Can you imagine a modern-day presidential candidate suggesting a national database of every African American living in the United States today? Or that every gay person around the country be required to carry special identification cards with them at all times? Or that America’s national immigration policy should entail a “total and complete shutdown” of further Jewish immigration to the United States? Or claiming that “thousands and thousands” of Mexicans were cheering during the 9/11 attacks, without any evidence to back his ridiculous claims?
Such a campaign would probably not last even a week.
But strangely enough, Donald Trump still maintains a double-digit lead over every other Republican presidential candidate. That’s because he has targeted such claims at one particular group.
Understanding Trump’s success requires taking a clear-eyed look at just how deeply rooted Islamophobia currently is within the Republican Party. A September 2015 poll of registered Republicans in Iowa found that only 49 percent think that the religion of Islam should even be legal in the United States; with 30 percent saying it should be illegal altogether (and 21 percent not quite sure where they stand on Islam yet). Among Donald Trump supporters, there was almost an even split, with 38 percent thinking Islam should be allowed and 36 percent believing that Islam should be illegal altogether.
This logic would bar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Oz, Dave Chappelle, Ice Cube, and Representatives Andre Carson and Keith Ellison from freely practicing their Islamic faith in a hypothetical Donald Trump America, along with millions of ordinary Muslims like me.
Donald Trump’s bout of Islamophobia began during a New Hampshire town-hall rally earlier this year. The first person to speak during the Q&A part of the town-hall proved yet again that Islamophobia was going to continue to be a Republican political football for many years to come. “We have a problem in this country called Muslims,” the Donald Trump supporter immediately said into the microphone in New Hampshire. “We know our current president is one … You know he’s not even an American … That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”
Instead of challenging these statements, Donald Trump simply responded, “We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things and you know, a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening and we’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.”
Now, this was not the first time that Donald Trump had publicly insinuated that Barack Obama was a Muslim. Back in 2011, Trump demanded that Obama release his long-form birth certificate, promising to send his own investigators to Hawaii to find out the truth about his birth. It helped advance the conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya. "He doesn't have a birth certificate…He may have one, but there's something on that, maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim," Donald Trump said in 2011. "I don't know. Maybe he doesn't want that."
More recently, after the November 2015, Paris attacks, Donald Trump once again doubled-down on his Islamophobic rhetoric, suggesting a national “database” of all 7 million American Muslims and other measures that he admitted would have been "unthinkable" even a year ago.
“I would certainly implement that [national Muslim database]. Absolutely,” Trump said in Newton, Iowa, in between campaign town halls. “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” he added. “We should have a lot of systems.” When asked whether Muslims would be legally obligated to sign into the database, Trump responded, “They have to be—they have to be.” Later, Trump was repeatedly asked to explain the difference between requiring Muslims to enter their information into a database and making Jewish people register in Nazi Germany. He just responded four times in a row to the reporter, “You tell me…”
Trump drew the universal condemnation of Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton, but even fellow Republican candidate Jeb Bush condemned Donald Trump’s blatantly Islamophobic remarks as “abhorrent” and “just wrong.” “You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people. That’s just wrong. I don’t care about campaigns,” Jeb Bush said. “It’s not a question of toughness. It’s to manipulate people’s angst and their fears. That’s not strength, that’s weakness.”
Trump has also publicly suggested that Muslims be required to carry special ID cards, pledged to order warrantless spying on American Muslims, and even threatened to close down American mosques. After he falsely claimed that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on 9/11, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) swiftly condemned Trump saying that he was “giving new life to long-debunked conspiracy theories about 9/11.” After his most recent comments about banning all Muslims from immigrating to the United States, even his own fellow Republicans publicly lambasted him for his blatantly racist proposals.
“Donald Trump is unhinged,” said Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush. “Ridiculous,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said during a radio interview. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney condemned Trump by saying, “Well, I think this whole notion that somehow we need to say no more Muslims and just ban a whole religion goes against everything we stand for and believe.”
Even Dick Cheney thinks that Trump’s too crazy to be president.
Watching a right-wing presidential candidate rise in polls by suggesting special IDs, national databases, surreptitious surveillance, and targeting houses of worship, I’m reminded of Glenn Beck’s ominous prediction a decade ago that, “In 10 years, Muslims and Arabs will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West” from internment camps. When he said it, it seemed crazy.
And surely, not even Donald Trump would go that far?
On Tuesday, Time reported that Trump had refused to condemn internment camps for Japanese Americans during the Second World War. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.” The point, he said, was that war requires difficult choices. “War is tough. And winning is tough. We don’t win anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We don’t win wars anymore. We’re not a strong country anymore. We’re just so off.”
It doesn’t seem unthinkable anymore.