All strongmen seduce, and Donald Trump is no exception. He enchants his supporters with his virility, his endless references to his success, his oversized and gilded ego. Because I am great, he promises, you will be too. America will be great. Even if you disagree with him, he holds you in thrall. He doesn’t obey the laws of political physics, or any basic social conventions either.
Words that would destroy most of us only make him stronger.
For the first time in my life as an American, as a Muslim, I am rattled. Existentially insecure. Feeling like my status here is conditional. Trump’s language concerning Muslims is terrifying: He calls for war crimes against terrorists — and their families. He proposed a complete ban on our entry into the country. He talked about special registries, IDs, dipping bullets in pig’s blood to not just kill our enemies but debase my religion generally. What's more alarming?
Much of the country doesn't seem overly concerned. Many of his opinions aren't outside the GOP mainstream. But Trump only begins with communities it's easy to demonize, to justify the marginalization of. The undocumented — he calls them illegals, aliens, and worse – well, they should just go back to their country anyway. And Muslims? They're all terrorists, potential and actual.
He’s an Islamophobe, a person prejudiced against Islam or Muslims. It’s a word that many Americans think conveys nothing. I know why. Three years ago, I joined the first class of a groundbreaking program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called the Muslim Leadership Initiative. With 15 other American Muslim leaders, I traveled to Israel to study about Judaism and Zionism from Jewish scholars, Israeli and American. Of the many valuable lessons I learned, one was how my language often missed its mark.
So let me assure you that when I talk about Islamophobia, I don’t mean that fear of terrorism, extremism and radicalism is not legitimate. Keep in mind too that extremist groups mostly attack Muslims, and most of the extremists don’t even consider mainstream Muslims to be legitimately Muslim, meaning most Muslims are Islamophobes, which makes no sense. Nor do I do mean criticism of Islam is somehow unfair, unreasonable, or inappropriate. We each have every right to press against beliefs and ideas we find problematic.
But Islamophobia is another beast. Islamophobia is, like any other bigotry, the decision to treat people collectively, to reduce them to a racial category impossible to escape from. Sound familiar?
When Donald Trump proposed banning Muslims, that was collective. It didn't matter what you believed, just that you were born into a people. The entirety of whom are guilty. Even the President is suspect, because he is descended, on his father's side, from Muslims.
But though it starts with Mexicans and with Muslims, it won't stop there. Even if Trump wants it to (which isn't clear). Something else I learned in the process of hearing and learning from Jewish scholars? Just how dangerous anti-Semitism is–and how we are, here in America, are religious minorities facing many of the same challenges and many of the same dangers. Implying that Muslims aren’t Americans very obviously permits into public conversation the kind of people whose definition of American doesn’t just exclude Muslims.
Trump’s Islamophobia gives white nationalists and religious chauvinists an excuse to rejoin a conversation they were driven from at great cost, and after a tremendous length of time.
Never forget that for most of America’s history, those who weren’t white, Christian, propertied men were second-class citizens, if they were even human beings. Trump feeds on the adulation, the validation, so much that he chases after it. A man who must place his big, bolded name on his every project must suffer a bottomless insecurity. No amount of attention can sate him, because of the endless emptiness inside. Which is why we see violence now at his rallies.
What greater obeisance than to see your supporters willing, in your name, to commit violence? One day Donald Trump will go from leading the seething to being led by them. Let me be blunt. Pitchforks will make America great again. We can see the signs on the horizon. Here we are in 2016, and we have Trump supporters screaming, “go back to Africa,” sucker-punching a person of color, a campaign manager attacking a journalist, the candidate himself encouraging thuggishness.
The angrier they get, the uglier it gets. All minorities become suspect. Difference becomes deviance. Deviance becomes danger. Excise the foreign body. Make America pure again.
A week ago, I watched a Trump supporter in a New York Yankees shirt screaming, apparently at a journalist, “Go back to Auschwitz. Go back to f–king Auschwitz.” I watched the video over and over again, and each time was more devastating than the last. He looked like an ordinary American. He was an ordinary American. That’s how it happens. No one thinks it can happen. Until it happens again. A voice in my head said, “Run. Leave. Go. Now.” But there’s another voice in my head. Louder. Stronger. “This is your country, your home. Stay and fight for it.”
Haroon Moghul is the author of the forthcoming How to be a Muslim: An American Story (Beacon 2017). He is a commentator, broadcaster and policy analyst based in Brooklyn.