The religious dimensions of this election season are reminiscent of the 1840s, the time when a “Know Nothing” political party formed around the notion that America was under attack by agents of the Vatican. In 1844, a powerful minority of nativist Americans reacted to the influx of immigrants with alarm, fearful that the white Protestant foundations of American society were about to be replaced by the evil institutions of nasty foreigners.
At the 2016 Republican Convention, former Congressman Newt Gingrich gave a speech supporting the nomination of Donald Trump in which he declared, “If our enemies had their way, every person on earth would be subject to conversion by the sword and to a cruel and violent system of law. There would be no individual liberty. There would be no equality. There would be no freedom. If you doubt we are at war, if you doubt that the threat is as real as I say, let me refresh your memory.” Whereupon he recited the list of Islamist terror attacks here and abroad that have made headline news over the past year. After these reminders, he said, “Which brings us to the heart of the matter, we are sleepwalking through history as though this is all about politics. It is not. It is about our safety and our survival as a country. We cannot keep in place the people and the systems that have brought us to this point and then lie to us every single day about the threat. That is why every American should be terrified at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Hillary Clinton has been right at the center of this dishonesty.”
This is a point of view that Democrats tend to dismiss as alarmist and exaggerated, as Republicans cynically playing the fear card, an indication that the GOP cannot compete with the Democratic Party on domestic issues and turns instead to outdated, militaristic patriotism as a way to stoke the emotions of the electorate. While I acknowledge that there is some of that, and that no one is more cynical and adept at this rhetoric than Gingrich, the popular fear of Islam is a powerful reality and much more influential than Progressive Democrats are willing to acknowledge.
In our affluent Northeastern neighborhoods, we are unlikely to meet people who share Gingrich’s fears. We talk to each other and seem genuinely baffled by Trump’s appeal. How many conversations have you had in which the subject was the people who support Trump because they are racist, bigoted, xenophobic, and stupid? We all live in a bubble.
To what extent does 2016 differ from 1844? The ISIS form of Islam is very real and very dangerous – terrifying. But, as hard as it is to imagine Irish Americans as evil, that loathing instigated murderous, arsonist riots so fierce that our Philadelphia streets had to be policed by thousands of Militia (the 19th Century’s National Guard) who’d been invited to our city to smother the violence. In the November 1844 election, a nativist won the Philadelphia Congressional seat. In our day, many Americans perceive Muslims as people who want to see us dead or as subjects to their law. The extent to which such a perception is a reality is at the heart of the 2016 Presidential election.
We have a right to expect our government to do all in its power to prevent atrocities before they happen. But there are great risks in allowing such a perception to guide our domestic police. We’ve already witnessed an alarming militarization of our police forces, and the establishment of a huge governmental apparatus that often uses Gestapo-like powers to make the lives of minorities miserable. So we must be as careful to protect our democratic freedoms as we are to protect our restaurants, airports and other public places.
It is one thing to be watchful against gun and bomb massacres, it is something altogether different to conduct foreign affairs as a belligerent in a religious war. That’s precisely what Putin does to justify his police state and operations in the Ukraine and on Turkey’s southern border. In May of this year, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church declared Russia to be engaged in a Holy War . Putin and the Patriarch are in complete agreement on the Christian justification for their current wars. I wonder whether a President Trump would ally with Russia in a global war on terror. Certainly, there is little space between the Putin and Trump viewpoints regarding an Islamist threat. In August of 2015 Putin addressed the Duma, Russia’s Legislature, and delivered this speech, one of the shortest on record. When he finished, the Duma’s politicians rose their feet and gave Putin a five-minute standing ovation.
“In Russia, live like Russians. Any minority, from anywhere, if it wants to live in Russia, to work and eat in Russia, it should speak Russian, and should respect the Russian laws. If they prefer Sharia Law, and live the life of Muslim’s then we advise them to go to those places where that’s the state law. Russia does not need Muslim minorities. Minorities need Russia and we will not grant them special privileges, or try to change our laws to fit their desires, no matter how loud they yell ‘discrimination.’ We will not tolerate disrespect of our Russian culture.
We better learn from the suicides of America, England, Holland and France, if we are to survive as a nation. The Muslims are taking over those countries and they will not take over Russia. The Russian customs and traditions are not compatible with the lack of culture or the primitive ways of Sharia Law and Muslims. When this honorable legislative body thinks of creating new laws, it should have in mind the Russian national interest first, observing that the Muslim minorities are not Russians.”
Much has been made of Trump’s possible business dealings in Russia, with no evidence that such ties exists. Others have written about the Putin and Trump’s mutual admiration for each other’s leadership style. But there are more worrisome connections. Perhaps we should consider the recent hacks of Democratic Party databases as moves in a game of chess, a sort of intelligence warfare that Grand Master Putin learned as a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB. I believe that Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich, and a major segment of the American electorate would support a Crusader alliance with Russia.