As her audience giggled in delight, she noted that there was no worry because her Muslim colleague didn't have a backpack — in other words, no bomb. The story wasn’t true — it never happened. But what was true was that she was playing to an audience that was primed to believe her.
The news coverage lasted a few days and then drifted off into the ether. The congresswoman in question is part of a new breed of Republican members cut from the same cloth as Donald Trump. They are confrontational, creating outrage to generate attention and money, and bigots who, because they pay no price for their bigotry, continue on their merry way.
A toxic disease of bigotry has taken hold in the GOP polity. It didn't start with this congresswoman or with the former president. The anti-Muslim remarks and policies they serve up are merely the fruit of a poisonous tree that was planted and carefully cultivated by some in the GOP for decades.
This wasn't always the case. During the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, the White House was respectful in its outreach to the still-new American Muslim community. It wasn't the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 that brought on the change; it was the way anti-Muslim ideologues used 9/11 to foment fear and hatred that made the difference. Specifically, it was the ascendancy of neoconservatives and the Christian right in the Republican party that was largely responsible for the change.
Recall how after 9/11 while President George W. Bush was warning Americans not to target Arabs and Muslims, both his attorney general and neocon ideologues were doing just that. Even some of the networks, not just Fox News, were complicit. When Americans were asking the question "Why did they attack us?" the networks too often gave a platform to well established anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bigots to provide the answers — some were even paid commentators.
At first the impact was limited. Throughout the 1990s, and as late as mid-2003, polling showed that American attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims were still favorable — among both Democrats and Republicans. There was a steady erosion during the next few years.
It was the ascent of Barack Obama that decisively turned the tide. Racism and anti-Muslim bigoty came together in an all-out campaign to "other" Obama. "He wasn't born here." "He's not like us." "He's a secret Muslim who hates America." All were propagated by a well-funded, well-organized campaign. Many will remember how Senator John McCain, who ran for president against Obama, was forced to confront a supporter who challenged him at a 2008 rally by saying that she couldn't support Obama because "He's an Arab." Attacking America’s first Black president with conventional racism was less desirable then, so it was more acceptable to focus on his fabricated Muslim identity or Arab heritage.
It continued. In 2009, Republican Congresswoman Sue Myrick wrote the introduction to the "Muslim Mafia," a bigoted assault on American Muslim staffers on the Hill. Then, in 2010, former GOP Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich preyed on the growing anti-Muslim sentiment, charging that plans to build an Islamic Community Center blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center was a thinly disguised Muslim effort to build a "Victory Mosque" celebrating "their conquest of America." The National Republican Congressional Committee ran TV ads opposing this so-called "Victory Mosque in NYC" in 17 congressional races.
By 2012 the hysteria within the GOP had grown to such an extent that during a Republican presidential primary debate almost every candidate on stage pledged either never to appoint a Muslim or to make Muslims take a special loyalty oath before appointing them. Only the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, disagreed.
The campaign continued. In 2012 Representative Michele Bachmann drew headlines charging that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin was a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. And then with the ascent of Donald Trump, the campaign reached its peak with his pledge to ban immigration of Muslims, warning that "there's something going on with them."
So, when, a month ago, the Republican congresswoman was telling her fictional elevator story, she knew she was playing to an audience who had been primed to understand it.
Recent polling shows a deep partisan divide on attitudes toward Arabs and Muslims. Republicans have overwhelmingly unfavorable views of both, while Democrats, possibly in reaction to the policies of Trump, have far more favorable views.
Considering this background, it's important to recognize that the problem is deeper than one congresswoman or one president. It has become organic to the GOP. They created this bigotry and weaponized it for electoral advantage. It's their cancer, and they must root it out.
It's also important to note the extent to which Democrats have been timid in response. They haven't attacked it and stigmatized it with the same vigor they use to combat bigotry against Blacks, Jews, Latinos, Asians, or the gay community. And Democratic leaders, including former President Obama, have played into this "othering" of Muslims by securitizing their relationship with that community — too often viewing them through the lens of national security, instead of dealing with Muslims as simply citizens, neighbors, and friends.
Finally, Democrats must acknowledge their responsibility for this “othering” and end their fear of engaging with Arabs or Muslims who raise legitimate criticism of Israel. When
Democratic leaders demonize these voices as anti-Semitic or accept the GOP's effort to challenge their fitness to serve in government to avoid the fallout of engagement, Democrats allow the bigotry to continue.
This is a battle that can be won. But it will only be won if it is confronted head on in both parties.