Definitively Legitimizing Islamophobia

As previously noted, the Obama and Clinton camps worked diligently to avoid associating Muslims with terrorism and “radical Islam,” by avoiding the phrase almost entirely. But by calling for complete Muslim bans, calling for mosque surveillance, and liberally employing the phrase “radical Islam” in association with Muslim-Americans, Trump has managed to change the definition of Islam, and has legitimized an Islamophobic association that, just days after the election, has many Muslim-Americans feeling unsafe.

The power of the president to define issues equates to, as Zarefksy suggests, being able to plead a cause. Particularly on the subject of Muslim-Americans, Donald Trump effectively took the status quo social definitions of the Obama/Clinton years and changed what “Muslim” and “Islam” meant for many Americans, effectively associating Muslims with terrorism. Throughout his campaign, Trump subtlety (or, at times, blatantly) advanced the case that Muslim-Americans are dangerous and radical by nature of their religion.

And while Trump’s rhetoric might seem like it would be convincing for only a small percentage of the population, now that he will officially ascend to the presidency, his language will be much more powerful and have a much more legitimizing effect. As Zarefsky puts it, “The presidential claim is offered as if it were natural and uncontroversial, rather than chosen and contestable.” Trump’s election to the presidency truly validates his definitions for many of his supporters. These definitions will become a widespread school of thought because they have been legitimized.

No longer does the president say that Muslims should be treated with respect and without fear; this president says the citizenry should be leery and suspicious of Muslims. Muslim-Americans across the country are reporting of the immediate results of Trump’s de-facto, definitional validation:

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-8-40-08-amAnd the results won’t end there; Trump’s newly legitimized definitions are likely to pervade, at least on some level, for generations to come. Muslim-Americans have been weary of Trump’s rhetoric from the beginning, but now his words carry an unmatched validation which could cause irreparable damage to the image and treatment of newly terrorism-linked Muslims across the country.

Terrorism and Apologia

According to Trent and Friedenburg, the purposes of an apologia are to 1) explain a bad behavior in a positive light, 2) justify the behavior, and 3) remove the topic from public discussion. The authors offer several methods to achieve these purposes: from full-on confessions, to denial, to differentiation. But when Donald Trump was caught making lewd comments about women in a 2005 hot mic gaffe, his apologia took a terrorism-centered turn.

Trump immediately released an apologia video to Youtube which started out using the “transcendental” strategy to make a more general statement about his character. Although he made a small confession of his transgressions, he focused on touting the fact that in the ten years since the video, he had changed, he had met Americans who wanted change, and that he was willing to continue to change the country. Overall, the transcendental strategy seemed like a presidential way to  move away from the scandal.

But in the second presidential debate,Trump’s apologia strategy shifted to talk more about ISIS, and less about a miraculous change of character. When asked about his lewd remarks, Trump made a feeble attempt to justify his behavior as “locker room talk.” But the bulk of his answer centered around ISIS:

“You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have them, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over and you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything likes this….I will knock the hell out of ISIS. We need to get on to much more important and bigger things.”

Trump used the issue of terrorism and of ISIS as a method to change the public narrative. But this apologia strategy was misguided and unsatisfying. Instead of using a simple confession strategy, or attempting to blame the media through a differentiation strategy, he attempted to distract from his own misdeeds by delivering an impassioned oration about the Islamic State.

Simply trying to strong-arm the conversation to a completely unrelated issue does little to heal broken public trust, and seems to ignore the justification and explanation aspects of an effective apologia. During an apologia, the speaker should focus on making a statement of his changed character and of his other positive attributes.But dismissing the scandal and instead attempting to incite anger over terrorism is a strategy that misses the mark, at least given the standards for effective apologia discussed by Trent and Friedenburg.

In the future, Trump should leave terrorism out of his apologies and stick to the ages-old “changed man” narrative.

Fear Tactics in Campaign 2016

The central argument of David Westen’s The Political Brain is that humans are fundamentally motivated more by emotional appeals than logical appeals. To this end, Westen offers a slew of examples, such as Bill Clinton’s shining moment in a 1992 presidential town hall debate (and George H. W. Bush’s relatively patrician demeanor). Moreover, Westen argues that fear is the most powerful motivator, offering the 1964 Johnson Daisy Ad as proof of the effectiveness of negative advertising.

As Westen puts it, fear is a primal emotion found in the amygdala. And as an emotion associated with the “older” and more primitive brain, fear is one of the easiest emotions to trigger.

Challengers have been using fear tactics for generations of political campaigns; most often, they associate the incumbent with crime, uncertainty, and terror- from Reagan’s “Bear” ad to Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad. Donald Trump, in particular, focuses his campaign on negative and fear based advertisement. From social change to foreign influence, Trump has encouraged fear on a variety of issues, although on none more so than the issue of terrorism. According to the Atlantic:

“Data provided by the Public Religion Research Institute [showed that] 65 percent of Trump supporters feared being victims of terrorism, versus 51 percent of all Americans. Three-fourths of Trump supporters feared being victims of crime, versus 63 percent overall. “

Trump’s use of fear has clearly made its dent on a significant portion of the GOP. And for Trump, who portrays himself as the antitheses to uncertainty and terror, fear is an extremely useful tool. But in recent months, Hillary Clinton has joined the fear mongering ranks by pushing the “unstable Trump” narrative, asking audiences “Would you want him to have the nuclear codes?”

Unfortunately for Clinton, Trump has the monopoly on fear in this election. Although her point about an unstable, dangerous Trump is valid, Trump’s accusations speak to a more fundamental fear that is less distant and far more relevant: fear of terrorists, fear of dying, and fear for safety. Terrorism is Trump’s bread and butter, because he can use this issue to legitimize deeply fundamental human fears for life which resonate far more than a distant fear of having an unstable leader.

Fear is among the most affective and potent human emotions; Trump is smart to tie threats to human life, threats to safety, and threats of terrorism to Hillary Clinton.



Former American TV Host Snags Hot New Gig as ISIS Star

gettyimages-169085672-1024x683During the second presidential debate, Hillary Clinton repeated the accusation that Donald Trump’s rhetoric has been used as a recruitment tool for the Islamic State, or ISIS. Trump has previously denied this allegation, but proof emerged earlier this year (see evidence here and here) that the GOP presidential pick has, indeed, been featured in terrorist recruitment videos.


Trump’s Rise to the Spotlight

Trump notoriously speaks about terrorism in an Islamophobic and divisive manner, often attributing the problem of terrorism not to fringe radicals, but to the Islamic religion:

“I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers and that’s right… Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States…”

And while Trump’s rhetoric might excite his primary audience of the American voters, he does not seem to be considering the effects of his remarks on a secondary audience: Muslims overseas and in the States.  Indeed, worlds over, Trump’s words inspire a different, more important group: ISIS.

PR Boost of the Century

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, which conducted interviews with ISIS supporters and recent defectors,

“Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric plays into ISIS’ narrative of a bipolar world in which the West is at war with Islam.  ISIS hopes that Trump will radicalize Muslims in the United States and Europe.”

ISIS’ stated goal is to “eliminate the grey zone,” or the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world. To achieve this goal, ISIS must substantiate its claims that the West fundamentally hates Islam.

Validating that narrative is not difficult when a leading contender for United States president advocates for taking out Muslims’ families and spying on Muslims in mosques. Trump’s secondary audience (ISIS) can use his words in ways he never intended.

The Importance of Audiences

From the analytic model of speaker-message-audience, GOP candidate Trump is attempting to deliver a message of strength to his conservative audience. But for an entirely group, GOP candidate Trump is delivering a hate-filled message of “them-versus-us” to ISIS and many Muslims across the world.

A Trump presidency, sure to be filled with more vitriolic rhetoric, would make it easier for ISIS to justify its anti-American, Anti-West narrative. And while at least some of the American electorate is happy to cheer at the mention of torturing terrorists, Trump should consider the effect of his words on his secondary audiences.





The Enthymeme that Sparked a Hashtag

Although last Sunday’s presidential debate was intended to be an open discussion about the concerns of all American citizens, one faction was clearly disillusioned by the discourse: Muslim-Americans. By the time Donald Trump had finished his response to a question regarding Islamophobia, Muslims had immediately taken to Twitter to express their disgust with the answer.

Disembarking the Trump Trainamerican-muslims-are-reporting-everything-to-donald-trump

After being asked how he would combat Islamophobia, Donald Trump began by saying that Muslims needed to report “hatred” from other Muslim-Americans to prevent attacks like the one in San Bernadino. His enthymeme betrayed a clearly Islamophobic implication: even if Muslims themselves do not commit terrorist attacks, they are still to blame for terrorism because they know about terrorist plots and do not report suspicious activity.

This accusation is of course false, but it served to galvanize and humor the GOP base, which was Trump’s primary goal for the evening after he began losing republican support following his sexist comments to Billy Bush. Utilizing demagogic speech and painting all Muslims as terrorists allows Trump to claim that America has been losing, that it has been unsafe, and that it deserves change. Indeed, Trump has made this implication before and will likely continue with his demagogic challenger strategy in the future.

This typical challenger strategy was followed up with another challenger go-to. Trump finished his answer by going on the offensive and associating Obama’s performance in the area of counter-terrorism with Hillary Clinton, making the implication that another 4 years under Clinton will be another 4 years of failed policy and refusal to face the enemy. In this way, Trump attempted to position himself as the agent for change, though he clearly lacked the optimism typically associated with challenger campaign strategy.


Unfortunately for Trump, Muslim-Americans caught onto Trump’s enthymeme almost immediately. Many were frustrated that both candidates spoke about Muslims only in relation to foreign policy, while others ridiculed the notion that Muslims never report terrorism by starting the tongue-in-check hashtag, “Muslims Report Stuff.”

Ultimately, Trump’s statements alienated Muslims. But given his goal of strengthening his his own base in a time of desperation, he will likely continue to attack the integrity of Muslim-Americans in order to galvanize his own supporters and discourage them from leaving his camp in favor of the “weaker” and “less capable” Hillary Clinton.


What’s the Magic Word?

President Obama made headlines last week by speaking at a CNN Presidential Town Hall. The President was confronted by Gold Star mother Tina Houchins, who asked him why he refused to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe terrorist attacks against the United States in recent months.  President Obama again opted to defend his deliberate choice of words, drawing a contrast between himself and certain “people aspiring to become president.”

One can only speculate as to which of the candidates Obama might have been referring to.

The President’s refusal to use the phrase “Islamic terrorism”  has become a source of outrage for many republicans, who claim that a refusal to “name the enemy” betrays Obama’s lack of  dedication to the fight against terrorism, and moreover displays his blindness to the relationship between terrorism and Islamic religion. Democrats counter by claiming that use of the phrase needlessly associates terrorism with all Muslims, an action which they say exacerbates Islamophobia and distrust in the United States.

Why do the Words Matter?

As David Zarefksy points out, the president is in a unique position to define one of the greatest threats facing America today. As Zarefsky puts it, “The president, by defining a situation, might be able to shape the context in which events…are viewed by the public.”

Indeed, the Obama argument against using the phrase is strong enough that it was the same strategy utilized by George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Defining terrorism as a specifically “Islamic” problem would shatter any effort at peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the rest of the world- a practice that could encourage individual radicalization and discourage international cooperation.

Obama chooses to disassociate “Islam” from “terrorism” and to define our understanding of the problem: Islam is not to blame for terrorism.

The Election to Define Terror

Come January, a new president will have the power to determine the relationship between the United States and Islam. Donald Trump, for his part, has already vociferously criticized the Obama administration for its refusal to use the phrase, while Hillary Clinton has only partially fallen in line with the Obama tactic (albeit with reluctance).

The next president will need to weigh carefully the effects of his or her rhetoric on the rest of the world, and  decide whether or not irrevocably associating “Islam” with “terrorism” is a wise move. As the threat of terrorism increases, so too will the importance of its definition.