Trump’s scare tactics should be dismantled
Domestic issues in the United States often make the pages of the world’s press, but that coverage is not always warranted. However, when a front-runner in the presidential race decides to use toxic rhetoric, it becomes wholly justified. The potential damage of such statements is not limited to the US: it extends far beyond.
Many may make the error of considering that Donald Trump is a marginal figure and thus ought not to be taken seriously. That would be a grave error.
On the contrary, he is one of the wealthiest individuals in the world, with the financial clout to put weight behind his opinions. He is also currently one of the most significant politicians in the US.
Mr Trump’s chances of winning the presidential race are not great. But on one level, that does not matter. Even if Mr Trump fails to win the Republican nomination, let alone the actual race itself, he will have succeeded in one very crucial fashion: he will have solidified into the mainstream of American public discourse a very particular type of radical politics. It isn’t the type of radicalism that leads to wealth distribution or social justice – it is the type that is designed to destroy social cohesion and drive communities apart.
Mr Trump’s statements about Muslims are especially worrying. Anti-Muslim bigotry is on the rise in the US, as it is in Europe for different reasons, and in parts of Africa and Asia. Mr Trump’s statements do not simply affect Republican voters and the dynamics of his party. On the contrary, by declaring that Muslims should be banned from entering the US, he has just expanded the definition of what is considered to be conventional free speech in the public arena.
Even if political figures across the spectrum denounce Mr Trump, the damage is in danger of having already been done. His policy has little or no chance of being successful – but one suspects he knows that. The lasting effect may well be that the goalposts have been shifted altogether.
In the 1940s, as the actor George Takei recently reminded American television viewers, there was internment of Japanese-Americans at the order of the American president. An inquiry into that internment carried out decades later revealed that the action was caused by three factors: racial prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.
These same three factors exist in a certain fashion today. Prejudice against Muslims is most certainly a “war hysteria”, even though the “war on terror” is not similar to a war against a nation state, as was the case in the 1940s. As to the failure of political leadership – the jury is still out on that.
It is not the entirety of conservative, white America that bears a responsibility to denounce or disassociate itself from Mr Trump. Collective responsibility is always wrong, including when it is attempted upon all Muslims for unsavoury acts of a minority of their co-religionists, even if Mr Trump seems to have no issue in applying “collective responsibility” upon a people of 1.5 billion.
But it is indeed the responsibility of the entirety of political leadership – especially conservative, Republican political leadership – to denounce Mr Trump’s shameless fear-mongering.
Mr Trump made his comments about Muslims with the assumption, one presumes, that there would be no cost to him where it matters the most – his wealth.
Mr Trump owes a substantial portion of his fortune to investments made in Muslim majority countries and the Arab world. A clear-cut message ought to be sent from decent people the world over, but particularly those who have been directly targeted by Mr Trump.
Mr Trump cannot be treated any longer as simply a conservative politician. On the contrary, he ought to be regarded as a pariah and treated accordingly. If not, the effect on American political discourse and American citizens may be damaging far beyond what we have seen in the past week. Leadership was absent in the 1940s when it came to Japanese Americans – it ought not be the same in 2015.
Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC
On Twitter: @hahellyer
Updated: December 10, 2015 04:00 AM