If George W. Bush were seeking the Republican presidential nomination today, he’d face at least one big problem: his defense of Muslims and Islam. In a 2000 debate with Al Gore, Bush condemned the fact that “Arab Americans are racially profiled” using “what is called secret evidence.” After 9/11, he called Islam “a faith based upon love, not hate,” and made a highly publicized visit to a mosque. One Muslim Republican even called Bush America’s “first Muslim president.”
A decade and a half later, the climate on the American right has radically changed. In January, the Republican presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal argued that “it is completely reasonable for [Western] nations to discriminate” against some Muslims in their immigration policies, on the grounds that radical Islamists “want to destroy their culture.” In February, another GOP contender, Mike Huckabee, declared, “Everything [President Obama] does is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Jews in Israel. The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.” In March, after New York City announced that public schools would close for two Muslim holidays, Todd Starnes, a Fox News contributor, lamented, “The Islamic faith is being given accommodation and the Christian faith and other religious faiths are being marginalized.”
This is strange. Why are conservatives more hostile to Muslims and Islam today than they were in the terrifying aftermath of 9/11? And why have American Muslims, who in 2000 mostly voted Republican, apparently replaced gays and feminists as the right’s chief culture-war foe?
For half a century, cultural conservatives have vowed to protect America against threats from domestic insurgencies: black militancy, feminism, the gay-rights movement. But those insurgencies involved large and restive groups. Muslims, by contrast, make up only 1 percent of the U.S. population. And they are not restive. Yes, a tiny share sympathizes with Salafi groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS. But unlike the civil-rights, abortion-rights, and gay-rights activists of eras past, American Muslims are not seeking to transform American culture and law. They are not marching in the streets. For the most part, they constitute a small, well-educated, culturally conservative minority that wants little more from the government than to be left alone.
Muslims have become the right’s greatest cultural enemy in large part because they are what remains after the ideological collapse of the “war on terror.” After September 11, George W. Bush outlined an epic, generational struggle—a successor to World War II and the Cold War—to make the Middle East democratic and pro-American. “In our grief and anger,” he told a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, “we have found our mission and our moment.”
For a time, that mission directed the right’s energies outward. Most conservatives (along with many liberals) supported Bush’s efforts to occupy and transform Afghanistan and Iraq. Undergirding these efforts lay a deep confidence in the power of American arms, the size of America’s bank account, and the universal relevance of American democracy.
Since Bush’s second term, however, when both the Afghan and Iraq Wars went dramatically south, that confidence has collapsed. Today, most conservatives credit Bush for the success of the Iraq surge, but they no longer propose large deployments of American troops to the Middle East, and they no longer believe America can spend limitlessly abroad. And especially since the failed Arab Spring, they no longer proclaim the necessity—or even the desirability—of Arab democracy. Whereas the Bush administration once pressured Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak to hold free elections, prominent conservatives now praise his successor, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for having led a coup to overturn their results.
But if conservatives no longer believe they can transform the Middle East, they still greatly fear terrorism by Muslims. A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were 31 percentage points more likely than Democrats to be “very concerned” about the threat of “Islamic extremism” around the world. The result is a mismatch between conservative anxieties and conservative methods. Although most conservatives are happy to bomb ISIS, the American right has lost its appetite for a vast overseas struggle against jihadist terror. Instead of tempering their view of the threat, conservatives have domesticated it. By reconceiving the Islamist danger as a largely domestic problem, conservatives can now fight it ferociously without having to invade any other countries.
All they need to do is prevent Muslims from Islamicizing America. Thus, in 2010, Newt Gingrich called the adoption of Sharia “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” To prevent an “attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government,” the GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain vowed in 2011 not to appoint any Muslims to his Cabinet. In 2012, five Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the State Department’s deputy inspector general suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin, who is Muslim, had influenced the State Department on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The right’s new focus on the danger that Muslims allegedly pose at home is McCarthyite in a very specific sense. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, conservatives were deeply frightened by communism overseas. But many of them also worried that the Truman administration’s military spending was creating budget deficits and that America’s entrance into NATO (and later the Korean War) was undermining American sovereignty. By hunting alleged communists in the State Department, and thereby suggesting that the real threat lay not overseas but at home, Joseph McCarthy reconciled those concerns. “The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores,” he declared in his infamous Wheeling, West Virginia, speech in February 1950, “but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation.” By suggesting that the real Islamic threat lies at home, today’s conservatives are saying much the same thing.
There is a second way in which American Muslims have replaced previous conservative foes. Since the 1970s, conservatives have often depicted American Christians as under assault. In his book A War for the Soul of America, Andrew Hartman quotes the Reverend Jerry Falwell as arguing that the fight against feminism constituted “a holy war for the survival of the family.” In his 1992 convention speech, the Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called the culture war a struggle over whether “the Judeo-Christian values and beliefs upon which this nation was built” would survive. More recently, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly has invoked a “war on Christmas.” As Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, noted last year in an online piece for The Atlantic, “Persecution has an allure for many evangelicals.”
But over the past several years, two of the groups that the right has traditionally deemed threats—feminists and gays—have grown harder to demonize. After Bill Clinton, in 1997, tapped an openly gay man to be the ambassador to Luxembourg, the Republican Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, opposed the nomination on the grounds that homosexuality was a sin. As recently as 2004, George W. Bush made his opposition to gay marriage an important part of his presidential campaign. Today, by contrast, gay marriage enjoys significant support even among Republican voters, and denouncing homosexuality has become almost politically unacceptable. BuzzFeed, for instance, recently reported that Jeb Bush is hiring several gay and pro-gay-rights operatives for his nascent presidential campaign. Identifying feminists as the enemy has become harder too. In his 1992 convention speech, Buchanan called Bill and Hillary Clinton agents of “radical feminism” who want to put “our wives and daughters and sisters into combat units.” Falwell blamed 9/11 on “the abortionists and the feminists … all of them who have tried to secularize America.” It’s difficult to imagine a prominent conservative saying such things today. Most conservatives still vehemently oppose abortion. But liberal charges of a Republican “war on women” have made conservatives skittish about sounding sexist or insensitive. As a result, while they still depict themselves as under cultural assault, they don’t generally identify feminists as the ones leading the attack anymore.
Increasingly, they blame Muslims. The charge enjoys resonance in part because of the terrible brutality ISIS has been inflicting on Christians in Iraq and Syria. But conservative culture warriors also raise the specter of Muslim oppression of Christians in the United States. Warning that Sharia might be adopted in the U.S.—and that American Christians might thus be subjected to Muslim law—is one way. Another is by suggesting, as Bobby Jindal and Fox News have, that Muslims have established “no-go” zones for non-Muslims in some neighborhoods in Europe, with the implication that they might do the same in the United States. (Fox later retracted this claim; Jindal did not.) According to another Pew poll, evangelical Christians believe they suffer more discrimination than do American Muslims.
As America recovers from the Great Recession, some pundits have observed that foreign policy is again becoming central to American politics. But that’s not quite right. Much of what passes for foreign-policy debate is actually the inversion of foreign policy, whereby conservatives try to replace a formidable target abroad with a softer one at home. Sadly, McCarthyism is not the only precedent in American history for this type of demonization: hyper-nationalist politicians went after German Americans during World War I and Japanese Americans during World War II. Similarly, today, with conservatives frustrated by America’s failed wars in the Middle East and the increasing unassailability of their traditional domestic foes, they are turning on American Muslims for the simplest of political reasons: because they can.