On Monday night, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump called for a halt to Muslim immigration to the United States. The response was swift and furious. Unsurprisingly, Jewish organizations were particularly outraged, given the Jewish historical experience of discrimination. The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee quickly condemned Trump’s proposal as “unacceptable and antithetical to American values,” and “abhorrent and wrong,” respectively.
And they weren’t alone. Nearly all major Republican presidential candidates lined up to denounce Trump’s comments. Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged.” Marco Rubio labeled the anti-Muslim proposal “offensive and outlandish.” Chris Christie called it “ridiculous.” John Kasich opted for “outrageous.” Lindsey Graham dubbed Trump “downright dangerous.” Ben Carson’s campaign stated: “We do not and would not advocate being selective on one’s religion.”
In a rare move, the GOP state chairs of the first three 2016 primaries—who traditionally maintain public political neutrality during the primary process—forcefully condemned Trump. “As a conservative who truly cares about religious liberty, Donald Trump’s bad idea and rhetoric send a shiver down my spine,” said South Carolina Chair Matt Moore. “We don’t make ourselves safer by betraying bedrock Constitutional values,” added Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufman. And New Hampshire Chair Jennifer Horn was even more pointed, stating: “While my position (as party chairwoman) is certainly political, I am an American first. There should never be a day in the United States of America when people are excluded based solely on their race or religion. It is un-Republican. It is unconstitutional. And it is un-American.”
Likewise, prominent Evangelical leaders also went after Trump. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote, “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty should denounce this reckless, demagogic rhetoric.” Even former Vice President Dick Cheney excoriated Trump’s proposal for being “against everything we stand for and believe in.”
Finally, on Tuesday, Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan delivered an impassioned rebuttal to Trump:
Normally, I do not comment on what’s going on in the presidential election. I will take an exception today. This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for. Not only are there many Muslims serving in our armed forces, dying for this country, there are Muslims serving right here in the House, working every day to uphold and defend the Constitution. Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islamic terror are Muslims–the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of whom are peaceful, who believe in pluralism and freedom, democracy, individual rights.
Yet, you’d know none of this if you listened to Senator Harry Reid this morning. Speaking on the Senate floor, the Democratic minority leader claimed that “Donald Trump has become the Republican Party.” He went on to argue:
This sort of racism has been prevalent in Republican politics for decades. Trump is just saying out loud what other Republicans merely suggest. Political leaders must condemn these hateful, un-American statements with their words and their actions. Silence only empowers the bigots.
Now, silence does indeed help the hateful. But silence was not the response to Trump’s proposal. In suggesting it was, Reid deliberately elided the many denunciations that had preceded his speech. In this manner, the savvy Democratic politician painted the opposing party with the broad brush of Trump’s bigotry. But this opportunistic sleight-of-hand was not only misleading, it also undermined the very cause Reid claimed to be fighting for—the eradication of anti-Muslim prejudice—by casting it as a partisan issue, rather than a bipartisan one.
Polarizing the problem of Islamophobia might be good politics for Democrats seeking to bolster their minority voter support, but it is not close to an accurate reflection of reality. As Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com has explained, when one does the math, Trump’s actual support in the current Republican polls comes out to “something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.” In other words, this is not the Republican party and it is not America. This is a fringe that can be fought by a broad bipartisan alliance, and expunged from the realm of acceptable discourse—which is exactly what Republican leaders have begun to do, albeit belatedly, in the wake of Trump’s proposal. This is a positive development that should be commended as the basis for a cross-party consensus, not ignored.
The worst thing that can happen to any minority group in a democracy—whether gays, Jews, or Muslims—is for their rights to become a partisan political football. It may be in the interest of the Democratic party to paint the entire GOP as Islamophobic, but it is decidedly not in the interest of Muslims. Embattled citizens need all the help they can get, not politicians leveraging their plight for personal gain. Rather than casting all Republicans as incorrigible anti-Muslim bigots, those serious about combating such prejudice should be bolstering conservatives who share that noble aim.
Fighting Islamophobia has not been, and is not yet, a partisan issue. Let’s not make it one.
Related: Trump and the Joys of Hatred