Writer's Blog

The President’s Playbook: Fearing Islam, Friending Russia

(unpublished piece, written 6/13/17)

Donald Trump’s attitudes toward Islam and Russia reveal a stark double-standard.  On one hand, the Trump campaign to vilify the Muslim religion is very real and ongoing, yet on the other, he has done and said nearly nothing about Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential campaign.  Unfortunately, the president’s attitudes are reinforced by his base, which has also stayed silent on the threats posed by Russia.  That Muslims are viewed as a great threat to democracy while Russian aggression is ignored not only reveals deep-seated cultural biases, but also puts American democracy in jeopardy.

The president’s vitriol against Islam needs no introduction.  Indeed, his own presidential campaign was largely built on promises to implement a Muslim ban.  In addition, he has disparaged a Gold Star Muslim family, and professed belief that Muslim judges could not be trusted to make fair court decisions.  He has also attacked political leaders for not singling out Muslims with the term “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”

Despite that in recent speeches he has tempered use of this phrase, his followers remain intent on singling out Muslims for malicious treatment.  Whereas Trump has attacked Muslims verbally, some of his followers have attacked physically, even harming civilians who defend their fellow Americans.  More recently the group ACT for America organized anti-Muslim marches across the country, which were particularly vile since these “march against Sharia” demonstrations were orchestrated to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan.

While Trump and some of his fellow Americans remain steadfast in oppressing Muslims, his treatment of Putin and Russia sits in sharp contrast.  Despite that Putin is widely viewed as a brutal dictator with an atrocious human rights record, Trump openly praised Putin during his presidential campaign.  Although the full scope of Trump’s involvement and investment in Russia is unknown, there is plenty that is, from Paul Manafort’s connections, to Michael Flynn’s, to Jared Kushner’s attempt to establish a back channel to the Kremlin.  Recent testimony by former FBI head, James Comey, further indicated that over several different meetings with Trump, the president did not so much as express concern about Russia’s role in the elections.

What sense should be made of this double standard?  Whereas Muslims are subject to ongoing hostilities, the acts of Russian aggression have hardly captured the imagination of Trump or his followers.  This question takes on greater urgency in light of Comey’s testimony that the Russians undoubtedly interfered in the election, and his ominous warning that “they will be back.” 

More importantly, what are the implications for democracy in America?  In the case of Russia, American intelligence is unanimous that this foreign power worked to influence the outcome of the presidential election.  Americans should take a moment to ponder this—Russia attacked the very process by which American leaders are elected—that is, attacked the foundation of democracy itself.  Although extremist Muslim attacks on American democracy have been mostly rhetorical, Russia’s are real.

These attacks might rightly be viewed as a subtle species of terrorism, and as such, should be condemned just like physical attacks or cyber attacks aimed to inspire fear.  For those concerned with the life of democracy, Russia’s acts are indeed terroristic, even if they evade such description.

So, with this clear-cut attack on American democracy, where is the outrage?  Where is the same sort of harsh policy blowback and brimstone rhetoric to which Muslims are subjected?  In all fairness, one might expect to see a terrible backlash against all things Russian.  This would include executive orders vetting the entrance of all Russians to the country.  It would also include anti-Russia marches, or at the very least, anti-Putin marches, or more drastically, a full-blown cultural war against all things Russian.  Yet, to date, there has been no killings or physical attacks against Russian-Americans, no vandalism or burning of Russian Orthodox Churches, no profiling and patrolling of Russian-American communities, no violence against those mistakenly believed to be Russian, no flyers telling Russian-American citizens to go back to their own country.  Nothing of the sort.

The point, of course, is not to encourage such acts be carried out.  Rather, it is to underscore that they are not happening at all.  The omission doesn’t make much sense if this is the sort of stuff that happens in the name of protecting democracy.  It instead makes one wonder why Muslims are vilified and Putin is praised.  More critically, it suggests either that the focus on Muslims is overblown and that attitudes toward Russia are far friendlier than should be.

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