Tellingly, a recent survey reveals that an estimated 38% of Republican voters and 25% of all those surveyed approve of his plan to bar entry of Muslims into the US. Elsewhere too, the influx of refugees into Europe, the growing belligerence of the French response to the attacks, the strong showing of ultra-nationalist Marine La Pen’s party in the recent elections can all be read as signs that the fear of Islamist terrorism will spill over into a more widespread form of anxiety directed at Muslims in general.
A Trump nomination looks increasingly less unlikely as the weeks go by, and although across party lines, few experts believe that he has any chance of winning the Presidency, a couple of terrorist attacks at a crucial time, could make him a contender. The recent San Bernadino attacks have demonstrated that the possibility of more mass killings is far from remote. The line between ‘mass killings’ and ‘terrorist attacks’ has always been a thin one, determined more by the race of the shooter than by any other variable, but now, the line looks even thinner. Earlier, terrorist attacks were thought to need an elaborate and meticulously thought out plan, co-ordination across several countries and large quantity of resources in terms of arms, people and money. This meant that intelligence agencies equipped with sophisticated surveillance techniques and on-ground presence could potentially get wind of planned attacks before they took place.
The San Bernadino attacks show that things have changed. Now it is possible for individuals to get radicalized over the Internet, and given the bizarre American obsession with guns, pick up an arsenal that some third world countries would give an arm and leg for, simply by walking into a neighbourhood store, and blaze away. No ‘sleeper cells’, no chatter, no messy plans, no terrorist mastermind. What were once called mass killings and after a few ineffectual noises about tighter gun control laws, forgotten, will now be classified as terrorist attacks and create fear and potentially push people towards the likes of Donald Trump and Le Pen.
Islam in particular and immigration in a larger sense, are likely to be the significant fault lines that nations will grapple with in the days to come. What were once fringe appeals will become more mainstream, and the democratic process will increasingly reflect the fears that dominate the political discourse of today. Instead of working against a backdrop of idealism, democracies could veer towards mirroring insecurities and anxieties. In any case, the professed ideals of democracy have been systematically and hypocritically compromised by political processes across the world. Donald Trump is articulating loudly what has been inaudibly whispered all this while- he is not saying anything new, what is new is that he is saying it.
In an article in this newspaper, Swapan Dasgupta argues that the kind of support Trump is unexpectedly attracting is a sign of a ‘grassroots revolt against condescension’ that the elite have directed at the ‘little guy’. One may not agree with Dasgupta’s characterisation of Trump’s views as ‘wilfully outrageous’ comments that he attributes to a deliberate strategy of ‘polemical exaggeration’; for rarely has anyone accused Trump of finesse or subtlety, but the essential point that he makes is worth considering.
There is a process of denial that is at work when it comes to acknowledging that Islam and terrorism are related in some form. A virulent strain of Islamic thought is responsible for many of the terrorist attacks and particularly post the rise of ISIS, other Muslims are the primary victims of this form of Islamic thought.
The primary confusion is between ‘what should be’ and ‘what is’. No religion condones the killing of innocents, but religions can be interpreted so as to reclassify who is innocent and who is not. The bigotry of a few in a group should not taint others of a similar persuasion, but in the real world it does. The responsibility for separating Islam from terrorists who act in the name of Islam should not rest on Muslims alone, but they are the ones most affected by it and therefore the world will expect that they counter the threat they face more than anyone else more effectively. at the end of the day, what can be said definitively that the current attempts to separate Islam from Islamist terrorism have failed.
Not only Trump, but thanks to social media, many more people are saying what could not be put into words earlier without attracting the wrath of the liberal mainstream. There is a growing constituency for expressing feelings that one should not have but one does, and upon finding that there are many more who feel similarly, these politically incorrect sentiments get crystallised into a larger movement.
The time for saying the right things and getting by is over. Using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness. What the world needs is a new set of leaders- an anti-Trump, if you will who helps us reclaim a democracy of idealism by loudly and powerfully championing its cause. The true test of leadership is to make desirable what is needed, to make difficult ideas look practical, to find in ourselves the strength to overcome barriers imposed by fear and doubt. The fight today is not as Dasgupta suggests, between a condescending elite and the frustrated ‘little man’ but between idealism and fear.