Donald Trump’s new pledge to ban all Muslims from entering the country – even, apparently, American citizens – marked a shocking turn in the GOP primaries on Monday, but it didn’t come from out of nowhere.
Rather, Trump’s call for religion-based discrimination is just the latest example of a fringe, anti-Muslim movement Republican leaders have spent years working to contain, only to see it bubble into the national conversation through this primary’s outsider candidates.
In this case, Trump made the connection clear as day. His proposal to ban Muslim entry into the U.S. cited research from the Center for Security Policy, an organization led by conservative gadfly Frank Gaffney that’s been labeled extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has repeatedly clashed with other conservatives over its views.Gaffney is a longtime conservative activist, more recently known for his leading role in the anti-Sharia movement, which warns of a Muslim plot to impose radical fundamentalist law along the lines of Saudi Arabia. The movement is notorious for seeing Islamic conspirators behind every tree, and Gaffney was banned in 2011 from the Conservative Political Action Conference, the right’s biggest activist showcase, after accusing its organizers of secretly plotting with the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Gaffney has been too hot for many Republicans to touch, Dr. Ben Carson and Trump both attended a summit with him this year along with Sen. Ted Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Carson’s opposition this year to a hypothetical Muslim president has roots in Gaffney’s brand of anti-Islamic activism as well. As part of his argument, Carson warned that even outwardly assimilated Muslim-Americans should be viewed with suspicion because radicals follow a religious edict known as “taqiyya” to conceal their true motives. Religious scholars say it’s a misinterpretation of the concept, which has traditionally been used in Shia Islam to hide one’s faith from persecutors in times of danger, but Gaffney has cited it to tar all Muslims as suspect, as have far right nationalist leaders in Europe.
This isn’t the first election the movement has crossed into GOP politics, either. Republican lawmakers frequently fielded Sharia-related questions from constituents during the last election cycle, even as prominent leaders took care at key points to distance themselves from Gaffney and his ilk.
In 2012, then-Speaker John Boehner joined figures like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio to condemn a wild conspiracy theory spread by Gaffney and advocated by tea party lawmakers that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin was part of a sweeping plot by radical Islamists to infiltrate the government.
“These are dangerous accusations,” Boehner said at the time.
One of the legislators who signed on to a letter promoting the Abedin conspiracy theory was then-Rep. Michele Bachmann, who ran for president the same year. Bachmann, who has long maintained close ties with Gaffney, called for a ban on all Muslim immigration this week just two days before Trump’s announcement.The same cycle, Herman Cain, whose populist run has been likened to Trump’s, promised to administer a loyalty test before appointing any Muslim to his administration. Once again, prominent Republican leaders protested. Eventual nominee Mitt Romney refused to encourage similar paranoia and told audiences that lurid scenarios of Sharia law applied in American courts were “never going to happen.”
Now, the anti-Islamic movement is back, the mainstream GOP leaders who kept a lid on it in the past are weaker than ever, and the candidates promoting it have a louder microphone than any similar insurgents in 2012.
A number of Republican presidential rivals quickly condemned Trump’s Muslim travel ban, but some observers predict that the resulting fracas will only bolster his strength with his party base. “As much as anyone may disagree with his policies (and I do), Trump is not hurting himself with GOP voters with his negativity toward Muslims,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a top strategist for Romney’s 2012 campaign, tweeted on Monday. That theory looked plausible at Trump’s event Monday night, where supporters told NBC News they agreed with his latest move.
The reason some Republican leaders had been so quick to contain the anti-Sharia wing in the past was not because it was politically popular to do so, but because they knew that if left unchecked, things could get out of hand. There are real consequences to fanning the flames against Muslims too aggressively, and not just within America. In 2011, Bachmann’s rants about Muslim infiltration traveled to Egyptian media, where they helped lend legitimacy to a widespread phony rumor that the Obama administration had installed the Muslim Brotherhood into power and was backing them financially.
It’s worth keeping an eye on how Trump’s newest proposal plays overseas, especially in Muslim countries now working with America to defeat the Islamic State. Republican critics of Trump may complain he’s an outlier in the GOP making a plea for attention, but those nuances are harder to explain to foreign audiences who see “OPPOSITION PARTY FRONTRUNNER CALLS FOR BAN ON MUSLIMS” plastered on their local paper.