It is interesting that when school shooting massacres happen, the likes of Trump do not want anything close to a “total and complete ban” on assault weapons, for example, until we “figure out what is going on”. But his proposal for a “total and complete ban” on Muslims from entering the US until we “figure out what is going on” has had exactly the impact he wanted.
He has made international headlines. The White House which rarely comments on an ongoing campaign has been forced to say his comment “disqualifies him from serving at the President of the United States”. The Pentagon did not name Trump but said “Anything that bolsters ISIL’s narrative and pits the United States against the Muslim faith is certainly not only contrary to our values but contrary to our national security.” David Cameron’s spokesperson called the comments “divisive, unhelpful and quite simply wrong” while the French prime minister accused Trump of “feeding hatred and misinformation.”
Put simply, Donald Trump, once the Clown Prince of American politics has become the Most Important Person of American politics today. Outrageous as he might be, he is not just setting the cat among the pigeons. He is the cat among the pigeons. He is setting the agenda and everyone else gets to react to it. As testimony to that, the Republican party’s leaders, while trying to distance the party from Trump’s outrageousness, are nervous about going the full distance. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said “This is not conservatism” but no one in the party’s upper echelons can quite bring themselves to say they will not support Trump if he were to be chosen the party’s nominee. And while Trump’s rivals in the race called him “offensive”, “outlandish” and “unhinged”, they do not want to completely alienate Trump’s base. Thus Ted Cruz while saying he did not agree with his proposal, also took pains to “commend Trump for standing up and focusing America’s attention on the need to secure our borders.”
Anything that bolsters ISIL’s narrative and pits the United States against the Muslim faith is certainly not only contrary to our values but contrary to our national security.
Securing our borders is a great American preoccupation and Trump plays it for all its worth. Not long ago Trump had vowed to build a wall to keep out Mexicans (“rapists and drug dealers” in Trump-speak) trying to cross over to the United States. Now he has Muslims to the list of dangerous other, and even as he presents himself as the epitome of swashbuckling American braggadocio, he romances America with the idea of walling itself in to keep itself safe.
He does so secure in the knowledge that he will only bolster his reputation as the only straight-shooting truth-teller in the race instead of shooting himself in the foot. As essayist Richard Rodriguez wrote earlier, what we have is “a dark business, this deliberate political un-correctness that Trump passes as truth-telling”. Unfortunately because this “dark business” yields short-term gains for Trump, he will continue to up the stakes. If yesterday it was a wall to keep out Mexicans, today it’s a ban on Muslims. And while his fellow-Republicans repudiate the Muslim ban, it’s worth remembering they lined up behind him on immigration denouncing the idea of “birthright citizenship” even then-candidate Bobby Jindal, who was himself its beneficiary. Trump has proven that today’s “offensive” and “outlandish” might not appear so “outlandish” and “offensive” tomorrow. Trump clearly has moved from the sideshow of Republican party politics to the main tent. The clown is now the ringmaster.
Trump knows this. That’s why instead of backing down when faced with a barrage of condemnation, he has tweeted “A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP and ran as an independent.” That’s as open a threat to the Republican Party as any. Trump is not just a wealthy maverick with kooky views. He has legitimized the fears, xenophobia and sometimes bigotry of many in the party’s base.
In a multiparty system like France, there are parties like the National Front that can be blatant about opposition to immigration and economic protectionism and France-for-the-French rhetoric. In a two-party system like the US, the fringe lurks around the margins of one of the main parties. The trade-off is that it needs to temper its ideology somewhat, or tone down the rhetoric. Trump’s “rude freedom” as Rodriguez puts it, unshackles the fringe from those limits and bounds. And suddenly America finds itself forced to debate the idea of banning Muslims from entering the country as if it is a legitimate political idea. To add insult to injury, Trump adds that he is not proposing an internment camp for Muslims already in America, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did for Japanese Americans in the World War II days. Small mercies, indeed. But hey, the idea has been planted.
Political parties all over the world play this game of “other”. The good Muslim-bad Muslim trope is a common enough one whether in the US, UK or India. But usually there are blowhards from the fringe, for instance, the VHP in India who get to make these statements. When the VHP amps up its rhetoric, the BJP’s main leaders can maintain a strategic distance and discreet silence, reaping the benefits of incendiary statements without facing the scrutiny of making them. But now it’s as if Praveen Togadia has crossed over to the mainstream.Trump’s ascendancy will be watched with interest not just in America but by many beyond its borders.
Trump, in the end, might not win the nomination. Then he will go back to his Trump tower but what will America do about those legions of pumped-up Trump supporters? They are there to stay. That genie is out of the bottle. A Facebook post doing the rounds says “Basically, Trump is what would happen if the comments section became human & ran for President.” And in India, that’s a very scary thought.
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