Once more, with his unparalleled ability to provoke, the unsinkable Donald Trump has thrust himself to the fore of the 2016 presidential campaign, stoking a fierce debate over immigration, tolerance and the best means to fight terrorism.
The latest discord grew out of a two-paragraph statement Monday in which the Republican hopeful ignored legal niceties and hallowed tradition and called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States — in effect, imposing a religious test for people setting foot in America.
“Large segments of the Muslim population” are driven by a blind hatred, Trump said, and until and unless “we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses,” members of the Islamic faith must be kept from the country indefinitely.
The response was immediate and, by now, predictable.
The raw, exclusionary language, delivered unapologetically by a candidate of Trump’s prominence, is without parallel in recent political history.
Other presidential aspirants have used coded language to appeal to prejudice, or demonized their targets from the margin as protest candidates. Trump, however, is the leader in national Republican polls, giving him a platform that, together with his genius for self-promotion, brings attention no other candidate can match.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Trump has shifted his emphasis to what he has described as the existential threat to the country from Islamic terrorists.
Over the weekend, he said that at least some Muslims in the U.S. should be “tracked,” and he previously suggested that the U.S. should consider requiring Muslims to register in a national database.
Just put out a very important policy statement on the extraordinary influx of hatred & danger coming into our country. We must be vigilant!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
What was different from past controversies — over his disparagement of John McCain’s POW years, insulting political opponents, demeaning women (he suggested Fox’s Megyn Kelly was menstruating and, thus, unbalanced while helping moderate the first GOP debate) — was that few, if any, this time were predicting Trump’s political demise. Too many earlier obituaries have proved premature.
“I don’t think anything will hurt him for at least another four or five weeks, when there’s a chance voters will start asking a different question,” said Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan guide to the nation’s politics. “Instead of saying, ‘Who’s interesting, who’s entertaining?’ they may start asking themselves, ‘Who do I want as president?’”
Donald Trump is unhinged. His "policy" proposals are not serious.— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) December 7, 2015
But until then, Rothenberg said, anything that antagonizes members of the political establishment, upsets media pundits or riles Trump’s opponents will only enhance the billionaire’s appeal among his constituency of the angry and aggrieved.
Trump detractors were quick to pile on Monday, with some unsparing language of their own.
“Unhinged,” Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and Republican presidential hopeful, said of Trump in a tweet. “Ridiculous,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a radio interview.
“It’s outrageous. It’s un-American,” said Ibrahim Hooper, a national spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington. “This rhetoric contributes to rising bigotry and each and every day this type of language hurts our country.”
President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, called Trump’s statement “totally contrary to our values as Americans” and said it would hurt U.S. efforts to fight terrorism.
The Islamic State terrorist group “wants to frame this as a war between the United States and Islam. And if we look like we’re applying a religious test to who comes into the country, we’re sending the message that essentially we’re embracing that frame,” Rhodes said in a CNN interview.
Weighing in after a meeting with Muslim leaders outside Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said: “We must not vilify American Muslims. We must not throw a net of suspicion over American Muslims or any other religion.”
But Trump’s willingness to flout what he terms “political correctness” and say things other candidates would not is precisely what attracts many of his supporters.
At a raucous Monday night rally in South Carolina, Trump shrugged off the bipartisan criticism. “I don’t care,” he said to roars of approval. “We have to do it.”
Repugnant as some may find it, Trump’s rhetoric recalls some less-celebrated chapters in American history.
In the 1870s, anti-immigrant fervor resulted in passage of federal legislation — the Chinese Exclusion Act — which greatly curtailed Chinese immigration for more than half a century.
Calls to exclude Jews from the U.S. were common from the 1890s through World War II, preventing tens of thousands of refugees from escaping Nazi-occupied Europe. Many eventually died in the Holocaust.
During the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, prodded by California political leaders, ordered more than 100,000 Japanese Americans removed from their homes and placed in internment camps.
The likelihood of Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal becoming U.S. policy seems exceedingly slim, even if he won the White House. It would require an act of Congress and far more political support than was evident Monday.
The question is what lasting impact his inflammatory rhetoric will have on the Republican Party as it struggles to broaden its appeal beyond its core constituency of older white voters.
“It’s not like the election is tomorrow,” Rothenberg said. “But if next September, Donald Trump remains a high-profile figure that represents the Republican Party — even if he’s not the nominee — that would be a problem.”
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Brian Bennett and David Lauter contributed to this report.