Donald Trump has laid down a final, outrageous gauntlet—ban all Muslims from entering America—in a seemingly endless array of rhetorical provocations and insults to marginalized communities in his self-described quest to “make America great again.”
Trump’s assault on Muslim Americans and immigrants is an attack not only on freedom of religion but also on the very nature of American democracy.
Trump’s poll numbers, fueled by a toxic combination of racism and xenophobia eagerly swallowed up by predominantly white, undereducated, working-class Americans, have held steady even as he’s become the bête noire of the Republican political establishment.
But Trump’s latest comments have crossed a moral line in the sand that separates mainstream politics from revenge-filled intolerance. Make no mistake: Trump’s ingenious blend of populism is cut from the same cloth as political intolerance that scapegoated Jews in Germany during the run-up to World War II, justified internment camps for Japanese-American citizens and has criminalized black Americans since the founding of the republic.
When an African-American protester wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt was beaten at a Trump rally several weeks ago, it struck many as a quixotic demonstration against a candidate whose political rantings were not to be taken seriously.
In retrospect, this lonely protester (whose beating Trump later spoke approvingly of) saw what many are now only beginning to realize: Trump’s presidential campaign transcends mere electoral politics in its capacity to mainstream the most vile, racist and religiously intolerant discourse that we’ve seen in decades.
Trump’s bitter campaign to restore America to a mythological past is the negation of the freedom dreams that animate efforts for racial justice and human rights for all. Following in the footsteps of Barry Goldwater’s famous axiom that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Trump’s brand of political extremism has become politically acceptable.
Statements that would seemingly have doomed a presidential candidate in the past have become examples of Trump’s unfiltered candor. Xenophobia, intolerance and racism have become the trade craft of the nation’s leading Republican presidential candidate.
This fact has dire consequences, both domestically and internationally, for American democracy. Trump has, over the vigorous objections of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and others, successfully positioned himself as the national opposition leader to President Barack Obama. In so doing, he’s tapped into some of the nation’s worst and historically dangerous political impulses.
African Americans, who have been on the receiving end of the same kind of racially divisive words that Trump now hurls at Muslims, must stand in solidarity with all oppressed and marginalized people within and outside the United States.
The vulgarly entertaining sideshow that Trump provided for much of this political season has morphed into something far more dangerous—something that poses a threat not only to Muslims but also to the very ideas of citizenship, democracy and political freedoms that represent the core of this nation.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.