The silly season has been extended in this US presidential election cycle. All summer long, the press fed on Republican candidate Donald Trump's political posturing through back to back insults and outrages.
At each turn, the political establishment predicted the demise of Trump's candidacy and popularity in the polls. When he insulted Fox News anchor and debate moderator Megyn Kelly, insinuating that she was on her period while thoroughly questioning him during the debate, he was slammed by a number of conservatives and Republicans who expressed outrage over his misogynistic remarks.
Yet Trump's popularity has remained steady. When he voiced the opinion that immigrants from Mexico were mostly dangerous and 'rapists' he may have lost business contracts, but support among the Republican base increased. And most recently, when a voter took the mic in a town hall forum to say, 'We have a problem in this country, it's called Muslims...our current president is one', Trump did not correct him but responded to the man's further question ('When can we get rid of them?') by saying that 'we'd look into that and plenty of other things.' It solicited cheers of approval from his Republican supporters.
Trump's establishment critics continue to dismiss him as a political sideshow, an 'entertainer' who will eventually fade away when the real candidates emerge out of the pack. But this hasn't happened. He has made other more sober Republican candidates either drop out – first Rick Perry and now Scott Walker – or propelled other outsiders, even more popular candidates like Ben Carson, to also fearlessly eschew political correctness, particularly when it comes to Muslims and their place in America.
Carson was asked directly during a Meet the Press interview whether he believed Islam was consistent with the constitution. His response? 'No I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.'
Both Trump's and Carson's public statements on Muslims in American life and politics have brought into focus the views of the Republican base. Despite condemnations from the GOP establishment, which argues that it is 'unAmerican' and unconstitutional to discount a Muslim from the highest office in the land, and that of course Muslims are integral to the multicultural American social fabric and entitled to the same rights as any citizen, the reality is that a sizeable portion of Republican voters agree with these anti-Muslim sentiments.
A survey done in August by Public Policy Polling shows that Trump's pronouncements on Muslims and his 'birther' stance represents the consensus among the GOP electorate, not merely a Tea Party or right wing fringe. Sixty-six percent of Trump's supporters believe Obama is a Muslim, while 61% think Obama was not born in the US. Among the overall GOP electorate, 54% think President Obama is a Muslim and only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the US. (Remember, it was Donald Trump who encouraged the whole 'birther' movement. For years, Trump publicly called on Obama to release his birth certificate, claiming that he was a Muslim from Kenya and not, as is the truth, a Christian born in Hawaii.)
The GOP establishment is doing all it can to distance itself from Trump, rightly worried that he will tarnish the new branding initiative of a more inclusive Republican party, open to women, immigrants and minorities. Yet the polls show that the Republican base is right there with him. As one sharp piece of analysis by Frank Rich in New York Magazine describes it, Trump:
...is calling the GOP's bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo...Far from being a fake Republican, Trump speaks for the party's overwhelming majority...He's ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can't win elections without them — but doesn't want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe.
Ben Carson is another matter. The soft spoken African American with a compelling life story and a reputation as a brilliant pediatric neurosurgeon is not as easy to dismiss as a political buffoon, though he is a political neophyte. Carson has the highest favourability numbers among the GOP candidates. He is a minority candidate, which plays into the GOP establishment's narrative of a more inclusive Republican party, yet he is also an outsider – a good thing in the minds of many Republican voters. What's more, he shares and even exceeds Trump's positions on Islam in America.
Just as in Trump's case, Carson's Islamophobic positions have not damaged him among Republican voters. If anything, it has upped his standing in the polls. Donations to his campaign surged after he publicly remarked he would not support a Muslim in the White House. (This is despite the fact that the first amendment to the constitution prohibits a religious test for public office; the presidency, the very office Carson is running for, is tasked with enforcing the constitution.)
But like Trump, Carson is voicing mainstream Republican thinking on this matter. The latest Public Policy Polling results from 22 September show 'only 49% of Republicans think the religion of Islam should even be legal in the US with 30% saying it shouldn't be and 21% not sure. Among Trump voters there is almost even division with 38% thinking Islam should be allowed and 36% that it should not.'
A sizeable portion of the GOP base unambiguously believes Islam and Muslims present a real threat, that Islam is a religion of violence and that Muslims cannot be loyal American citizens because their religion dictates their politics through sharia law. Trump and Carson both know this and they are unafraid to say it.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.