The Islamophobia presidency
How Trump stokes a bigotry that is motivated more by politics than religion
Islamophobia is on the rise in the United States. A statement that probably doesn't come as a big surprise was backed up last week by the results of a new survey from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a non-profit organization that advocates for American Muslims. But it's worth noting that not all Americans see Muslims unfavorably.
Hispanic Americans, Jews, and, not surprisingly, Muslims, all rated low on the survey's Islamophobia scale. A majority in these three groups said they view Muslims in a positive light.
White evangelicals, on the other hand, were found to hold the most negative attitudes about Muslims. And it wasn't close. In fact, as the survey shows, white evangelical views of Muslims drive American Islamophobia.
Those views may also help explain why white evangelicals remain President Donald Trump's strongest base of support. In Trump, white evangelicals have found a president willing to tap into rather than tamp down some of their greatest fears and strongest bigotries.
Evangelical attitudes towards Muslims are often explained away, especially by insiders, as a product of their religious beliefs and, especially, evangelicals' steadfast support for the state of Israel. But the ISPU poll found that religiosity, whether measured by individual religious engagement or by group loyalty, did not determine anti-Muslim attitudes, even for evangelicals. As the report concluded, Islamophobia is "clearly more political and ideological than theological for most Americans."
That conclusion looks most apparent in the survey's findings about American Jews' mostly positive attitudes towards Muslims. As Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall pointed out, "A huge amount of our public debate in this country, a lot of it driven by the GOP and particularly white evangelicals, portrays Jews as locked in some sort of deep or even existential contest with American Muslims."
That contest clearly doesn't show up in the numbers.
Yet that hasn't dissuaded evangelicals — and the GOP more broadly — from using concerns about anti-Semitism and the state of Israel as cover for a whole host of conservative policies and goals most American Jews oppose, including anti-Muslim laws.
With Trump, however, there has been little need for that cover. Indeed, his unabashed Islamophobia, on full display from the so-called "Muslim ban" to his recent attacks on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), may be a big part of his appeal. It also stands in marked contrast to the "Islam is Peace" stance George W. Bush promoted following 9/11. Though not always consistent, Bush sought to distinguish Islam the religion from the threat of Islamic terrorism. For a time, white evangelicals tended to play along.
When Barack Obama became president, the jig was up. A growing body of evangelical hotheads, like televangelist Pat Robertson, complemented constant conspiracy-mongering about Obama's birthplace and religion with proclamations that "Islam is not a religion." That these messages weren't dismissed as the obvious lies they were suggested that Islam had become the newest acceptable bigotry.
More than anyone, Trump was perfectly suited to exploit those sentiments. Trump's frequent suggestion that Obama was a Muslim — a view shared by two-thirds of his supporters in 2016 — signaled not only his disregard for the truth, but also his willingness to stoke simmering animosities on the right.
Political pundits spilled buckets of ink trying to explain how "family values" conservatives could embrace the thrice-married casino magnate. But Trump's fear-based campaign — and now his presidency — reminds us that the Religious Right has always been motivated in large part by the politics of fear and resentment, a politics further inflamed far too often by the persistence of American racism.
In earlier decades, those fears and resentments often focused on feminists and, especially, gays and lesbians. In 1977, the Moral Majority issued its "Declaration of War" on homosexuality, and Jerry Falwell, the organization's founder, would later blame "the gays and the lesbians" for causing 9/11. But as American attitudes, even among evangelicals, have dramatically shifted in recent years on gay rights and same-sex marriage, demonizing LGBTQ Americans no longer works as well as it once did.
But Islamophobia might. Trump understands that. In his words and deeds, like when he suggests that Muslim immigrants think "that Sharia law should supplant American law," Trump taps into many of his supporters' fear that white Americans are losing their dominance in the nation. By going after Muslims, Trump reaps the benefits of American racism without crossing the more taboo lines of anti-black or anti-Latino racism (although he’s often willing to do that too). In this moment of rising Islamophobia, Trump and white evangelicals’ assertion that America is a "Judeo-Christian nation" looks more like a euphemistic defense of whiteness than any religious statement.
As 2020 approaches, Trump is likely to ramp up his Islamophobic rhetoric and tout his anti-Muslim record. Doing so may be vital to his success. Forty-four percent of white evangelicals, the study found, said their support would increase for a candidate who proposed a Muslim ban. While not quite a majority view, the fact that only 19 percent of white evangelicals indicated their support for such a candidate would decrease makes clear how much leeway Trump has to advance a virulent anti-Muslim agenda with little repercussions from his base.
Trump's evangelical supporters have also granted such leeway to his toxic attacks on immigrants, African-Americans, and women, a reminder that Islamophobia can't be totally separated from other intolerances. As the ISPU report argued, "Islamophobia is just one branch on a bigger tree of bigotry."
That tree has been well-watered by Trump.