Bigger than Trump

Trigger warning: islamophobia, war, mass surveillance

Donald Trump has returned to dominate lists of trending tags with an astounding call to bar all Muslims – only days later clarifying citizens would probably be exempt – from entering the United States. His campaign underscored exactly what he was talking about when asked to clarify. He really means everyone, from immigrants to refugees to tourists, with a complete and total ban on admission into the United States for any amount of time.

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Cordoba House supporters protesting in New York City in 2010, from here.

With that, the Republican front-runner has managed to do the unthinkable, and draw criticism from not only outside of his party but also some of the most militant voices in the Republican establishment for being too vocally or categorically or extremely anti-Muslim. Dick Cheney, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham have spoken out, in Graham’s case with a request for a Party-wide rebuke of Trump.

That speaks to an odd, scapegoating dynamic. Trump isn’t the source of anti-Muslim attitudes in the US, he’s simply ridden them (and related prejudices) to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. The establishment or establishment-approved voices now calling for a rejection of Trump and his politics have all dabbled in the building blocks of his call for an anti-Muslim travel ban. Previously a number of other candidates had called for a smaller scale version of the precise same thing, with a complete ban on Muslim refugees, including establishment-favorite Jeb Bush.

I’ve touched on this before, but the anti-Muslim elements that Trump has put out in full display have long been woven into the national politics in the US. The language not only Republicans or conservatives but almost everyone in political discussion uses to describe militancy or oppression – jihad, Taliban, Mecca- is studded with words borrowed from various Islamic contexts. Their use draws on that negative image of Muslims, and repurposes some of that. That speaks to the way that islamophobia has become a public resource, tapped into to find ways of characterizing others you disagree with.

More unique to the American rightwing, however, has been the development of an entire industry devoted to weaponizing that. The research cited by Trump’s campaign to justify their proposed policy has come under scrutiny for its lack of rigor. The study, however, speaks to the vast web of connections within anti-Muslim conservative politics, in which the head of the group conducting the study was active in stirring up a whole series of panics over the past few years.

In 2011, Frank Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy inspired multiple Republican congressional representatives and several Republican-controlled state governments to look into the possibility of efforts to enshrine Sharia law within the US. From there, his organization’s periodicals and pamphlets shifted to trying to root out a first Iranian, later Wahhabi conspiracy within the White House. In each of those cases, Gaffney explicitly sought out “a new and improved counterpart to the Cold War-era’s HUAC” and Republicans at both the national and state level attempted to deliver.

While extremist figures in the Republican Party tilted at those windmills, like representative Peter King and former representative Michele Bachmann, Gaffney’s description of a US at existential risk appears to have circulated in other, more establishment-aligned Republican circles. Presidential contender Marco Rubio is widely considered the moderate Republican alternative to the imploding Jeb Bush, and his campaign seems to be making “civilizational struggle,” a tweaked version of Gaffney’s “civilizational jihad,” their main refrain.

The policy prescriptions within these discussions are quite predictable – bans on immigration or even visitation, more militarization at US borders, more US military presence and operations in Muslim-majority countries. It’s at its core the state-centered politics that a number of conservatives spent 2009 declaring their abject opposition to, only to call for all that and quite literally a reboot of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As has been said before, it’s a smaller government… for some. For others, namely Muslims, it’s a sprawling global system of mass surveillance and warfare.

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Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat” by Dennis Malone Carter in 1804, a depiction of the first conflict in which the US flag was planted in military triumph – in a majority Muslim territory’s soil. From here.

The Republican efforts to win at the state or local level often with these investigations and policy ideas speaks to which side ultimately wins between the establishment and the base.

The national party has a campaign war chest and their share of candidates. Still, their money has lost handily to Trump going national with what’s worked for them at the state level. In the meantime, establishment-friendly candidates like Bush and Rubio have been presenting policies and making claims cut from the same anti-Muslim cloth.

Trump is just one person, saying more obviously and at the national level what’s been said throughout the Republican Party and more broadly even for years. It’s worked in more local elections, and so far in this primary the same sort of thing has only helped him amass support. National polls haven’t yet documented whether Trump’s support has eroded after his recent comments, but initial signs show his appeal only growing within the primary.

Just like the steady drift towards a more heavy-handed solution in conversations among self-described libertarians, he’s simply following a Republican playbook to its logical conclusion. Doesn’t that say more about the playbook than about him?

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One thought on “Bigger than Trump

  1. […] taking the risk of making what isn’t just about Trump sound like it’s just about Trump, let me quickly remind you of some facts. There are […]

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