The Muted GOP Response to Roy Moore's Anti-Muslim Prejudice

The would-be Alabama Senator cements a Republican Party transition to acceptance of open intolerance of Muslims that is a long time coming.

Tami Chappell / Reuters

Historians will record that for about half a decade, between the presidential campaigns of 2012 and 2016, Republicans tussled over whether to welcome anti-Muslim bigotry into their party. The response to Roy Moore’s nomination on Tuesday as the GOP’s Senate candidate in Alabama shows—even more clearly than Donald Trump’s election—that the fight is over. In today’s GOP, claiming that American Muslims don’t deserve equal rights has become so normal that prominent Republicans no longer object. They barely even notice.

To chart this moral descent, it’s worth starting in March 2011, when a reporter for ThinkProgress asked Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain: “Would you be comfortable appointing a Muslim either in your Cabinet or as a federal judge?” Cain’s reply: “No, I will not. And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there’s this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.”

The response from GOP elites was scathing. “We recognize that people of all faiths are welcome in this country,” said presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney when asked about Cain’s comments. “Our nation was founded on a principle of religious tolerance.” When Cain showed up to a breakfast hosted by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, several participants chastised him. Soon, Cain was insisting he had been misconstrued. By the summer, he had publicly apologized. “I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends,” he declared. “I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it.” For good measure, he visited a mosque.

In 2012, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann made her own foray into Islamophobia by signing a letter, along with four House Republican colleagues, demanding an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s Muslim aide Huma Abedin. John McCain responded by going to the Senate Floor to declare that the assault on Abedin “is not only wrong; it is contrary to everything we hold dear as Americans.” House GOP leader John Boehner called the attacks “dangerous.” Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s own former campaign chairman wrote an oped on that concluded, “Shame on you, Michele! You should stand on the floor of the House and apologize to Huma Abedin and to Secretary Clinton and to the millions of hard working, loyal, Muslim Americans for your wild and unsubstantiated charges.” That was only five years ago.

Then it was Ben Carson’s turn. In September 2015, the surgeon turned presidential hopeful said, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation” because Islam was not “consistent with the Constitution.” The media responded by asking Carson’s rivals for comment, and most of them—even social conservative hardliners like Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee—said they disagreed.

But then something interesting happened. Unlike Cain, Carson refused to apologize. Instead, he attacked the media and the left. Carson’s business manager, Armstrong Williams, declared on CNN’s morning show that his boss would continue “telling the truth, even if it makes CNN and others uncomfortable.” Carson’s campaign manager Barry Bennett crowed that, “While the left is huffing and puffing, the Republican primary voters are with us at least 80-20.” Donald Trump went even further. Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd whether “putting a Muslim in the White House” is okay, Trump responded that, “some people have said it already happened.”

What changed between 2012 and 2015? Part of the answer is ISIS. Between 2014 and 2015, the group’s capture of Mosul, followed by a series of beheadings covered lavishly by the American media, produced a spike in fear of jihadist terrorism, especially on the right. Between 2014 and 2015, according to the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, the percentage of Republicans calling “Islamic fundamentalism” a “critical threat” jumped almost twenty points. Between 2010 and 2015, according to a poll by the Arab American Institute, favorable attitudes toward American Muslims fell 15 points. By December 2015, after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Americans were more afraid of terrorism than at any point since the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Another part of the answer is the declining influence of traditional GOP elites. Days after Carson’s comments about a Muslim president, John Boehner—who had denounced Bachmann’s Islamophobia—stepped down as House Minority Leader. John McCain, who had also condemned Bachmann, was by 2015 so diminished among GOP voters that Trump could mock him for being captured in Vietnam and continue rising in the polls.

After the San Bernardino attack, Trump moved decisively to establish himself as the most anti-Muslim candidate in the race. He called for a temporary halt to Muslim immigration. And he again and again falsely accused American Muslims of cheering the 9/11 attacks.

Again, GOP elites voiced their disapproval. Trump’s Republican opponents unanimously criticized his Muslim ban. Mike Pence called it “offensive and unconstitutional.” Paul Ryan said Trump’s proposal “is not what this party stands for. More importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

But as Carson and Trump had both intuited, it didn’t matter. Rank and file Republicans backed the Muslim ban. Trump, like Carson, refused to back down. And the same Republicans who once denounced his policies as un-American—Pence, Ryan, Marco Rubio—now loyally serve his agenda as president.

Which brings us to Roy Moore. In his hostility to Islam, and his belief that American Muslims should not be allowed to serve in office, Moore stands firmly in the tradition of Cain, Bachmann, Carson and Trump. In 2006, when Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison swore his oath of office on a Koran, Moore compared it to taking an “oath on Mein Kampf” in 1943, and said Ellison should not be seated in Congress. This July, he called Islam a “false religion.” In August, he said, “There are communities under Sharia law right now in our country. Up in Illinois. Christian communities.” He later acknowledged that he had no idea if that was true. (It isn’t.)

What’s new isn’t what Moore has said. It’s the way leading Republicans have responded. There has been virtually no criticism at all. When CNN asked Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson how he felt about Moore’s claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim, Johnson responded merely that, “no two people agree 100% of the time.” When asked by the Toronto Star about claims that Moore was anti-Muslim, the Chairman of the Russell County, Alabama, Republican Party replied, “I’m anti-Muslim too.” (He later explained that, “I don't have any problems with anybody’s religion as long as it’s Christian.”) When Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel declared in an interview on Fox News that, “the voters did the right thing,” Moore’s anti-Muslim comments didn’t even come up. In the age of Donald Trump, most Republican politicians are now too afraid to condemn anti-Muslim bigotry. And increasingly, journalists no longer expect them to.

Politico’s John Bresnahan went searching for a single Republican Senator willing to criticize Moore’s anti-Muslim (and other discriminatory) views. No fewer than thirteen refused to do so. The sole exception was Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who admitted that, “I’m obviously not enamored with his politics because that’s not the future of the Republican Party.”

Whether the Republican Party will embrace Moore’s brand of anti-Muslim bigotry in the future is a subject on which reasonable people might disagree. Whether the GOP embraces it today, sadly, is not.