like this:
“We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he’s not even American. Birth certificates, man. But anyway, we have training camps [of Muslims] growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question – when can we get rid of them?”
Many others besides me immediately flashed back to a similarly confused question that then presidential nominee John McCain had to field about the very same Barack Obama, in which he was called an Arab and implied to be a Muslim. There are so many familiar parts of this – the use of Muslim as an inherent signifier of lesser or no value, the casual implication of genocidal mass killing, and the paranoid fixation on Obama apparently at the heart of a vast conspiracy. Donald Trump knows how to capture a Zeitgeist, but there is something this statement and the reactions to it will reveal.
In the coming reaction to his statements, something of a nation-wide test is going to be unknowingly conducted. When McCain haltingly rejected the fears of the woman who had approached him there were dual reactions among his supporters. For some, this signaled that what had attracted them to the McCain-Palin cause was not necessarily going to be entirely backed by its future administration. For others, this signaled worryingly about who their political camp had let inside the gate and, as Sarah Palin demonstrated, hold increasingly prominent and powerful positions within the party.
After that, the Republican fold actually lost a lot of supporters, who decided the conservative outfit no longer represented what they thought it did if a woman asked a question like that. Alternatively, the continued campaigns of people like Donald Trump meant that very few of those disappointed that McCain didn’t agree actually left the party. They might not have voted for McCain, but they remained active Republicans in other arenas.
What Trump has presented here is in part the fallout of that. When a sizable percentage of a major party leaves because of racist rhetoric, you’re only left with the racists (and also, only the racists to appeal to, as Trump’s broader primary success shows). We’re not just before the general so any straggling defectors won’t be from the party, but will be most likely to other candidates. The real question is, what are their numbers? How many people are left in the Republican Party that neither tolerate nor personally endorse these ideas about people of color, Muslims, and a score of other marginalized groups? Are they significant enough – numerically or otherwise – in the Republican Party to affect the nomination process?
The reality is that the answer to that is probably no, because of the process that has occurred to a large extent since the most recent Bush Administration. The Republican Party has bled supporters since then, alienated at times not just but socially unaccepted language about vulnerable groups, but because they themselves are members of the groups attacked. Muslim communities themselves in the US once leaned towards Republicans. The reality that has left Republican candidates with is to go big, like The Donald himself, or go home. There’s virtually no other constituency left within the party, at least one which can meaningfully challenge its power or numerically best it. The Republican Party can only turn out candidates who act this way because those are the candidates it wants.