Tackling Trumpism, a Mirror for Our Times

By John C. Green
December 17, 2015

There he goes again.

Donald Trump’s recent “proposal” for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country has added religion to his brash campaign. Whether this gambit works remains to be seen.

Trump has chosen a tempting target at an opportune time. Muslims are a small group, viewed unfavorably by many Americans. Recent terrorist acts have focused attention on Islam. “Round up the usual suspects” is an appealing message to many voters.

In Tuesday’s debate, many of Trump’s rivals objected to tarring all Muslims with the brush of a violent few. It is like denying all Baptists gun permits because a handful committed murder. Such “un-American, un-Democratic, and un-Republican” sentiments are unappealing to many voters.

This controversy may prompt voters to tell someone, “You’re fired!” once the balloting begins.

Of course, Trump is not alone in playing the negative religion card. Even President Obama has done his part. At the National Day of Prayer, instead of speaking honestly about recent terrorist acts, he singled out Christians for, among other things, the crusades—a long-ago tragedy perpetrated by the ancestors of some of today’s Christians and Muslims, but hardly all of them.    

It is worth remembering how politically volatile and contagious religion can be. Once faith-based attacks begin, they are hard to stop. Beyond the threat of violence, they rob policy debate of all nuance and sophistication, making complex problems more difficult to address. How one speaks reveals how one thinks—and we need our best thinking, not our worst.

As the continuing investigation of the San Bernardino killings shows, a tiny number of Islamic zealots pose a threat to Americans. How can these individuals be contained without undermining the rights and freedom of everyone? Meanwhile, the situation in Syria shows that many Muslims are forced from their homeland by such acts on a bigger scale. How can these people be aided without abetting continued violence?    

There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. But religious scapegoating works precisely because it offers the illusion of an “easy” answer.

From a broader perspective, “Trumpism” is just the latest example of rising incivility in America. From Congress to campus, on multiple media, online and offline, harsh rhetoric has become common in public discourse.

“Trumpism” comes in many forms. Its principle is prejudice, and its tools are social stereotypes, personal disrespect, and raw confrontation. It is a mirror for our times.

What can an individual do to change this culture? How does one tackle Trumpism?

As odd as it may seem, Trump and his followers should be treated with respect—by contradicting his brash style. Politicians and voters alike should remember:

*Traits matter less than actions. Trump was raised Presbyterian; he was not predestined to treat people badly.

*Don’t debate individuals. Debate ideas. Trump is clearly nobody’s fool, but some of his ideas are hugely foolish.

*It is not about feeling better. It is about doing better. Trump assuages frustration with politics, but he makes politics ever more frustrating.

There he goes again. We don’t have to follow.

Dr. John C. Green is director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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