American Turban

The accidental benevolence of Donald Trump

Ishwar Singh provides Invocation at Republican National Convention in 2012. (Source: Twitter user @duvachristopher)

Ishwar Singh provides Invocation at Republican National Convention in 2012. (Source: Twitter user @duvachristopher)

Almost four years ago, a Sikh man took to the stage at the Republican National Convention in 2012, and began to offer his prepared remarks. When he introduced himself with the words “I am a Sikh and an American,” the crowd interrupted him, breaking into applause.

It was an election year. Incumbent President Barack Obama was running for re-election against the Republican nominee who was to be officially named at this Republican National Convention in Florida (the Convention would later certify Mitt Romney as the official nominee). The Convention was organized for late August 2012, coincidentally just weeks after the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.

It was on a bright Sunday morning in early August that a white supremacist walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin near Milwaukee and went on a mass shooting spree within the place of worship. He would murder six congregants and severely wound two others as well as the first responding police officer who engaged the shooter. The murderer committed suicide before he could be apprehended and escaped justice.  The date of the attack was August 5, 2012, and it would find a place in the long list of mass shootings to have occurred in this country in the past decade. Even more for Sikh Americans, it was a watershed moment in our history in this country.

In a significant and unprecedented gesture, the Republican National Committee invited a Sikh, Ishwar Singh (President of the Sikh Society of Southern Florida), to provide the Invocation to open the third day of the Republican National Convention:

You can watch the full video of Ishwar Singh’s invocation here.

Ishwar Singh would become the first (and only) Sikh to offer an invocation at a national convention of either political party in the United States. By welcoming a Sikh to be front and center during their high profile convention, the gesture by the Republican Party on provided a statement of sympathy and support to the grieving Sikh community and to the nation at large.  As Ishwar Singh opened his speech to the applause of the large assembly, it was hard not to be touched by the gesture of the Republican Party during their nationally televised event.

However, in just four years since, we find ourselves in a new election cycle but with very different climate than in 2012.

Protesters are escorted out of a U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaign event in Muscatine

Protesters are escorted out of a U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaign event in Muscatine, Iowa, United States, January 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young – RTX23T3Q

On Sunday, the leading candidate (if polls are any indication) for the Republican nomination for President — Donald Trump — was in Iowa campaigning ahead of the first primary contest en route to the Republican National Convention this year. Known for his open fomenting of xenophobia and racism particularly against Mexicans and Muslims (and not to mention the misogyny he has exhibited), Trump was about to again speak about Muslims during his political rally in Muscatine, Iowa, when was interrupted by two protesters who unfurled a banner saying “STOP HATE.” The men were promptly and forcibly escorted out of the building.

One of the protesters was Arashdeep Singh, who was wearing a bright red turban:

After he was escorted out of the building, the predominantly white crowd began chanting “USA” in an apparent collective rebuke of the protesters, and even Trump took notice of the red turban, asking his supporters whether Arashdeep Singh was wearing “one of those hats, was he?”

It’s not clear whether Trump was specifically calling Arashdeep Singh’s turban a hat, or whether he was asking if the protester was wearing a campaign hat (which is a viable explanation and first offered by naujawani.com). What is clear, however, is that Trump was calling attention to Arashdeep Singh’s article of faith, and further, delineating it from that of his supporters with a tone of derision amongst a celebratory crowd.

Later, Arashdeep Singh would explain his motivations on Twitter:

On the surface, the contrast between these two events is striking. While in 2012, the Republican Party offered sympathy and support to the Sikh American community, by 2016, this sentiment has ostensibly been disregarded — and even reversed — by the most popular and dominant Republican candidate for President, demonstrated by his sarcastic commentary around a Sikh article of faith. And, there has been little tangible response from the Republican Party or the other Republican candidates to this incident or other similar protests. One wonders how or why this shift occurred.

Perhaps, the answer is that the shift isn’t what it seems. This is not a pendulum swing towards xenophobia but it is more reflective of a pre-existing condition in America. Only now, the symptoms are visible on national television and across social media. What the incident at the Iowa rally represents is the exposure of an ideology that has continued to exist without significant scrutiny under the surface.

While we can appreciate the Republican Party’s gesture in 2012 towards the Sikh American community, we must also remember that it was offered in the shadow of a mass murder perpetrated by a white supremacist, subscribing to an ideology that has lurked in a subculture of active and hostile xenophobia, culminating in an act of barbaric racism. The American community at large — and even the Republican Party in 2012 — symbolically embraced the Sikh community, but the ideology that led to the mass murder was left relatively untouched over the past four years.

Fast forward to 2016: we are bearing witness to a relationship evolve between a political campaign and right wing extremists.  The same ideology that fueled a mass murder in 2012 has now flocked to Donald Trump’s campaign, and Trump has exploited their sentiments to gain national attention and bolster his support within the Republican Party. Evan Osnos, writing in The New Yorker about Donald Trump’s campaign last year, saw the origins of his political tactics in Trump’s book The Art of Making a Deal:

“Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.” Trump, who long ago mastered the behavioral nudges that could herd the public into his casinos and onto his golf courses, looked so playful when he gave out Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone number that it was easy to miss just how malicious a gesture it truly was. It expressed the knowledge that, with a single utterance, he could subject an enemy to that most savage weapon of all: us.

It is this strategy that Trump seems to be engaging in during his political campaign.  He has found his “herd” and is leveraging this support to maintain his dominance in the news cycle and political process.

But, any deal is at least a two-way proposition — there needs to be a perceived value by both parties. The extreme right wing and white supremacists receive something in return for supporting Donald Trump: political cover to pursue their ethnicity-oriented objectives. It is more than a coincidence that white supremacist groups in this country are seeing a surge in activity and membership during this election cycle, especially as they often explicitly invoke Donald Trump in their propaganda:

That excitement, [Marylin Mayo, co-director at the Anti-Defamation League] noted, stems from the belief among white supremacists that a front-runner is knowingly championing their agenda by using both explicit and coded language.

“These groups are constantly trying to reach whites that they think would be attracted if they were just inspired enough,” Mayo told The Post. “What it does is allow the mainstreaming of hate.”

“They’re using Trump and his message to bring more people and more money into their fold, and that’s a tremendous concern.”

In return for their rabid support, Donald Trump offers white supremacists and extremists social and political cover and legitimization for their discriminatory ideology. In this way, as a person of color is ejected for peacefully protesting the hateful messages issued by Trump at a rally, Trump’s supports celebrate with chants of “USA!” But, the damage goes far beyond rhetoric and shouting mobs.

As Trump has openly and unapologetically spewed anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim rhetoric (going so far as to state that he would ban Muslims from entering the country), we have seen a surge in hate crimes targeting the Muslim and Sikh American communities as this election cycle has progressed. We have seen these attacks before in this country, and they occur when prejudiced rhetoric flows freely on the airwaves, such as in the post-9/11 environment. We saw such an attack in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012.

We term these attacks as a “backlash,” but it is more a release. We are not witnessing a shift but instead a revealing of the white supremacist mentality that is exploiting the legitimization offered by a presidential candidate:

According to experts at the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center who monitor hate groups and anti-Muslim sentiment, Trump’s call on Monday to halt the entrance of Muslims to the United States is driving online chatter among white supremacists and is likely to inspire violence against Muslims.

“When well-known public figures make these kind of statements in the public square, they are taken as a permission-giving by criminal elements who go out and act on their words.” said Mark Potok of the SPLC. “Is it energizing the groups? Yeah. They’re thrilled.”

The mentality is now proudly exposed outside of the clouded corners of our culture as we see a symbiotic relationship be fostered between Trump and the extremists among his supporters. As Trump carelessly walks a political tight rope, we are witnessing the deal that he has made with white supremacists. He purportedly advances the white supremacist agenda and provides safe harbor for their ideology in exchange for their support.

For its part, the Republican Party has made some effort to distance itself from Donald Trump’s proposed policies and his inflammatory rhetoric. After President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, herself from a Sikh immigrant family, offered the official Republican Party response and incorporated not-so-subtle rebukes to Donald Trump. Her presence on this platform, in addition to content of her remarks, was an attempt to distance themselves from their front-runner. However, Trump clearly remains undeterred and the Republican Party has been unable to address the stoking of fires that Trump has been leveraging to spur on his popularity.

However, Trump’s strategy, as detrimental as it is for America’s people of color, inadvertently offers a sliver of benevolence for civil rights advocates and activists. Wherein white supremacy has been a nebulous and amorphous entity to tackle, Trump’s unashamed and public advancing of a racist agenda has brought an undeniable level of attention to civil rights issues by the media in this country.

As unsettling as Trump’s campaign has been, it now has focused attention on the cloudy parts of the mirror that America must hold to itself. In 2012, it was too easy to shine the light away from the white supremacy movement that led to the mass murder in Oak Creek — there was no focal point on which to draw attention to the issue (and quite the opposite, much of the attention was focused on the Sikh people’s difference). Trump’s actions are forcing America to not just consider bigotry and race, but to be confronted with its extreme manifestations. The question to be answered: how comfortable is America with this extremist ideology, now that it is completely in the open?

When Trump makes racially incendiary statements, or ejects a peacefully protesting Muslim woman or a turbaned Sikh man from a rally over the cheers of an adoring audience, the optics are hard for news outlets to ignore. As he has become a boon for a desperate white supremacy movement, Trump is also bringing their ranks into the light of day. It is only in such a light that we can confront the ideology.  When we see Islamophobia and racism become an issue in a presidential campaign, it is not just for the perpetrators of this discrimination, but also for the advocates who now have the opportunity and platform to challenge it — much like Arashdeep Singh in Iowa on Sunday.

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