Sunday, May 08, 2016

Islam and the Threat of Radical Trumpism

Donald Trump has made the use of the term "Radical Islam" a centerpiece of his foreign policy agenda. As he declared in his much-anticipated speech on the subject, "we’re in a war against radical Islam, but President Obama won’t even name the enemy, and unless you name the enemy, you will never ever solve the problem." This kind of rhetoric has become very conventional in Republican circles, so that his remarks at the Mayflower Hotel might seem to put him in the mainstream of center-right politics. This impression is false, however.

The true nature of Trump's foreign policy orientation toward the Muslim world is exemplified by a story that became a staple of his stump speech on the campaign trail beginning in February. He seems to have acquired it from an internet meme that began circling in various forms shortly after 9/11. According to Trump's telling, the event occurred during America's suppression of Muslim uprisings in the Philippines, circa 1913. It concerns the military governor of the district in which Muslim rebels were operating, General Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing:

"They were having terrorism problems, just like we do...And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood- you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs' blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: 'You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.' And for 25 years, there wasn't a problem. Okay? Twenty-five years, there wasn't a problem."

Trump generally ends his retelling of this tale by declaring emphatically, "That's history folks," and by underscoring the need for a new "Black Jack" Pershing. Like Trump's claim that "thousands" of Muslims celebrated in Jersey City on 9/11, this event never happened. Yet his fascination with this story explains much about the tenor of his campaign and his embrace of the shibboleth of "Radical Islam."

On the surface this story is simply about the need to be more ruthless in prosecuting the war against terror. But the embellishment of "pig's blood" speaks to something deeper. The moral of the story is that the same religious superstitions that are motivating Muslims to commit terror can be used to incapacitate them. Devout Muslims believe (so say the propagators of this meme) that exposure to pig's blood will prevent them from being reborn in paradise, so the breach of this taboo works on Muslims like kryptonite on Superman.

Setting aside the fact that Muslims cherish no such belief, and that expecting such a tactic to work even if they did would be ridiculous (if they could be so easily deterred by the exposure of their corpses to unclean substances, why would any ISIS member ever blow him or herself up in a public place?), this story provides us with a window onto the inner logic of Trump's world view. No wonder that he places such stress on the importance of using the category "Radical Islam." Since Islamic belief is so central, both to the motives of terrorists and the tactics by which they might be defeated, it would of course stand to reason that if you do not assent to this label you would "never solve the problem."

In essence, what Trump means by "Radical Islam" is simply "Islam." For him, anyone who takes the teachings of Islam seriously will sympathize with terrorists like ISIS, and anyone who takes them seriously enough (the "radicals") will join ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram in their war on the U.S. To deny this is "political correctness" that is all too characteristic of our "stupid" leaders.

This is why Trump feels so comfortable advocating a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Anyone who professes the Muslim faith is, for him, implicated in anti-American hostility. While they may not have done anything wrong yet, it only awaits the right conditions for them to become "radical."

Trump is far from the only figure to espouse such views. I have devoted several posts to outlining why this perspective is fallacious. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding, not only of Islam, but of religion more generally and the way it operates in society and history. Until recently this view has only impacted the policy advice coming from very marginal precincts of the American political system. But now that it has captured the nomination of one of the major political parties for the presidency of the United States, it has become a malignancy threatening the body politic as a whole.

To anyone who would accuse me of hyperbole on this score, I would ask, "What is Trump proposing, other than the ostracism of an entire religious minority here in the U.S.? How can we square this with our most basic values?" I can not help thinking of this problem from the perspective of myself and my family. If Donald Trump were advocating that Jews not be allowed to enter the country, how would I respond? I would feel betrayed by anyone who could find any excuse to vote for him. Our Muslim compatriots are entitled to feel the same way.

Our politics has been marked by too much stridency and smugness in recent years. But that excess does not argue for tolerance or reticence in this instance. It is not "political correctness" to state that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for bigotry and discrimination, it is a bald fact. Unless and until he publicly retracts and repudiates his anti-Muslim views, there is no way to square support for Donald Trump with the basic conscientious imperatives of American citizenship.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Advantage Sanders

Historians will no doubt mark last night's Indiana primary as a watershed moment in American politics. Imagine, one year ago, suggesting to a random selection of pundits and elected officials that Donald Trump would, on May 3, 2016, become the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. On asking them for a written response to that proposition, you would have received a stack of essays that, whatever their stylistic and thematic differences, concurred in framing the notion as insane. Today the world is a different place.

This restructuring of fundamental laws, moreover, applies on both sides of the aisle. In the old world, the natural course for the second-place candidate in the Democratic nominating contest would be to close ranks with the front runner and form a unified front for the upcoming general election. This is, in fact, what Hillary Clinton did during the race of 2008, when despite having won more votes and only 4% fewer pledged delegates, she conceded the contest to Barack Obama and formally nominated him on the floor of the Democratic convention.

Those who view the current race through the prism of the old rules will no doubt expect Bernie Sanders, given world enough and time, to behave in the same way as the Hillary Clinton of 2008. They will be sorely disappointed. To understand why this is so it is useful to imagine an alternative past. What would have happened if, in 2008, Hillary had persisted in framing the nominating process as a "contested contest"? She could have forced the superdelegates at the 2008 convention to choose between herself and Barack Obama, and perhaps even wrested the nomination from him. She refrained from that course because it would have fractured the Democratic coalition and, whether she succeeded in seizing the nomination or not, thrown the election to the Republicans. In the long run, forcing a contested convention would have foreclosed Clinton's future in Democratic elected politics.

Sanders is operating under none of the constraints of Clinton circa 2008. He does not worry about his future in Democratic elected politics because, by the old rules, he should not have a present in Democratic elected politics. If one year ago you had told the same random group of pundits that, at this point, an avowed socialist would hold more than 40% of the delegates to the Democratic convention, the written response would have been comparable in tone to that produced by the Trump exercise. Sanders has consistently sought the nomination of the Democratic party in the service of an economic populist agenda, and anyone who is waiting for him to compromise his agenda in service of the party's electoral hopes will wait in vain.

Moreover, anyone who believes that Sanders's constituency is frivolous or ephemeral in their support, ready to rally behind Clinton in the face of a Trump candidacy, is likewise self-delusional. Free trade agreements, wage stagnation, the erosion of organized labor, infrastructural decay, and a shrinking public sector have debilitated large swaths of the American public, leaving them feeling angry at and betrayed by the entire political system. Their support of Bernie Sanders has been given in clear understanding of and approval for his agenda, and if he breaks ranks with the Democrats they will follow him, or throw their support to Donald Trump, who is offering different solutions to similar problems.

Sanders has it in his power to scuttle the election for the Democrats, and he will use it if they do not bend to accommodate his agenda. What, then, should the Democrats give him? Short of the nomination, anything he wants.

The situation of the Democratic party exemplifies the shibboleth about "crisis" and "opportunity" being synonymous in Chinese. A wrong move at this point will hand the country over to the tender mercies of Donald Trump. But the Democrats still have a chance, that the GOP has forfeited, to capitalize upon this historic moment. By nominating Donald Trump the Republicans have forgone the opportunity to forge a new electoral coalition in favor of a malignantly nativist politics that has no long-term future. By contrast, if the Democrats can compromise and cooperate, they stand the chance of bringing constituencies back into the fold that have been abandoning the Democratic party since the days of Ronald Reagan. A new progressive politics could be on the horizon. It only awaits Clinton and Sanders to meet the test of leadership.