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Eric Lewis says Donald Trump is giving credence to those who stigmatize America's Muslims

He says such rhetoric is hateful and dangerous

Editor’s Note: Eric Lewis, an attorney, is a partner with Lewis Baach PLLC in Washington and a Democrat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

CNN  — 

Donald Trump is brewing up a toxic nativist sludge in what was once the American melting pot.

On Thursday, in New Hampshire, Trump failed to object when an unidentified man offered this: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”

Sixty-six percent of Trump supporters believe President Obama is a Muslim, as do 54% of all Republican voters, according to Public Policy Polling. We are in a flat-Earth time, where many Republican presidential candidates don’t profess belief in evolution, as if Adam and Eve frolicked with the dinosaurs.

One could also say, “So what if people think the President is a Muslim? He is not; he is a practicing Christian, but the religion of our candidates is not a political issue.” Mahatma Gandhi famously said he was a Hindu and a Muslim and a Christian and a Buddhist and a Jew – but that was before he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain cut off a woman accusing Obama of being an Arab, with the well-meaning, albeit odd, statement, “No ma’am, he is a decent family man” (as if the two were incompatible). But Trump failed to squelch this ugly talk and then characteristically doubled down on Twitter, asking: “Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don’t think so!” In another tweet, he added: “Christians need support in our country (and around the world), their religious liberty is at stake! Obama has been horrible, I will be great.”

But of course it is not about defending Obama or defending Christians. It is the failure to recognize the religious dignity of all Americans, rather than pitting one group against another in a zero sum game.

On Sunday, Trump said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that some of his best friends are Muslims but that the World Trade Center bombings were not done by Swedes and that there is a problem with radical Muslims. Of course the mass shootings in Oslo were done by a Norwegian, and Oklahoma City and Charleston were done by white supremacists. Vilifying entire groups just exacerbates the problem while playing to the haters.

It is a hardy perennial in the history of American bigotry to accuse people of being secretly black or secretly Jewish – and now secretly Muslim. The exposure of this dark racial or religious secret is intended to reveal something shameful and discrediting. It is perhaps a sign of progress that Republicans don’t need to start a whispering campaign that Obama is black. Yet it is equally a sign of lack of progress that he is treated with such casual disrespect and disdain.

In the view of his extreme critics, this low-key, deeply spiritual African-American president is only posing as a Christian; he is secretly a Muslim, and by Muslim, they mean radical, by which they mean terrorist. It is a different sort of dog whistle to emphasize at once Obama’s “otherness” and the notion that Muslims are not truly American. As the Trump incident dramatized, this is a business with dangerous implications.

After Trump failed to stop the nativist rant, the speaker continued. “Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us,” the man, wearing a Trump T-shirt, said. “That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?”

“We’re going to be looking at a lot of different things,” Trump replied. “You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We’re going to be looking at that and many other things.”

There are an estimated 5 million to 7 million Muslims in the United States, the largest group of whom are African-Americans. It is the fastest-growing religious group. Overwhelmingly, the Muslims in the United States live here legally and are prosperous, peaceful and well-educated.

On Thursday night a bigot got up and called Muslims “a problem in this country,” and the leading Republican candidate said he is “looking at a lot of different things,” and no doubt will come up with a plan that he will describe as “terrific.”

If a presidential candidate responded in this way to a questioner asking about Jews, or gays or handicapped people, the response would, properly, be outrage. In many countries, it would be actionable as hate speech, including Germany, which is now taking 800,000 refugees from Syria and the Middle East rather than getting rid of Muslims. This has to stop.

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