A day after a radicalized Muslim couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, Donald Trump gloated that his presidential poll numbers have continued to rise in the wake of tragedy.
“Everything goes up, my numbers go way up,” the Republican front-runner said to CNN, pointing to polls taken after last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
Trump has learned to capitalize on fear and anguish, even if it means appealing to prejudice and ignorance. Even if it means going back on what he said the month before.
In September, he said the Syrian refugee crisis was so horrible he would consider accepting some of the displaced. But in October, he said if elected president, he’d send them all back. Now he’s saying he’d allow no Muslims in from anywhere, not even those already living here and vacationing abroad.
He has already proposed conducting surveillance on mosques, entertained the idea of a database of American Muslims, and advocated repealing the Constitution’s grant of birthright citizenship. But with his call on Monday to isolate all members of one religion, Trump gleefully thumbed his nose at the Constitution’s grant of religious liberty.
In Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, that night, he got cheers and a standing ovation for it. Even proposals that are naive, unrealistic or abhorrent are made so confidently and matter-of-factly that Trump’s followers buy into them.
Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, recalled in an email interview other ugly departures from American values in our history: The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the rejection of refugees, mostly Jewish, fleeing Nazi Germany; the internment of Japanese-Americans; the 1954 deportation of Mexicans in the Operation Wetback program.
“The disturbing thing is that a majority of Americans were OK with all of these xenophobic policies,” Schmidt wrote in his email.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, responded to Trump’s proposal, saying in a statement, “In the Jewish community, we know all too well what can happen when a particular religious group is singled out for stereotyping and scapegoating. We also know that this country must not give in to fear by turning its back on its fundamental values, even at a time of great crisis.”
Trump claims “large segments” of the Muslim population have “great hatred” toward Americans, and in defense of his proposal said in a campaign press release, “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.”
Trump’s campaign statement came the day after President Barack Obama addressed the nation on terrorism and asked Americans not to scapegoat all Muslims. Trump said under his own administration, we would be free to profile people.
Part of Trump’s appeal comes from reducing problems and solutions to so simplistic a level that they seem obvious and easy. First he makes ominous statements about our vulnerability. Then he talks tough about making us safe without the need for intelligence to figure out who actually poses a risk.
America is supposed to operate on a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. But Trump tends to dismiss that as nettlesome political correctness. He breezily uses code words to make inferences about Obama, among others. “There is something going on with him that we don’t know about,” Trump said, in accusing the president of refusing to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.”
Even a fraud can command a following under the right circumstances.
If you alienate all members of a population, none will be allies when it matters. An unsigned email I received this week chided, “Your name alone should’ve told me that your (sic) not an American. … You Muslims already have to (sic) much info to help your support of Jihad. … To hell with Muslims! GOD Bless America!!”
If I were Muslim and the same message were coming from my president, I might keep my mouth shut even if I suspected a neighbor of something. If a president could so overreact, I’d fear officials overreacting without knowing all the facts.
Even simple logic should dictate that’s a no-win proposition.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.