Donald Trump’s latest call for a crackdown on Muslims isn’t really about the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. It isn’t about terrorism or even Islam. It’s about Trump. The things he’s saying about Muslims—that all of them are responsible for the crimes of some, that the good ones protect the bad ones, that they’re foreign even if they were born here, that we should exclude them all to play it safe—are the same things he has said about blacks, Latinos, and other minorities. If we’re going to speak frankly about the pathologies on display this week, we can’t just talk about radical Islamic terrorism. We have to talk about Trump’s bigotry.
Trump portrays his vigilance against Muslims as a way to protect gays, women, Jews, and other Americans who might be targeted by jihadists. But his record shows the opposite. Again and again, he has appealed to prejudice, selecting as his villain whichever minority group best serves his advantage at the moment. Muslims are just his latest target. Consider the following arguments, which Trump has made in the past about other minorities and is now leveling against Muslims.
1. They’re dangerous. Murder in the name of Islam is a big problem. But Trump overstates it, portraying all Muslims as pernicious radicals. He misrepresents poll data to imply that 99 percent of Muslim immigrants can’t live peacefully with Americans. He says “Islam hates us” and demands a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” On Monday, he warned about immigrants “from Muslim countries.” He claimed that Hillary Clinton “wants a 500 percent increase in people coming in from Syria that are radical Islamists”—essentially equating refugees with radicals.
This isn’t the first time Trump has misrepresented crime statistics to vilify a minority. Three years ago, he tweeted that “the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and [H]ispanics.” Trump didn’t mention that the victims of these crimes, like victims of violence by Muslims, were overwhelmingly of the same ethnicity as the perpetrators. Last year, he retweeted a fabricated claim that 81 percent of white homicide victims were killed by blacks. In reality, 82 percent of white homicide victims were killed by whites. When Trump was asked about the discrepancy, he said his numbers came “from sources that are very credible.” He shrugged, “Am I gonna check every statistic?”
Trump has also made wild statements about crime by Mexican immigrants. Last year, in his presidential campaign announcement speech, he asserted: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. …They’re sending people that have lots of problems. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He claimed that “tremendous crime is coming across” the border, that “illegal immigrants pouring through the country” were producing “hundreds of thousands of people going to state and federal penitentiaries,” and that this was driving U.S. crime numbers “through the roof.” All of these claims were false, misleading, or unsupported.
2. Play it safe. Even if most Muslims are decent, Trump argues, we should bar them all, because you never know which ones might hurt us. That’s his argument for a ban: We can’t “vet” them, and we have “no idea if they love us or hate us,” so we’d better keep them out “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
This is the same argument Trump has made against immigrants from Mexico: that while “some, I assume, are good people,” others are rapists and drug mules, so we need a wall and mass deportations. Trump has also suggested, at campaign rallies, that Seventh-day Adventists and Cuban Americans can’t be trusted. He phrased these insinuations artfully, saying things like, “Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about, I just don’t know about,” and, “Not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK? Just remember that.” But his words sent a clear signal to Republicans thinking about voting for Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio: These men belong to suspicious groups. Beware.
3. They don’t police themselves. Trump routinely claims that Muslim neighbors and relatives knew in advance about the attacks in San Bernardino, California, and Orlando but didn’t warn the authorities. Fact-checkers have debunked these allegations, but Trump doesn’t care. “The Muslim community does not report people like this,” he asserted in a CNN interview on Monday. He told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “The Muslims are the ones that see what’s going on. The Muslims are the ones that have to report them. And if they don’t report them, then there have to be consequences to them.” In a speech about the Orlando attack, Trump said these plot-hiding witnesses must be “brought to justice.”
But shielding lawbreakers isn’t just a Muslim habit, according to Trump. It’s also a Latino habit. A year ago, Trump retweeted an allegation that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.” Trump defended this allegation on the grounds that Bush’s wife (who has been an American citizen for decades) was “from Mexico.” Then Trump accused Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge in the Trump University fraud case, of using the case to hurt Trump and protect illegal immigrants because Curiel (who was born in the United States) was “Mexican.” By Trump’s logic, all people of Mexican descent are presumptively guilty of protecting “illegals.”
Trump has also castigated the nation’s first black president for purportedly failing to control black crime. In 2014, during riots in Ferguson, Missouri, Trump tweeted that “President Obama has absolutely no control (or respect) over the African American community.” Last year, after Freddie Gray’s death, Trump jeered: “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!” If you’re black, Mexican American, or Muslim, you’re accountable for controlling your people. If you’re white, you’re not.
4. Ancestry is destiny. The shooter in Orlando was a natural-born U.S. citizen from an Afghan family. The male shooter in San Bernardino was a natural-born U.S. citizen from a Pakistani family. Trump uses these cases to suggest that all Americans of Muslim ancestry are security risks. Therefore, working backward, he argues that even Muslims who show no signs of radicalism must be kept out of the country, since we have no way “to prevent the radicalization of the children and their children.”
This policy—barring people from the United States based on possible crimes by their future grandchildren—would seem to bar all Muslims in perpetuity. And it’s not the first time Trump has challenged the loyalty of American citizens based on ancestry. He says Curiel is inherently biased against him because Trump is “very strong on the border” and Curiel is “of Mexican heritage.” Trump has also spent years challenging Obama’s legitimacy on the grounds that Obama, who has a U.S. birth certificate, was secretly born in Kenya and might be a Muslim. This week, Trump again suggested that Obama was jeopardizing American security against radical Islam because “he’s got something else in mind.”
Trump’s objections to Middle Eastern immigrants go beyond security. In his speech on Monday, he argued that they cost too much money, undermine wages, and push their religion on Americans. “They’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is,” he said. In an interview with Breitbart News Daily, Trump said the president should use the term radical Islamic terrorism “just to build up the spirit in our country.” On Friday, before the Orlando attack, Trump told the Faith and Freedom Coalition that he would stem the influx of Muslim refugees and “defend Christian Americans.”
Trump’s complaints about Muslims—they commit crimes, take jobs, protect lawbreakers, and infect the country with weird religion and foreign loyalties—aren’t much different from his complaints about other minorities. It’s nothing personal. He just has a penchant and talent for exploiting prejudice. “Unless you’re willing to discuss and talk about the real nature of the problem,” Trump declared Wednesday in another anti-Muslim tirade, “you’re never going to solve the problem.” He’s right. It’s time to talk about the real nature of Trump’s problem: He’s a bigot.