Only one day after the horrible attacks at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Donald Trump wielded a tried and true political strategy in American presidential politics: fear-mongering and xenophobia.
On June 13th, Trump once again called for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States and suggested that President Obama is not a real American and that he may have been, in some vague and pernicious way, involved in the attacks. The scary part about Donald Trump’s strategy? It works.
American presidential candidates have a long history of employing fear and hate tactics against black and brown people in the United States. From Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” to George Bush’s Willie Horton ad, to Bill Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it,” presidential candidates know that scapegoating black and brown folks is a sure way to turn out droves of voters who resent their presence in the United States.
This rhetoric is not simply a fleeting campaign promise, however. For example, in the 1980s and 90s, candidates handily employed false stereotypes about black people’s (particularly, young black mothers’) dependence and abuse of welfare. Both Reagan’s and Clinton’s rhetoric led to the gutting of the American social safety net over the next 20 years, making it much more difficult for the nonworking poor to claim welfare benefits in the US. These tactics marked a shift to an age of conservative government spending and leading to the austerity budgets of the modern political era.
In addition, the “tough on crime” campaign rhetoric employed by President Nixon, the first President Bush, and President Clinton led to policies that resulted in the over-policing and imprisonment of African Americans. Claims that crime had run amok in the United States and the appeal to implicit racial stereotypes motivated voters to turn out and, ultimately, inflicted lasting damage on black and brown communities in the US.
We should understand Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric as simply the latest iteration of presidential candidates scapegoating a community of color for electoral gain. He claims that he wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico and that he wants to ban all Muslims precisely because he hopes to capitalize on voters’ fears which are rooted in pernicious stereotypes about these communities. Fears about an “un-American America” and the supposedly impending threat of “radical Islam” are highly potent at this moment, especially among voters who are fearful for the (less white) future of the US and feel threatened by the globalizing US economy.
Trump is certainly not the first presidential candidate to capitalize on racial animus and it is not likely that he will be the last. Still, we must recognize this racist tactic and call it by its name. If we do not, history may repeat itself and Trump could be elected to the presidency and empowered to enact his worldview, build the wall, and prevent an entire religious group from entering the United States. Trump’s rhetoric is not to be dismissed, as it poses a real threat and real consequences for Hispanics and Muslims all over the nation.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr