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Donald Trump’s war on Muslims, explained

Trump’s attacks on Muslims are politically motivated. That doesn’t make them less dangerous.

Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from immigrating to or visiting the US. He wants to close down some American mosques and monitor the rest. He's flirted with the idea of requiring all American Muslims to register in a database. He's compared his policies — as a way of praising them — to the US's widespread internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Donald Trump is at war with Muslims.

Trump's attacks on Islam — and on Muslims themselves — are also internal to his campaign success. As the political establishment (and political press) has become frankly desperate to stop paying attention to him, he's started replacing some of his anti-Latino rhetoric with anti-Muslim rhetoric to maintain the media's attention.

This strategy succeeds for a reason: The US is witnessing the quiet rise of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim attitudes and fears are more widespread, and more intensely felt, than they have been anytime since the immediate aftermath of 9/11 — and have possibly even gotten worse.

Trump isn't the only candidate in the Republican presidential race whose policies would target Muslims in America and abroad. But (just like when attacking Mexican and Latino immigrants) what distinguishes Trump from his rivals is that while they downplay the racial overtones in their rhetoric, he plays them up. Thanks to Trump, the cultural anxieties that have simmered under a lot of the post-9/11 policy debate have finally punched through to the surface.

Trump's war on Muslims is wildly popular among his followers. That's exactly what makes it so dangerous.

Muslims have gradually replaced Latinos as the villains in Trump's campaign narrative

Donald Trump's campaign has been about reclaiming America for Americans, away from other people. When he launched his campaign, the "other people" were Latino (and particularly Mexican) immigrants — rapists, murderers, and other bad people who were being deliberately sent by the Mexican government to undermine America.

Trump's anti-Latino vitriol — and the media's outraged fascination with it  — helped propel him to the top of the polls. But as summer turned to fall, Trump slowly introduced a new villain into his campaign narrative: Muslims, who were coming to the US for terrorism as surely as Latinos were coming to the US for crime.

It started with Syrian refugees. In early fall, the only thing most Americans knew about the refugee crisis was that 3-year-olds were drowning while trying to escape Syria for Europe — and many politicians were calling for the US to accept thousands more Syrians. But Trump (after briefly taking the position that the US was obligated to take in Syrian refugees because President Obama screwed up the region) started warning darkly about an ISIS coup.

"They could be ISIS. It could be a plot," Trump told Sean Hannity in early October. "I mean, I don't want to think in terms of conspiracy, but it could be a plot."

"This could be the greatest Trojan horse," he said the next week. "This could make the Trojan horse look like peanuts."

In November, Trump began to call for particular mosques to be shut down: "There’s absolutely no choice. Some really bad things are happening, and they're happening fast." He flirted with the idea of requiring all Muslim Americans to register in a database — he eventually claimed that he was just talking about Syrian refugees, but only after he'd gotten a day or two of headlines out of it.

In December, in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, he offset his relatively blatant anti-Semitism with an insinuation that Obama himself was a Muslim: "Our president doesn’t want to use the term [...] ’radical Islamic terrorism.' There is something wrong with him that we don’t know about."

last president to meet with North Korea

Donald Trump speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition, December 3, 2015. (Alex Wong/Getty)

And on December 7 — in a written statement issued by the campaign, which prevented any possibility that Trump would claim he'd been misinterpreted or goaded into taking a position by a hostile reporter — Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the US "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." Trump's campaign initially claimed that this would extend even to American Muslim citizens traveling abroad — but Trump later said that citizens would be exempt.

Trump's statement read, in part: "It is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life."

Other Republican candidates have suggested policies that would have similar effects — but are more subtle in their discrimination

The Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion for all Americans. All Trump's anti-Muslim proposals violate the spirit of that idea.

In practice, however, at least one of Trump's proposals — the Muslim travel and immigration ban — could well be constitutional. People living outside the US don't have the constitutional protections US citizens have, and there's Supreme Court precedent that would prevent the Court from going after President Trump on this. There would be a legal battle, but it might be a winnable one.

The government could certainly discriminate quietly against Muslim residents of other countries applying for a visa to come to the US. The government has a lot of leeway in evaluating immigration applications: It doesn't have to tell someone why his or her visa (or application to immigrate permanently) was denied. So in practice, the US could probably quietly deny Muslims' visa requests for a while.

Plenty of other Republican candidates have put out proposals that would have the effect of limiting Muslim immigration to the US without directly discriminating against Muslims. Rand Paul has called to stop accepting refugees from most Muslim-majority countries. Rick Santorum claims that his ideas to restrict both legal and unauthorized immigration would have "not the effect of banning all Muslims, but a lot of them." Even Jeb Bush, who has condemned Trump's remarks and whose brother urged America not to engage in Islamophobia after 9/11, suggested the US only let in Christian Syrian refugees. And pretty much the entire Republican field believes the government should stop allowing Syrian Muslims to come to the US as refugees.

Trump isn't interested in proposing workable policies. He's interested in attention.

Plenty of the things Trump has suggested are simply not possible, for constitutional or practical reasons. Closing mosques would be an obvious nonstarter. So would registering all Muslims in the US. And Trump's idea of how US officials would know someone entering the country was Muslim — "a customs agent would ask, 'Are you Muslim?'" — should indicate that he hasn't put a ton of thought into this policy, either.

But putting forth serious policies (let alone constitutional ones) isn't the goal of Trump's candidacy. Saying outrageous things that offend Muslim Americans serves two important goals for Trump, as my colleague Andrew Prokop has noted.

First, by making the outrageous statement, Trump guarantees he'll stay in the news. It's not a coincidence that Trump's call for a Muslim ban came the day that polls showed him slipping into second place in Iowa behind Ted Cruz. Both the political media and the political establishment have been assuming that enthusiasm for Trump will fade, and are likely to seize on any sign of waning popularity as evidence that Trump is irrelevant. But every time this seems in danger of happening, Trump finds another way to make himself impossible to ignore.

Second, by saying something so terrible that both Democrats and Republicans condemn him, Trump reinforces his reputation with his conservative supporters. Trump voters see him as the one truly independent voice in politics — beholden to neither rich donors nor political correctness. The fact that even members of his own party think what he's saying is despicable is just more evidence that America needs Donald Trump to speak the truths no one else is willing to admit.

Donald Trump understands what motivates nativist fears in America

Trump's truth-teller persona wouldn't work if there weren't a large swath of people who genuinely agree with what he's saying. But ever since the beginning of Trump's candidacy — when the people he was attacking were Latinos, not Muslims — Trump has understood that many Americans are deeply anxious about immigration to the US by people who do not look like them or share their culture.

This is the salient difference between Trump and his Republican competitors. On policy, Trump's ideas for restricting immigration and increasing domestic surveillance of certain groups might not differ that much from those of other candidates. But other candidates feel the need to downplay the prejudice that might motivate some to support those policies. Trump embraces it.

Polls show Americans are surprisingly ambivalent about whether immigration is a good thing for American culture. Agreement that immigrants strengthen the US rather than burdening it keeps rising, but very gradually:

immigrants strength burden Pew

Pew Research Center

Part of the concern about immigrants "burdening" the US is economic. But Americans are also most suspicious of immigrants who they don't feel can assimilate easily into American culture — who don't share European heritage, the English language, or Christianity.

In one experiment, when Americans were asked to choose whether to accept or reject several different hypothetical immigrants into the US, it wasn't common for Americans to care some about an immigrant's legal status. Either they accepted (or rejected) every single hypothetical unauthorized immigrant, or they accepted unauthorized immigrants about as often as legal immigrants.

For the third group, what mattered instead of legal status were economic and cultural factors: employment, education, religion, and national origin. An unauthorized Christian immigrant fared better than a legal Muslim one. An unauthorized immigrant from France fared better than a legal immigrant from Mexico, but an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico fared better than a legal immigrant from Somalia. In other words, one of the study's authors, Matthew Wright of American University said, his group of people cares whether an immigrant will contribute to the community economically and whether she will assimilate culturally.

Wright's study found that when looking at particular immigrants, economic factors mattered alongside cultural ones. But other studies have shown that American anxiety about immigrants' cultural impact is much more consistent than economic concerns. As one study put it, "Evidence about the role of economic concerns in opposition to immigration [...] has been inconsistent. On the other hand, symbolic attitudes such as group identities turn up as powerful in study after study."

Trump is part of a long American tradition of public figures playing on cultural fears of immigrants. In fact, the particular rhetoric that Trump uses to condemn Muslims — calling them a "Trojan horse" for ISIS and accusing them of plotting a "coup" in the United States — is one of the recurring themes in American nativism: the fear that immigrants will be more loyal to their native countries than to their adopted ones, including in times of war. It's been used against immigrant groups stretching back to the 19th century, when Irish Catholic immigrants were accused of papist sedition.

japanese internment camps

During World War II, fears of an immigrant fifth column led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps in the western United States. The majority of internees were American citizens, and many were born in the United States. Internment ended in 1944, before Japan surrendered to the United States. But many internees had lost their homes and belongings. Several thousand German Americans and Italian Americans, among others, were also put into camps during World War II. But the scope of the Japanese internment is striking — especially because no Japanese American was ever found guilty of espionage.

Trump is tapping into a wave of genuine Islamophobia in the US — and spurring it on further

While nativism is a persistent feature of American life — at least among some substantial portion of Americans — Islamophobia is being more openly and violently expressed in 2015 than it has been for decades.

In part, this Islamophobia has been spurred by news events. In November, a group of European-born Muslims affiliated with ISIS set off a series of attacks around Paris, killing more than 130 people. The incident reopened worries about Muslims and national security — in the US, politicians who two months ago had called for the US to accept more Syrian refugees were now calling for the US to stop accepting any.

Then in December, two Muslim Americans killed 14 people in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. One of those attackers, Syed Rizwan Farook, was born in America. The other, his wife Tashfeen Malik, was born abroad but came to the US to marry Farook. The FBI's investigation after the attacks has confirmed that both of them were "radicalized" and may have pledged allegiance to ISIS before their deaths.

But it would be a mistake to think that Americans are simply responding to terrorist attacks here and in France. Even before the Paris attacks, Americans were more fearful of becoming victims of terrorism than they had been at any point since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. This is partly because Americans are just more worried, period; they're also more afraid of crime, more worried about race relations, and more concerned about illegal immigration.

They are also less tolerant of Muslims: A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute in September 2015 found that a majority — 56 percent — of Americans think Islam is "at odds with American values and way of life," up from 47 percent in 2011.

This poll was not an outlier, as my colleague Max Fisher has documented:

A February poll showed that 54 percent of Republican respondents believe that Obama "deep down" is best described as Muslim. By September, an Iowa poll found that only 49 percent of Republicans there believed that Islam should be legal, with 30 percent saying it should be illegal and 21 percent "unsure." Among Trump supporters in Iowa, hostility toward Muslims was higher but not that much higher: 36 percent said Islam should be outlawed… Fifty-seven percent of Americans, and 83 percent of Republicans, say that Muslims should be barred from the presidency.

This isn't just about polls, either. Last week, Max documented several examples of Islamophobic violence and threats of violence over the past several months. Here's his conclusion:

The United States does not officially track the number of citizens who are Muslim, but it's likely a few million. A 2010 Pew survey estimated the Muslim American population at 2.6 million and predicted that by 2030 it would rise to 6.2 million, or about 1.7 percent of the population. These Americans increasingly live in a climate where they face not just hateful and discriminatory rhetoric but also violence and the threat of violence.

The threat of violence often has the same theatrical point as violence itself: to terrify and intimidate, to inflict psychological suffering on the targeted group in the form of fear and alienation, to force that targeted group to live a little bit less in the open and more in the shadows. Obviously, actual attacks on Muslims are worse than implicit or explicit threats — and, make no mistake, when militias stand outside an Islamic center, even if they have no intention of using violence, they are conveying a threat — but they serve the same goal of inflicting suffering on Muslims meant to drive them into the shadows or out of public society altogether.

The day after Fisher wrote this piece, the San Bernardino attacks happened — and law enforcement subsequently discovered they'd been carried out by a pair of radicalized Muslim Americans. And from what we've seen after the shootings, it certainly doesn't seem like Islamophobia is going to lessen, to say the least. As Jennifer Williams catalogued, it didn't take very long for coverage of the San Bernardino attacks to turn Islamophobic. President Obama was worried enough about rising Islamophobia that he felt the need to give a primetime Oval Office address on Sunday, partly warning Americans not to do exactly what Trump is encouraging them to do. (For what it's worth, the White House wasted no time in condemning Trump's Muslim ban proposal: Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said it was "totally contrary to our values as Americans.")

But the bottom line is this: Donald Trump would not be attracting a plurality of support among primary voters as a presidential candidate if he weren't saying things many Americans believe. It might be unconstitutional to turn those beliefs into government policy, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous to American Muslims who could be the victims of emboldened Islamophobic violence.