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Donald Trump's Islamophobic rhetoric resonates with many Republicans

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Donald Trump's call to bar Muslims from entering the country is certainly more repugnant in just about every way — constitutionally, morally, and politically — than anything any other Republican presidential candidate has called for since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. But it's also not a total outlier.

In fact, it's the latest example of escalating rhetoric about Islam across the Republican field. Even more troublingly, the Islamophobic fervor is actually reflective of what a large portion of the public believes, according to recent polling.

So while Trump's comments might seem outlandish, they actually represent a larger, troubling shift in politics and America broadly.

The Republican candidates have been making increasingly Islamophobic remarks

Republicans debate in Milwaukee. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Much of the discussion about Islamophobia has fallen on Trump, who wrongly claimed that thousands of people in New Jersey — comprising "a heavy Arab population" — celebrated 9/11 in its immediate aftermath, and briefly called for a national registry of all Muslim people in the US. And to be sure, his latest proposal goes above and beyond what any candidate has said.

But Trump's Islamophobic comments are part of a broader trend within the Republican field: Over the past few months, particularly in the weeks following the terrorist attack in Paris, Republican candidates have increasingly targeted Muslims in their rhetoric. Here are a few examples:

  • Before the Paris attacks, in September, Marco Rubio said he was primarily concerned about Christian refugees from Syria, although he was reportedly open to accepting more Syrian refugees, including Muslims, until the Paris attacks.
  • After the Paris attacks in November, Ted Cruz said, "President Obama and Hillary Clinton's idea that we should bring tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees to America: it is nothing less than lunacy."
  • Shortly after, Jeb Bush called for preferential treatment of Syrian refugees who are Christian, and said Muslim refugees should go through a more restrictive process.
  • Last week, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul voted for a legislative amendment that would halt all immigration from dozens of Muslim countries with terrorist networks.

If you look at these comments, a timeline of sorts appears — one in which Republicans increasingly call for excluding Muslim people from certain immigration policies. From this perspective, Trump's call to exclude all Muslims, instead of just certain refugees or immigrants from certain countries, is a natural escalation of where all this rhetoric has been going.

Now, several Republican candidates have come out and called Trump's comments too far — including Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham. But they are in some ways condemning a trend that their party has built up.

What's worse, Republican candidates are not making these types of comments off the cuff. They know they are pandering to a very sizable portion of Americans, particularly within the Republican base.

The escalating Islamophobia reflects a broader problem in America — especially the Republican electorate

The Republican rhetoric is emblematic of a broader problem in the US: Increasingly, it seems like major segments of country — and Republicans in particular — share ideas that can only be described as Islamophobic.

A YouGov survey in November found, for example, that 40 percent of Americans believe Muslims should be required to register in a national government database — a level of support much higher than other religious groups included in the poll. Republicans liked the idea more than their counterparts: 49 percent of Republican respondents voiced support, compared with 41 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of independents.

Most Americans support a government registry for gun owners, not Muslims. YouGov

In September 2015, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 56 percent of Americans agree that "the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life," up from 47 percent in 2011. Again, Republicans were much more likely to hold this view: 76 percent of Republicans did, compared to 43 percent of Democrats.

More polls reported similar results, as Vox's Max Fisher previously explained:

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.

Together, all of these findings paint a terrifying picture. It's worrying that major presidential candidates are making Islamophobic remarks. But it's even more worrying that a lot of Americans — and maybe a plurality or majority of Republicans — seem to agree with the ugly rhetoric.

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