Leaders incubate the values and ideas that influence public perceptions of culture and community. In 2016, Donald Trump has become merely the avatar of a greater movement dependent on a false framing of policy and conflict, the spirit of which is disqualifying: they who cannot fully represent and serve the nation without baseless prejudice are unfit to lead it. A shallow, detached, conspiratorial understanding of the world will become the foundation for policy decisions that directly impact reality, and it is within that ambiguity of ethical myopia and wayward power that human lives are needlessly lost.
Targeting of Muslims
While accepting the Republican Party’s nomination in July, Trump attempted to rebrand his targeting of Muslims: “Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.” But the sentiment remains the same and reflects a core message that has defined the campaign: to simply exist as a Muslim in America — or beyond — is to invoke suspicion, distrust, and perpetual alarm.
A process of dehumanization
Conservative leaders and party members have developed a legacy of promoting an adversarial portrayal of Muslims throughout the world, eager to frame military action, foreign policy, and national identity in religious overtones and colonial nostalgia. As the 2016 election cycle nears its end, Donald Trump has emerged as the logical byproduct of these long-running sentiments, and there is no candidate who has more effectively manipulated public opinion by emphasizing a false binary of a crusading West against an invasive, singular Islam.
Targeted alienation and identity-based scapegoating are critical, founding operating principles for the Trump campaign, enabling their candidate to strategically divert from their inadequacies by manufacturing outrage and shifting focus towards groups already alienated in public discourse: undocumented immigrants are described as opportunists and criminals, and migrants fleeing conflict zones are portrayed as security threats before being acknowledged as human beings in crisis. The candidate who leverages social prejudices and tactics of dehumanization to achieve power can be expected to continue doing so while maintaining it.
A false binary
Divisive rhetoric requires nostalgia for an age that never existed, only justifiable by erasing history and reconstructing American identity as entirely separate and tacitly in conflict with Muslims. This certain strain of nationalism has emerged to frame the complexities of world affairs, policy making, and human identity into a simple binary of religious and political conflict. It presents an idyllic West — commonly imagined as an alliance of Judeo-Christian, democratic values between the United States and the United Kingdom — against a monolithic, omnipresent, and predatory Islam from the Middle East and elsewhere, with Europe depicted as a civilization in decline due to multiculturalism. For the many American voters eager for a candidate who can deliver them from such a perceived threat this election year, Trump is the prospect of deliverance — but it’s far too late: Islam and Muslim identities have interwoven and evolved with the collective history of America, a part of its broad spectrum of human experiences like so many others.
The people who believe and perpetuate this form of binary thinking would tell you that they care for their country and all it represents, from its founding freedoms to what it can become, and yet policies of discrimination betray any claim of patriotism by envisioning an America contrary to even the most basic principles of equal protection and individual freedom. They, too, will tell you that their concerns for the nation’s future and their perception of Muslims as a general threat are purely ideological, based only on contrasting values, and not at all rooted in issues of ethnicity or other unjustified biases. And, in most of the conversations that I’ve had with Trump supporters, I believe that they sincerely believe that. But their patriotism is misguided, a hollow form inspired to exalt and uphold an imagining of a culturally homogenous, Judeo-Christian America rather than what its founding principles naturally point to: a mosaic of identities united by shared principles rather than rigid mandates regarding questions of ethnicity, faith, and beyond.
The consequences of ideology
What are the consequences of an ideology that relies on dehumanization? Unconstitutional threats of closing mosques, the mass rejection of refugees, and seeking indefinite bans on Muslims entering the United States are all base elements of long-running party traditions in tribalist politics that have finally reached the forefront of public discussion in the most blatant of ways. It’s a movement of contradictions — like its torchbearer — where self-identified conservatives yearn for an autonomous, domineering figure to use the force of government for targeting American citizens on the basis of faith, with consistent emphasis on individuals who are Muslim or perceived to be.
Databases, invasive surveillance programs, suppression of the press, mass arrests: these are the promises of Trump’s America. The rhetoric and principles of the campaign seem to then echo all of the foundational traits of an identity-driven authoritarian movement — because it is one. Consider alone the proposal to systematically target Muslims through local law enforcement and intelligence gathering programs: a sentiment embraced by many, yet also unquestionably in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Can these self-described patriots, so passionate to fight for their country’s future, know that they are eager to ignore and remake its history in the process? In spirit with the nominee, the details are scarce and seemingly unimportant.