Republican leaders, eager to stoke the ugliest aspects of their right-wing base, have found yet another new low for racist Islamophobia in American politics. As the Republican National Convention cheered calls for yet more war in the Middle East, they formally nominated the new Islamophobe-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, for President of the United States.
By now, Trump’s Islamophobic bona fides need no introduction. He made his 2015 call for a “complete shutdown” of all Muslim immigration a centerpiece of his bigoted campaign, doubling-down on the outrageous and impossible proposal in response to deadly mass shootings carried out by U.S.-born attackers.
What’s worse is that Trump is far from alone among top Republicans. Many GOP leaders have joined in the ongoing race to find the very bottom of the Islamophobic gutter.
Last week, as rescue efforts had only just begun to help victims of the horrific attack in Nice, France, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, appeared on Fox News with a radical new idea. “Western civilization is in a war,” he intoned. “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with western civilization.”
Speaker Gingrich’s proposal for a dragnet religious test obviously flies in the face of bedrock American principles around religious freedom, enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution—but frankly that is neither here nor there. This ridiculous proposal does not deserve serious consideration.
What urgently needs discussion, however, is the transformation of the Republican Party from a mainstream conservative institution into a dangerous party that openly promotes unbridled bigotry. For the past decade, major Republican figures have engaged in a frightening race to the bottom. Again and again, they plumb the depths of Islamophobia, each time finding new ways to blame Muslims. Before Gingrich, there was Texas Senator Ted Cruz who called for “law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Cruz was apparently unaware that the FBI and NYPD have already largely implemented this bigoted idea. And, of course, Trump continues to stand behind his outlandish proposal to ban all Muslim immigration. Of course, it should go without saying that vanishingly small numbers of Muslims have anything to do with terrorism, and Muslims face the brunt of the fury of violent organizations like Daesh. These simple facts have not been enough to stop the Republicans’ slide into bigotry, but things were not always thus.
Not so long ago, leading Republicans like President George W. Bush and General Colin Powell refused to play along with others in their party who promoted Islamophobia. Even though a majority of Republicans incorrectly believe that President Obama is Muslim, General Powell forcefully defended the American ideal of religious freedom. During the 2008 election, amid whispers that Obama was a “secret Muslim” that threatened to overshadow the entire campaign, Powell said, “…what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.” Along the same lines, early in the 2000s, President Bush repeatedly insisted that the United States was not at war with Islam. He refused to allow the terrorists to set the agenda, declaring, “Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.”
Sadly, over time, Republican leaders appear to have abandoned basic ideals like freedom of religion and multiculturalism. The descent of the Republican Party into the gutter began as early as 2006, when party leaders began using the neologism, “Islamofascism,” to describe the “enemy” in the “War on Terror.” Even President Bush used this term, and shortly thereafter seemingly every mainstream political leader in both parties adopted that term as a synonym for “terrorism.” In the decade since, Islamophobia has become a central pillar for the Republican Party. The strategy of using bigotry toward Muslims to win political votes has borne largely mixed results. The Republicans lost majorities in Congress in 2006 and they lost the White House in 2008, after all, but many individual Republicans have easily won election and re-election even after making hateful statements about Muslims. Polls consistently show an appetite among Republican voters for “telling it like it is” through bigoted statements about Muslims and terrorism.
Among the worst effects of the unending spiral down into the darkest depths of racism, this Islamophobic rhetoric enables hawkish leaders from across the political spectrum to call for yet more war. Deaths pile up, doing little if anything to make anyone safer. Just yesterday, a US airstrike authorized by the supposedly “weak” Obama Administration has reportedly killed 56 innocent civilians in Syria.
Leading Republicans like Trump, Gingrich, and Cruz have worked hard to plumb the depths of the racist gutter. The urgent question now is whether anyone will stop them.
This post was updated to correct minor editing errors.