My favorite TV show is The Office.
In the “Gettysburg” episode, the CEO of Dunder Mifflin, Robert California, pays a surprise visit to the Scranton branch. He is looking to discuss new ideas with the regional manager, Andy Bernard. But Andy is out of the office on a company retreat to Gettysburg. So Robert California settles for a brain-storming session with a handful of employees who stayed behind.
Dunder Mifflin is a paper company, so as you might imagine, the employees struggle to produce ideas that might change a centuries old industry. But I find one employee’s efforts relevant to our present situation.
Stanley Hudson, the disgruntled but lovable middle-aged paper salesman, pitches the idea of “Papyr.” But Papyr is a needless product. So Stanley promotes “Papyr” by depreciating “paper.” He says, “If your woman is like mine, I bet you come home to hear the same thing all the time. ‘This paper is so hard. It scratches. Why can’t there be a paper just for me?’ Well now there is. Papyr: Paper for Women. It’s pink, scented and silky soft. Now, you can watch the game and she can write a letter to her sister.” The CEO immediately responds, “The situation you described, returning home to a wife complaining about her paper being too masculine, is not one I’m familiar with.”
Donald Trump’s pitch to the American people is similar.
Trump painted a dystopian picture of America, one where crime, violence, and terrorism are ubiquitous. And he did this by scapegoating Latinos, African-Americans, and Muslims. Then he inserted himself as the only solution to these problems. Trump said, time and time again, “I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.”
This is propaganda 101. Don’t try to solve real problems. Rather, invent problems that only you can solve.
Have you ever seen someone wrestling their water hose in the front yard? I haven’t. But if you watch infomercials that show terrorized gardeners tangled up in their water hoses enough times, you will begin to believe that this is a real problem, and the product offered is the only solution to that problem.
Donald Trump is like an infomercial for White-Nationalism.
For example, Donald Trump took the gun violence in Chicago and blanketed it across the entire country, claiming “African Americans and Hispanics are living in hell.” He said that, “You walk down the street and you get shot.” He did this, not because he believed it to be true, but in order to insert himself as the solution. In the same breath he said, “We need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country.” Then he called himself the “law and order candidate.”
Trump peddled the meme that America has descended into lawless chaos, day in and day out for months. It might not be true, but as Joseph Goebbels said, propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” So Trump repeated the claim that America is a lawless country until people believed it—even though they saw no evidence to support the claim in their daily lives. And the media unwittingly helped him establish the meme by replaying it ad infinitum.
Once the first meme was established, he inserted the second, “I am the law and order candidate,” along with some tough rhetoric to demonstrate the claim. And he repeated this over and over again. This one-two punch left people believing two things: (a) America has descended into lawlessness and (b) Trump is the law and order candidate, which gives birth to the third meme: America needs Donald Trump.
Donald Trump did the same thing with Muslims. He scapegoated them, so he could insert himself as the authoritarian solution to the Muslim problem. America has no Muslim problem. Donald Trump invented it—well, to be fair, he capitalized on pre-existing xenophobic sentiments about Muslims, establishing them as facts in the minds of his supporters.
Trump described Muslims as violent, anti-American people that reject our values. He failed to flesh out the differences between terrorism and Islam, just as he failed to differentiate between those who had committed crimes and the overwhelming majority of Latino immigrants that are productive members of our society.
Donald Trump propagated lies—not alternative facts, untruths, or half-truths, but flat-out lies. He said thousands and thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered on the 9/11 attacks. He also took isolated, lone-wolf attacks in America and connected them to coordinated terrorist attacks across Europe—failing to mention the geographical and historical differences between Europe and United States. And worst of all, Trump took refugees from Syria and Iraq—men, women, and children desperately fleeing the carnage in their homelands—and lumped them in with the very people they were fleeing. He said, “They could be ISIS—I don’t know… They’re all men, and they’re all strong-looking guys… There are so many men; there aren’t that many women. And I’m saying to myself: Why aren’t they fighting to save Syria? Why are they migrating all over Europe?“
Donald Trump repeatedly planted the meme that Muslims hate America, insinuating that every Muslim, even those Syrians fleeing Assad and ISIS want to do harm to America—even though no Syrian refugee has ever carried out a fatal attack on U.S. soil. Finally, he said I will ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States, which led those who had been infected by his propaganda to the unavoidable conclusion that Donald Trump will make America great (safe) again.
Donald Trump’s motivations are not security. He is not trying to keep America safe. Even if I bought into his logic—even if I believed that Muslims were inherently violent and anti-American—by that very logic his actions are still illogical. Saudi Arabia should top any immigration blacklist meant to prevent terrorism or radical ideology from infiltrating the country. Fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia (none of them were from the seven countries banned). The Saudi royal family spends billions financing the ideology that often morphs into Salafi-jihadism (terrorism), yet Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent from the list of countries Trump banned.
No one from any of the seven countries banned (Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Libya) has carried out a fatal attack on American soil in over 30 years. In fact, according to CNN, “No person accepted to the United States as a refugee, Syrian or otherwise, has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States.”
Our vetting procedures for refugees have successfully weeded out dangerous people. This simply is not a problem. And even if it was, Trump’s ban would not have prevented 9/11 (which included people from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebannon), San Bernadino (U.S. born Pakistani), or Orlando (U.S. born). Trump’s motivation is not safety and security, but personal power. He is not trying to solve an actual problem, but present himself as a solution.
There is a problem within the Muslim world.
But the situation Donald Trump has described, waking up every day and seeing Muslim immigrants carrying out acts of violence on American soil, is not one I’m familiar with.
Islam is not an inherently violent religion as Trump insinuates and the fact that verses with violent denotations can be cherry-picked from the Quran is not evidence to the contrary. There are violent verses in the Bible and yet Judaism and Christianity are not inherently violent either. If you can differentiate between peaceful Christians and those who attack abortion clinics, then you are capable of differentiating between Muslims and terrorists. The problem I see within Islam is a political problem.
Two weeks ago I was talking to a Sunni Imam. I asked him about the separation between Islam and politics. He said, “There is no separation between Islam and the state like you see in the American political system.” That is the fundamental problem facing Islam.
Islamic fundamentalists believe that the Quran is the inerrant word of God (much like Christian fundamentalists believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God). From their point of view, democracy is an attempt to put the laws of man before the laws of God. It is also worth mentioning that this position is held by these clerics for self-serving, rather than theological reasons. Arguing that sovereignty must rest with God is essentially arguing, as Reza Aslan points out, “that sovereignty should rest in the hands of the clergy.” And within this group of fundamentalists there is an even smaller group that is willing to use violence to seize political control.
Acknowledging this problem does not make you Islamaphobic any more than acknowledging dominionism or New-Earth creationism makes you Christaphobic. In fact, it is the way in which you differentiate between fundamentalists, extremists, and moderates within any given ideological system. And the lack of such nuance in American discourse about Islam is what enables demagogues like Donald Trump to successfully generalize and demonize all Muslims.
Many of these fundamentalist clerics have a great deal of political persuasion in the Middle East because they promote the ruthless ideologies that enable the ruling classes of these countries to maintain power. They are more often than not part of the ruling class. This is, for example, the symbiotic relationship between the Saudi Royal family and Wahhabism.
But it is important to note that the majority of people immigrating to America from that part of the world are fleeing those despotic, theocratic governments.
The majority of Muslims worldwide do not agree with these radical clerics. And in the Western world, even fewer Muslims support theocratic institutions. The fact that Western Muslims by and large reject theocracy tells me two very important things. First, Muslims who immigrate to Western countries are doing so because they want the freedoms a secular, egalitarian democracy affords. Second, egalitarianism, secularism, pluralism, and democracy are cultural memes on par with the spoked-wheel—they spread like wildfire when people are introduced to their benefits.
So I can think of no better way to stem the rise of Islamic fundamentalism than to allow Muslims to immigrate to Western countries where they have the freedom to become reformers within Islam. Of course it is important to vet immigrants. But as I have stated, we already have a successful system in place for vetting immigrants and refugees. Eighty percent of terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by American citizens.
We also have an ethical responsibility to aid refugees in the search of asylum. My fear is that Donald Trump’s propaganda has, for his supporters, justified an authoritarianism that is thoroughly un-American. He has created a dystopian illusion of such grand proportions that, in their minds, tyranny is justified.
Consenting to Trump’s fear mongering will fundamentally change America’s character. So we have a responsibility to speak out against Donald Trump’s authoritarianism and xenophobic rhetoric.
To stand up, not only for those in need of refuge, but for the principles that make America a place of refuge. If we go down the path paved by Trump, I fear we will quickly become a country from which people seek refuge.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Image: Flickr/Meena Kadri
Editor: Travis May