The problem with U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s extreme proposal to temporarily limit the entry of Muslims into the United States is not that it reflects an aberrant, occasional fringe position that threatens one minority group. It reveals a much more uncomfortable fact: Trump’s comments are part of a long tradition of the white Christian majority’s isolating, mistreating and making scapegoats of groups that are perceived as encroaching on and threatening its hegemonic privileges.
Throughout the last four centuries, populist and demagogic U.S. politicians have routinely exploited ignorance, arrogance, fear and militarism to advance the kinds of racism and xenophobia we witness against Muslims today.
Their demagoguery is rooted in widespread ignorance about those who are neither white nor Christian and an arrogant belief that the United States’ governance system and power structure are mankind’s finest nation-building enterprise, one that should not be changed or challenged. The ignorance manifests itself in the form of fear of foreigners or those who deviate from the core American ideal. The arrogance is evident in routine U.S. efforts to export its model of government to reconfigure other states. This includes the use of armed forces to repel or destroy threatening “others,” leading to endless wars and attempts to bomb opponents into oblivion — albeit unsuccessfully.
None of these practices define all Americans, of course, and the nation’s laws have slowly erased the blatant discrimination that disfigured the lives of generations of minorities, including black people, Jews and Native Americans. On paper, the U.S. Constitution is a wondrous document that is worthy of emulation. Yet the lived history of the United States reveals a recurring streak and deficiency — even genocides and crimes against humanity — in bursts of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hate crimes, Islamophobia and routine violence or restrictions on certain minorities since the 17th century.
“America has a proud tradition as an immigrant nation, but it also has a long history of marginalizing those it marks as ‘other,’” novelist and Virginia Tech writing professor Ed Falco wrote in an op-ed for CNN in 2012. “America’s other heritage includes suspicion, hostility, abuse and even death, leveled against ethnic groups as they arrived one after another in waves over the past two and a half centuries.”
Even Italians and Catholics were once subject to lynching and discrimination. Falco points out that the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891, when a mob killed 11 Italian-Americans after nine of them were found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy.
“The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide,” Falco wrote.
What was their crime?
Maybe simply differing from the Protestant majority that defined white America at the time. Jews, Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslim Americans and other immigrants from the developing world have suffered similar indignities and threats. In few cases, the fears of mainstream Americans reflect real and understandable security concerns, especially in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11 and in Paris, Egypt, Beirut and San Bernardino, California, linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Yet Americans do not respond to domestic terrorism by white men in a manner similar to the anti-Muslim backlash we see today.
The Trump phenomenon and some similar right-wing Republican demagoguery combine those reservoirs of fear, arrogance, ignorance and militarism with counterterrorism, politics and technology. The media, their poll-obsessed coverage of the 2016 presidential race and the deployment of social media for electoral campaigns converge to encourage candidates to exploit anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fears to win votes.
Democratic elections are one of the strengths of the United States but also can be part of its ethical cesspit. For example, recent polls show that a majority of Americans believe Islam is incompatible with democracy. Yet hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world — from Turkey to Indonesia, India, Canada, Malaysia and Pakistan, much of Western Europe and even the United States — enjoy vibrant citizenship in democracies.
Americans are understandably puzzled, angered and frightened by the ISIL phenomenon and clearly do not know how to respond to it. More troubling, American bafflement over ISIL’s aims and how to defeat it emerged after nearly two decades of active but inconclusive warfare against Al-Qaeda. In reality, however, the U.S.-led global war on terrorism allowed Al-Qaeda to spawn ISIL, with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq creating propitious conditions for its rise.
An honest and complete assessment of how and why ISIL came to be and how to defeat it requires more political, cultural and global intellectual capital than the U.S. government and society are willing to expend. For example, with very few exceptions, most Americans refuse to factor the effect of U.S. policies in the Middle East into the birth and longevity of Al-Qaeda and ISIL. Washington’s support for Arab autocrats, its use of military power in the region and mismanagement and U.S. role in prolonging the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to fuel anti-American sentiments across the Middle East. If we lack the courage to honestly understand where ISIL came from, we may never devise a strategy to eliminate the group.
It is much easier to single out Muslims as national security threats. After all, Americans have done exactly that with many other minorities for centuries. On the one hand, Trump’s rise represents the best of American democracy, which allows any person to run for public office and permits all views to be aired in the court of public opinion. But on the other, he now mostly reflects the ugly and criminal side of the United States, whose democratic system enables the fear, ignorance, arrogance and gun-toting militarism that often leads to racism, xenophobia, scapegoating and angry revenge against minority “others.”
In this sense, Trump is not an aberration from American political values but their ugly, all-American poster child.