A few years ago I started noodling on a novel that I hoped would expose the fault lines that seemed to be splitting our politics. My thought was to take reality and push it to the edge both for comic affect and to offer up a cautionary tale of where our politics might be headed. I finished the book in the summer of 2015 and I was a little worried that I had gone too far. How believable would it be that a xenophobic Republican who wanted to ban immigration and deport millions might actually be a real contender for president?
Well, now we know. Donald Trump hasn’t called for a new Bill of Rights like Armstrong George, the handsome fire-breather in my novel, The Innocent Have Nothing To Fear, but he’s the first candidate who’s running as if the Bill of Rights doesn’t exist. (If we get through this election without some reporter asking Trump if he can name the amendments in the Bill of Rights, it will be a crying shame.) Even while channeling my darkest impulses—and Lord knows we all have them, which is probably the key to Trump’s success so far—it never occurred to me that a candidate for president of the United States of America could call for a religious test to enter the United States without being considered a frothing lunatic.
Was I naïve or what? Trump’s Muslim ban would require all U.S. visitors to declare and prove religion—because how do you separate the Muslims from the non-Muslims without requiring proof of religion? If Yusuf Islam shows up at Heathrow and announces he’s no longer a Muslim but is now Cat Stevens, a Quaker, does the customs officer then ask him William Penn trivia questions to make sure he means it?
The only governing models for this kind of madness would be somewhere in the archives of the Third Reich but even the efficient Germans couldn’t really pull it off. Despite his Germanic heritage (which he has claimed to be Swedish, but then most everybody wants to be Swedish), Donald Trump couldn’t stop a neo-Nazi from ending up on his California delegate slate. Since just under a quarter of the globe is Muslim, his ban is going to take a serious upgrade in the TSA hiring guidelines.
(That Trump after the Orlando massacre talked back his promise of “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” to an equally absurd one to “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism” only shows how glib and careless he is.)
Donald Trump is the first nominee (OK, presumptive nominee, just to be hopeful) of a major party who seems completely unacquainted with the basic principles that define the American experience. Article Six of the Constitution prohibits any religious test for office but Trump casually questions the religion of anyone who runs against him, without even a hint that doing so might be fundamentally un-American. (Could someone please ask Donald Trump his views on Article Six? I’m betting that he will say it comes before Article Seven and after Five.)
Of course questioning religion probably doesn’t mean much to Trump since he appears to view church as a place you go every few years to marry a model. That faith might play a large role in anyone’s life seems as alien to him as paying retail.
It’s never been a secret that America and Americans have a dark side, which is no doubt one of the definitions of being human. But America resisted the siren call of totalitarian leadership that so many seemingly sane countries embraced in the 1930s. It has been an article of political faith that to win the presidency, a candidate must be able to inspire not incite an American populace. But Trump, running as a grievance-monger who will settle the score for any slight, is appealing to our worst, not our best, instincts.
He’s the ultimate anti-Reagan candidate, insisting over and over that Americans are afraid. He sees us as a fearful, timid mass waiting to be saved by a Strong Man.
Trump doesn’t live in the same country as you and I. We live in the richest country in the world. Donald Trump says America is “a poor country.” We live in the nation with the greatest military in the history of civilization. Donald Trump calls our military “terrible, weak.” We live in a country where the Bill of Rights is not an option available to those who can afford it but the essential compact between government and citizens. Donald Trump believes a rich person can muscle the press through threats of expensive litigation.
The other day waiting to board a plane, I was attempting to reassure a friend—solid Republican but not a Trump Republican—that Trump would not win. “What are the odds he can win?” my friend asked. “Twenty or 25 percent max,” I said. He thought about it for a moment and then asked a question I really wish he hadn’t: “Would you get on this plane if it had 20 percent chance of crashing?”
Hell no. Who would? The problem with Donald Trump is that the innocent really do have something to fear.