Last September, Frank Rich wrote an article for New York Magazine entitled “The Importance of Donald Trump: Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.”
How so? Rich argued that Trump has “ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.”
Well, that cat left the bag long ago, at least when it comes to anti-Muslim bigotry. As 2015’s last GOP presidential debate made clear, there isn’t a single Republican candidate willing to declare that Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslim non-citizens from entering the country is bigoted and unconscionable. Instead, Trump’s challengers fell all over themselves to court the 59% (or more) of Republican voters who support such a plan. Even Lindsey Graham (who has since dropped out of the race) and Jeb Bush, who got credit in some corners for challenging Trump’s proposal, could only muster the courage to question whether it would undermine our ability to build coalitions and stay safe. They left the core problem with it – that it is completely immoral – unmentioned, and they insisted that loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee was more important than the rights of the world’s Muslim population.
So is Rich right? Does Trump expose the despicable views of his fellow candidates, thus enabling us to confront and discredit them? Or, as Rachel Maddow asked several weeks ago (in the same vein as these comments from Steve Benen), does Trump shift the Overton window of acceptable political discourse? In other words, does Trump’s rhetoric normalize similarly repugnant proposals from Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and just about every other Republican presidential candidate by making them seem tame in comparison?
I don’t profess to know the answer to that question. But either way, those of us who truly believe in freedom and justice need to stop treating Donald Trump like some sort of anomaly. It’s also incumbent upon us to stop acting like despicable, racist, anti-Muslim sentiment and policy ideas are confined to the Republican party; though unethical rhetoric and proposals rear their ugly heads among prominent Republicans more often and more overtly than they do in many other quarters, the mainstream media, popular “liberals,” and high-ranking Democrats are complicit in the persecution of Muslim communities as well.
Consider CNN, the news network that hosted the aforementioned Republican debate. In October of 2014, for example, network anchors Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota invited renowned scholar Reza Aslan to an interview (shown below) that began with an absurd question: “Does Islam promote violence?” Aslan’s responses throughout the rather hostile and offensive set of interview questions, in which he was interrupted by both Lemon and Camerota several times, were well-reasoned and, for the vast majority of the interview, remarkably calm. He noted that female genital mutilation has nothing to do with Islam – this human rights violation is common in many countries in and around Central Africa, regardless of their majority religion, and is not an issue in majority-Muslim countries outside that region. He explained that “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.” He pointed out that women in majority-Muslim Turkey have had more political success than women in the United States, and, finally, getting a little fed up with Lemon and Camerota’s ignorance, explained more forcefully that the use of the phrase “‘Muslim countries,’ as though Pakistan and Turkey are the same, as though Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are the same…is, frankly…stupid.” (Aslan actually apologized for using the word “stupid” after the interview – even though it’s a fairly accurate description of the generalization he was describing – presumably because he wanted to make sure Camerota knew that he wasn’t directing the comment at her intelligence).
CNN’s response to this exchange, rather than to reflect on what their anchors might have done wrong, was to put Lemon and Camerota back on air to defend their interview in a discussion with Chris Cuomo (shown below). In his closing remarks, Cuomo said that Aslan’s “tone was very angry, so he wound up kind of demonstrating what people are fearful about when they think of the faith in the first place, which is the hostility of it.”
If you want a more recent example, check out the next interview below, this one between CNN anchors John Vouse and Isha Sesay and Yasser Louati, head of the International Relations Desk for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. Just like Lemon and Camerota, Vause and Sesay started with a bigoted and offensive premise – all Muslims should take responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris – and continued to ask the same inappropriate question over and over again after Louati politely debunked it.
I wish these videos were outliers, but they aren’t; CNN’s anchors, as well as many members of ostensibly “liberal” media and policy circles, disparage Muslims all the time. And CNN doesn’t condone this behavior because of an unwavering commitment to freedom of expression for its staff; less than a week after the interview with Louati, CNN suspended its global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, for issuing the following tweet:
— Elise Labott (@eliselabottcnn) November 19, 2015
In some ways, CNN is more at fault than the Republican candidates for spreading Islamophobia. When a major television station that many people believe to be broadcasting “objective news” censors tolerant opinions from some of its journalists while giving other journalists free reign to bash the Muslim community, it mainstreams ignorant, prejudiced views far more successfully than Donald Trump ever could.
That’s a large part of why Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates also deserve rebuke (as does George W. Bush, despite the praise he has received from Hillary Clinton). To their credit, they are all careful to draw a clear distinction between Islam the religion and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals who profess to believe in it. Obama, at the State of the Union this week, said that “we need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion.” Yet his and others’ words often lend cover to anti-Muslim animus by (intentionally or not) erroneously implying that “terrorism” and “Islam” are linked. At the last Democratic presidential debate of 2015, for example, Clinton put the burden on Muslim-Americans to “stop radicalization,” and even Bernie Sanders, who is by far the best major presidential candidate on this issue, insisted that we are in a “war for the soul of Islam.” Unless the candidates also think that the terror the Israeli government visits in the Middle East or that the fear the Ku Klux Klan still inspires in the United States represent wars for the souls of Judaism and Christianity, respectively, there is no excuse for this kind of language.
The Democrats’ foreign policy positions also contribute to the problem; their support for aggressive war in response to perceived threats of terror normalizes an “us versus them” and “ends justify the means” mentality used to oppress Muslims in various countries around the world. Clinton is by far the worst perpetrator among the candidates in this regard – her foreign policy record and rhetoric are worse than those of many Republicans. As but one example, she presided over massive increases in weapons deals to the Saudi Arabian government, one of the most repressive regimes in the world that just began 2016 by beheading 47 people, while they donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation. But Obama is very far from blameless. Phrases like “our enemies” and “have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed” from the State of the Union don’t help, nor do Obama-ordered drone strikes that mostly murder innocent civilians. And even Sanders has lent cover to the Saudis. When the supposed “liberals” take these positions, it’s little wonder that Republican debate moderator Hugh Hewitt can suggest that it is a virtue to “order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands” without anyone batting an eyelid.
It’s also little wonder that anti-Muslim sentiment runs alarmingly high among Democratic voters; between 15% and 25% (depending on the poll) support Trump’s proposal. Even scarier, that number could be as high as 45% when Democrats don’t know that the proposal is Trump’s, suggesting that there’s actually much more of a bipartisan consensus in favor of institutionalized discrimination against Muslims than many party loyalists would like to believe. Constant threats, intimidation, and violent attacks against Muslim citizens aren’t a Trump problem; they’re an American problem.
So while it is perfectly appropriate to condemn Donald Trump and the Republicans for their bigotry, we must not treat them as anomalies. We must also confront the media, the Democratic candidates, and all of our friends who, whether purposefully or not, and whether explicitly or not, spread the lie that Islam is uniquely violent. We must go beyond pointing out that prejudice and aggressive war make us less safe, that far more “acts of terror” are carried out by Right-Wing extremists than by those professing to be Muslims, and that state-sanctioned violence by Western nations is responsible for far, far more deaths of innocent civilians than ISIS ever will be. We must, first and foremost, stand in support of Muslims worldwide by denouncing profiling, implicit forms of discrimination, demonization of the “other,” and aggressive calls for war – no matter who they’re coming from – as morally wrong.
Note (7/6/16): This post used to contain audio from the Rachel Maddow show on the Overton window, but it is no longer available. The reference to it has been replaced with a reference to a piece on Maddow’s blog.