Watching Donald Trump on television Monday urging that Muslims be banned from entering the United States was like listening to Hitler on the radio in the early 1930s.
As was the case with Hitler, Trump appeals to a substantial number of angry people who cheer his call for making outcasts of members of a particular religion. At first scorned by decent people, as was Hitler, the presidential candidate now is enlisting a growing number of angry and scared Americans by promoting hatred of a religion and an ethnic group. That's what Hitler did in regard to the Jews.
With Trump gaining strength, he may be on a path to the Republican presidential nomination and, if things continue to go his way, the presidency. Then, say farewell to our democracy. The bleak prophesies of novelists Sinclair Lewis and Philip Roth about a fascist America could come true.
As he spoke to enthusiastic followers Monday on the retired aircraft carrier Yorktown in South Carolina, Trump's body language was revealing: the contemptuous face, curled lower lip, bullying mouth. Hate-filled words flooded out. Reporters are "scum," Trump said; his opponents are worthless.
What was most disgraceful about this speech-considered by many to be far worse than his earlier vitriol-was the way he went after anyone who follows the Muslim faith. Muslims, he said, are under suspicion. Reading from a press release
he had just sent out, he told the crowd: "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
"We have no choice, we have no choice, we have no choice," he declared.
He based his call on a survey taken for the Center for Security Policy
, an anti-Islam Washington think tank. In the survey of 600 Muslims living in the United States, 51 percent said they should have the choice of being governed by either Sharia courts or U.S courts. Nearly a quarter said they believe it is legitimate to use violence to punish those who give offense to Islam.
reporter Philip Bump, who writes about polling, questioned the accuracy
of the poll. "There is, in fact, no reliable evidence that a large percentage of Muslims in the United States-or, for that matter, Muslims hoping to travel to the United States-support doing harm to the country or plan to commit acts of violence," he wrote.
The Center for Security Policy is headed by Frank Gaffney
, a former Reagan administration assistant defense secretary. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies and exposes extremist groups, called Gaffney "one of America's most notorious Islamophobes. Gripped by paranoid fantasies about Muslims destroying the West from within, Gaffney believes that `creeping Sharia,' or Islamic religious law, is a dire threat to American democracy. He favors congressional hearings to unmask subversive Muslim conspiracies, and was even banned from far-right Conservative Political Action Conference events after accusing two of its organizers of being agents of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Trump's proposal taps into a reservoir of racism that is part of American history. Our most beloved liberal president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered American-born and immigrant Japanese people into prison camps
at the outset of World War II, one of history's worst violations of the Constitution. Trump cites Roosevelt's action in an effort to whip up support for his own plan.
Our history is rife with other examples of racism, too. For example, Asian exclusion laws were widely enforced into the 20th century. From the moment the first slave was taken off a ship in colonial America, African-Americans have been subjected to violent racism. So have Latino immigrants, another Trump target.
The candidate's attacks resonate with the Republican primary electorate. The Pew Research Center
found Republicans have a lower opinion of Muslims than do Democrats. "Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say they are very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the world and to say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its believers," according to a Pew report. Trump aims to mobilize these Republicans to lift him to victory in the Iowa caucuses and primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"It Can't Happen Here
" was the title of Sinclair Lewis' novel about a loudmouth populist who was elected president, seized control of the government, ignored the Constitution and established a dictatorship. In "The Plot Against America
," Philip Roth wrote a fictionalized tale about how Charles Lindbergh, who in real life was a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite, rode a tide of anti-Semitism to become elected president and then hooked up with Hitler.
Anti-Islam feeling is rampant, and all it needs is a leader.
I know that, not just from reading Lewis and Roth, but from my experience as an American Jew and as a journalist who has spent a lifetime examining the ugly undercurrents of American life. Trump is stirring up hatred and fear and anxiety and shaping them into a political movement, as Hitler did in the 1930s.
This should be a warning to progressives who dismiss Trump as a buffoon. His campaign should wake up cynical liberals inclined to sit out the election because they feel that Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aren't up to their standards.
Sitting this one out is not an option. Because it can happen here.
[Bill Boyarsky, political correspondent for Truthdig, is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. Boyarsky was city editor of The Los Angeles Times when he retired in 2001. Before that, he was a columnist, city-county bureau chief and political writer. He was a member of reporting teams that won three Pulitzer prizes and has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists.
His latest book is "Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times" (September 2009). He is the author of four other books: "The Rise of Ronald Reagan"; "Ronald Reagan, His Life and Rise to the Presidency"; "Los Angeles: City of Dreams"; and "Backroom Politics." His wife, Nancy, was co-author of Backroom Politics. He is a columnist for the Jewish Journal and blogs for LA Observed.]