WASHINGTON – We have a problem in this country – it’s called Donald Trump and Ben Carson. But fortunately we have a solution – it’s called voters.
Last Thursday, Trump, still the leader in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, didn’t quarrel with a questioner at his rally who called President Barack Obama a Muslim, suggested there are terrorist training camps in America and said, “We have a problem in this country – it’s called Muslims.”
On Sunday, Ben Carson, also polling in the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls, said on “Meet the Press” that Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution. “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that,” Carson said.
Thus on Monday did Muslim American leaders find themselves once again in the role of denouncing the sort of language – and the accompanying rise in hate speech and crimes – that wouldn’t be tolerated in 21st-century America if directed at any other cultural group.
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His hand shaking, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, raised a blowup of Article VI of the Constitution stating that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.”
In front of 15 TV cameras crowding a small and overheating room at CAIR’s Capitol Hill office, Awad demanded that Carson “withdraw from the presidential race because he is unfit to lead.”
Other Muslim leaders went to the lectern to echo that sentiment, and Graylan Hagler, a Christian pastor, added a demand that Trump quit, too, “because he has continued to breed hatred and hostility.”
I share their outrage but disagree with their prescription. The answer to Trump and Carson is not to wish them to slink into silence. It’s for the voters to repudiate the bigotry. I have confidence in the electorate – even in the GOP primary electorate. Forty percent of Republican voters may be supporting Trump or Carson now, but most of them are not bigots – and ultimately they won’t endorse such intolerance.
To see how egregious the recent rhetoric has been, try substituting other groups:
“We have a problem in this country – it’s called blacks.”
“I would not advocate that we put a Jew in charge of this nation.”
The current bout with bigotry began with Trump’s talk about the Mexican government sending rapists across the border.
At another point he attacked Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and repeatedly mispronounced her name as “Ooma.” Conservative organizations such as Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy have helped to spin conspiracy theories involving Muslim Americans, including one linking Abedin to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Trump, who led the “birther” movement questioning Obama’s citizenship, still declines to accept that Obama was born in America. Asked again on CNN Sunday about the Muslim-problem question at his rally, Trump asked, “Are you trying to say we don’t have a problem?”
Carson, discussing the Trump controversy on Sunday, was asked whether he believes Islam is consistent with the Constitution. “No, I do not,” he answered.
There is undoubtedly a strain of bigotry in the conservative electorate to which this sort of thing appeals. And CAIR itself, one of a few hundred groups listed as unindicted co-conspirators several years ago in the Holy Land Foundation probe, figures prominently in conspiracy theories.
When the Muslim leaders at the CAIR news conference denounced the Trump and Carson remarks, Neil Munro, the writer who heckled Obama while working for the Daily Caller and who now works for the conservative Breitbart News, laughed and smirked. During the question time, Munro informed the Muslim leaders that there are parts about Islam “that Americans find pretty ghastly,” and he asserted that “none of you have defended Islam – it’s weird.”
CAIR official Ibrahim Hooper said the group consistently condemns terrorist groups and asked, “Who else in America has to defend their faith on a daily basis?”
But maybe the voters will defend American Muslims this time.
Mahdi Bray, director of the American Muslim Alliance, seemed to grasp this when he told the CAIR gathering that Carson’s candidacy is “done” – because “the people of America will not elect for their president of the United States someone who holds such bigoted and un-American views.”
I think he’s right. And that’s why, rather than seeing Trump and Carson quit the race, it would be better to see their intolerant views trounced at the polls.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.