Fear and loathing in America

Dec 8, 2015

Editors: This is the "Inside the First Amendment" column normally scheduled to be transmitted on Thursday, Dec. 10. It is being transmitted early in light of current events.

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment

     On December 7 — a day that already lives in infamy — Donald Trump called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

     Trump's outrageous, un-American and unconstitutional proposal is the latest escalation of his ongoing campaign to demonize Islam and Muslims. He has already informed us that, if elected, he will consider closing mosques and registering American Muslims.

     With this latest attack on Muslims, Donald Trump has inspired a rare unity among leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties.

     People on both sides of the political spectrum have strongly condemned Trump's Muslim ban proposal — from Sen. Harry Reid's description of Trump's plan as "hateful, despicable and vile" to former Vice President Dick Cheney's statement that the ban "goes against everything we stand for."

     It may not matter, however, how many political leaders stand up to Trump. After all, responsible Republican and Democratic leaders have repeatedly (if belatedly in some cases) criticized Trump's anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, un-American rhetoric. As a result, his poll numbers go up among the growing number of Americans who see "the establishment" as the problem.

     Trump has bullied, blustered, and bloviated for months — condoning violence at his rallies, mocking his opponents, denigrating immigrants — but apparently he gets away with it because it sells.

     Mainstream media outlets — and I'm looking at you, CNN — treat Trump's every move and statement as "breaking news." According to the Tyndall Report, which tracks such things, Trump has gotten more airtime on the network evening news programs than the entire Democratic field combined during this presidential primary season.

     Ratings go up, money is made — and Trump doesn't need to spend a dime reaching the voters. Trump's media platform gives a whole new meaning to the term "bully pulpit."

     If you still believe "it can't happen here," that's exactly what many people in France believed until the stunning electoral triumph of the far-right National Front this week. Now for the first time, the anti-immigrant, neo-fascist party led by Marine Le Pen is poised to take power in several regions of the country.

     French conservatives and Socialists alike are reeling from what both major parties see as the gravest threat to French democratic values since World War II.

     Trump may yet implode and disappear from the political stage — but don't count on it. As he grows more outrageous and extreme, his crowds get bigger and his poll numbers soar.

     What is happening to America?

     In the past week alone, an American Muslim storeowner in Queens was attacked, a six-grader wearing a hijab was assaulted by classmates, and a mosque in Pennsylvania was vandalized. Is this who we have become?

     Demonizing Muslims not only puts American Muslims in danger, it threatens our collective security by helping ISIS make the case that the United States and the West are at war with Islam.

     Sen. Lindsey Graham is right: "ISIS loves Donald Trump because he is giving them an opportunity to bring people their way."

     When fear and ignorance infect our politics, it's time for people of good will to stand up and speak out. How we respond to this test of our character will shape our commitment to religious freedom going forward.

     As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in 1787, "only a virtuous people are capable of freedom."

     Less known, but critical to recall, is Franklin's next line:

     "As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters."

Charles C. Haynes is vice president of the Newseum Institute and executive director of the Religious Freedom Center. E-mail: chaynes@newseum.orgWeb: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Twitter: @hayneschaynes.