During his campaign for the Presidency, Donald Trump won support by promoting slogans such as “Make America Great Again,” and “America First!” Trump identified “America” with working class whites, who, he claimed, have long been exploited by the policies of the ruling elites and exposed to unfair competition from “un-American” groups such as undocumented Latin American migrants, whom he also labeled as dangerous criminals. He argued that protests against police violence, led by communities of color, threatened American security from within, just as “radical Islamic terrorism” threatened it from without. Thus, he succeeded in painting a picture of a beleaguered “America,” one that could only be saved from future “carnage” if he were elected.
Trump’s mixing of fact and fiction would have won him the admiration of Mussolini and Hitler, who set the standard when it comes to creating myths about membership in the “national community.” Both men attacked liberals, socialists, and communists as enemies of the nation, both appealed to the “common man” against plutocratic elites even as, like Trump, they allied themselves closely with the latter while betraying the former, and both argued that the “nation” should take precedence over everything else. Hitler added a powerful dose of racial anti-Semitism to Germany’s brand of fascism, but the basic idea was always the same: to conjure up feelings of national unity based on the exclusion of those perceived to be “dangerous.”
Trump’s success has allowed many of the most intolerant elements of American politics to reemerge in the political mainstream. On June 10, for example, a group called “ACT for America” organized demonstrations in cities across the country against Sharia Law, the system of religious precepts Muslims use as a guide to personal behavior. Stressing radical interpretations of Sharia that allow female genital mutilation or discrimination against LGBTQ people, ACT for America asserts that Sharia as such is contrary to human rights and threatens to undermine the U.S. Constitution.
But ACT for America’s assertions are groundless. Sharia Law has no standing in American courts and the vast majority of Muslims here do not favor creating a theocracy. Like most Christians, who do not wish to see many rules outlined in the Old Testament (e.g., such those requiring stoning) enacted into contemporary law, most Muslims believe Sharia’s teachings can also be adapted to life in the modern world.
ACT for America’s real goal is not tolerance. It aims, instead, to mobilize an assault on Islam as a religion and to identify Muslims as enemies of “America.” It rests on distortions of Islam no less massive than those the Nazis used to distort Jewish Law to justify attacking Jews as enemies of society. Indeed, in its effort to portray the United States and itself as victims of Islamic terrorism and intolerance, Act for America has used armed anti-government extremist groups, such as the “Oath Keepers,” to protect its rallies against its opponents. Here again we see parallels with fascism as this radical political movement has openly allied itself with armed paramilitary forces challenging the authority of the democratic republic.
The good news is that, wherever anti-Sharia demonstrators appeared on June 10 they met counter-demonstrations many times as large and violence was minimal. Clearly many communities are prepared to defend the rights of Muslim neighbors. The goal must be to link that effort with the larger struggle to drive Trump and his allies from power. The effort must be broadly based, peaceful and disciplined. In that sense the counter-demonstrations of June 10 bode well.