Hours after a new poll revealed that he’s trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa, GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a statement advocating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our representatives can figure out what’s going on.” His spokesperson later clarified that this exclusion even includes Muslim-American citizens who are currently outside the U.S. On first glance, it seems accurate to view this, in the words of The Guardian, as “arguably the most extreme proposal to come from any U.S. presidential candidate in decades.”
Some comfortable journalists, however, quickly insisted that people were overreacting. “Before everyone gives up on the republic, remember that not even a single American has yet cast a vote for Trump,” said New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. The New York Daily News Opinion Page Editor Josh Greenman was similarly blithe: “It’s a proposal to keep Muslims out of the U.S., made in a primary, being roundly condemned. We are a long way from internment camps.”
Given that an ISIS attack in Paris just helped fuel the sweeping election victory of an actually fascist party in France, it’s a bit mystifying how someone can be so sanguine about the likelihood of a Trump victory in the U.S. In fact, with a couple of even low-level ISIS attacks successfully carried out on American soil, it’s not at all hard to imagine. But Trump does not need to win, or even get close to winning, for his rhetoric and the movement that he’s stoking to be dangerous in the extreme.
Professional political analysts have underestimated Trump’s impact by failing to take into account his massive, long-standing cultural celebrity, which commands the attention of large numbers of Americans who usually ignore politics (which happens to be the majority of the population), which in turn generates enormous, highly charged crowds pulsating with grievance and rage. That means that even if he fails to win a single state, he’s powerfully poisoning public discourse about multiple marginalized minority groups: in particular inciting and inflaming what was already volatile anti-Muslim animosity in the U.S.
As The Atlantic‘s Matt Ford put it yesterday: “The immediate danger isn’t Trump’s actual policy, but the bigotry and violence that it both legitimizes and encourages.” Muslim Americans (and, for that matter, Mexican-Americans and African-Americans) don’t have the luxury that people like Douthat and Greenman have to be so dismissive. That’s what Al Jazeera’s Sana Saeed meant when she said that she’s “tired of people telling us to not be afraid – Trump may not win but his words will last & there are people who support” the bile he’s spewing.
All that said, it’s important not to treat Trump as some radical aberration. He’s essentially the American id, simply channeling pervasive sentiments unadorned with the typical diplomatic and PR niceties designed to prettify the prevailing mentality. He didn’t propose banning all Muslims from entering the U.S. because it’s grounded in some fringe, out-of-the-mainstream ideas. He proposed it in part to commandeer media attention so as to distract attention away from his rivals and from that latest Iowa poll, but he also proposed it because he knows there is widespread anti-Muslim fear and hatred in the U.S. Whatever else you want to say about him, Trump is a skillful entertainer, and good entertainers – like good fascist demagogues – know their audience.