Khutbah Friday 13 May 2016: The 2016 US Presidential Elections: Making Sense of the Trump Phenomenon by Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar

rashidIn the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Dispenser of Grace

6 Sha`ban 1437


On Saturday 7 May 2016, I returned home to South Africa from a four-month teaching semester in the United States of America. My lengthy sojourn in America has provided me with a useful opportunity to observe first hand the ferocious presidential contest currently taking place in that part of the world. In this khutbah I would like to share some of my thoughts on the 2016 US presidential elections. I argue that the brazen racism, the unabashed xenophobia and the rampant economic inequalities that we are presently witnessing in the US is not unique but rather a microcosm of the problems and malaise facing many parts of the world at this juncture in world history. Thus the moral challenge confronting each of us witnessing this abysmal global reality is to commit ourselves more resolutely to the struggle against the triple evils of racial oppression, xenophobia and economic exploitation.


Racist and Xenophobic Policies of Donald Trump

The 2016 US presidential election primaries have been acrimonious and have thus dominated the global news media since the beginning of the year. In particular, the controversial policies advocated by Mr. Donald Trump, such as building a wall along the US-Mexican border and imposing a temporary ban on all Muslims from entering the US, has bizarrely garnered him startling support among the Republican Party electorate. A personal twist to this spectacle is that if Donald Trump does in fact manage to win the US presidential elections and does indeed fulfill his electoral promises, it will mean that as a Muslim, I will be banned from entering America, and will therefore not be able to continue my annual teaching at the University of Notre Dame.


On 3 May 2016, three days before my departure from the US Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States after his victory in the State of Indiana, where I resided for the past four months. Political analysts and commentators from nooks and crannies all over the world have been stupefied and alarmed by Trump’s appeal and resonance with what appears to be large sections of the American electorate. One influential German newspaper, Der Spiegel, has provocatively titled their article about Trump’s prospects of becoming the 45th president of the US as follows: “Donald Trump is the World’s Most Dangerous Man.”(Der Spiegel, January 16, 2016). Others have likened Trump’s demagoguery and populist appeal in the US to that of Adolf Hitler’s German nationalism of the 1930’s, reminding us that Hitler came to power through democratic means. Across the globe people are intrigued to discover why Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic discourse is attracting such significant support amongst the American electorate.


Economic Inequalities


There is of course no single explanation to Trump’s appeal and a number of factors have come together to produce this toxic moment in American history. I agree with the view of a number of analysts, that one of the key factors is economics. The fact that Trump’s major support base is in the thick of White working class voters is no surprise. The American working class has bore the brunt of the 2008 global economic meltdown.


Therefore, it is not surprising that on the other side of the political spectrum, the democratic socialist policies of Bernie Sanders is also winning great support among the working class and unemployed younger voters. Sanders has highlighted the huge inequality in US society claiming that the top one percent own almost as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent of the American population. The current presidential election is thus acting like a trigger by bringing to the fore decades of economic marginalization of working class people in the US.


The irony is that Donald Trump represents the hardcore of that top one percent who own ninety percent of the wealth in the American economy. Why then are white working class people placing their hopes in a notorious billionaire like Donald Trump to liberate them from their abysmal economic plight?


Persistent Racism


The response to this question leads us to a second important reason for Trump’s electoral success; namely, that of racism. It is no secret that when economies are in decline and the unemployment rate increases, levels of xenophobia are generally high. Locals who struggle to find good jobs usually look to blame someone for their plight and foreign workers become easy scapegoats. In the case of the US, this general trend of the link between economic decline and xenophobic growth is exacerbated by the fact that America has a three-century old history of celebrating Whiteness, whose abiding legacy continues to bedevil its current politics. Emblematic of the persistence of racism in the US is the June 17, 2015, massacre of nine black worshippers inside a Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a White supremacist. Reportedly he proclaimed, while mowing down his African Americans victims, “You’re raping our women and taking over our country.”


Tragically, the Charleston massacre was not an aberration or an isolated incident but was preceded by a spate of high-profile police killings of unarmed Black youth suspected of criminal activity. This spawned mass protests against institutional racism, which culminated in the Black Lives Matter movement. The current, largely White, working class support for Donald Trump should be viewed against this backdrop of persistent racism in the US. It is no small wonder that David Duke, the current leader of the White supremacist Ku Klux Klan, has publically stated that not voting for Trump is treason to the Euro-American heritage of the US. (For the full text of David Duke’s remarks in support of Donald Trump see:


It also comes as no surprise that Donald Trump was one of the leading proponents of the conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the US. When Trump was eventually cornered and shown physical evidence of Obama’s birth certificate he changed his vitriol, by buttressing another conspiracy theory that perhaps Obama’s birth certificate indicated that he was Muslim. When he was subsequently confronted by these spurious theories as being indicative of a veiled form of racism, Trump in his idiosyncratic manner objected by claiming that “When it comes to racism and racists, I am the least racist person there is.”


Changing Demographic in the US


While the mainstream press in the US is equivocating about the racial appeal of Trump it is palpable that this is indeed one of the key factors driving the Trump electoral successes. In a fascinating new book titled “Brown is the New White” a leading civil rights lawyer, Steve Phillips, cogently argues that the current resurgence of racism in the US can be directly linked to the election of the first black president. (Steve Phillips, Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority, The New Press, 2016). Phillips powerfully makes his case when he states:


“Electing Barack Obama as president didn’t end racism and discrimination, far from it. In fact, if anything, it inflamed many people to see a Black “Kenyan”, “socialist,” and “Muslim” occupy the White House. And we don’t need to look any further than any given day’s news reports to see that racism and discrimination are alive and well.”


Notwithstanding, the negative image of US society being projected by Donald Trump’s remarkable successes in the recent Republican presidential primaries, Steve Phillips believes that the racist white electorate reaction has come too late. Using both quantitative as well as qualitative analyses Phillips illustrates that the explosive population growth of people of colour in the US over the last half-century has already shifted the demography so dramatically that it has laid the foundation for what he calls “A New American Majority.” Extrapolating from the voting patterns of the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential victories,  Phillips estimates the number of progressive people of colour at 23 percent and the number of progressive whites at 28 percent. These two groups made up 51 percent of all eligible voters in 2012, and that majority has grown larger since then.


With his overt xenophobic discourses against Mexicans, Muslims and other immigrants Donald Trump has been alienating people of colour, which has become a significant voting constituency in US elections. The only way that Trump can win the White House is if large numbers of the non-white voting constituency do not exercise their vote. Such a scenario, however, is unlikely, since Bernie Sanders has energized large numbers of this constituency alongside many young progressive white voters.


The challenge for the Democratic Party is to be able to transfer Sanders’s support base to Hillary Clinton, who is well on course to becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. The problem is that Clinton’s policies, especially her pro-Wall Street economic policies, hawkish foreign policy and uncritical support of the State of Israel, makes it difficult for Sanders supporters to switch allegiances.  In this regard it is instructive to note that large numbers of Muslim voters in the US are supporting Bernie Sanders knowing full well that he is Jewish, giving the lie to claims that Muslims are inherently anti-Semitic. (Muslims for Bernie Sanders by Hamid Dabashi, Al-Jazeera, 18 April 2016).


The Narcissism of Donald Trump


Last but not least, a close friend and colleague has prudently described Donald Trump to me as a narcissist par excellence. Trump’s biographer, Micheal D’Antonio confirms such a perspective when he writes in his book, Never Enough, that Trump himself confesses to avoid reflecting on himself “because I might not like what I see.” According to D`Antonio, Trump furthermore believes that he is a singular and superior human being and that “most people aren’t worthy of respect.” (Michael D`Antonio, Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, St. Martin’s Press, 2015).


The Trump phenomenon is a frightening and tragic reality currently playing itself out on the world stage. The lessons are sobering.

The narcissism and debasement of character represented in Donald Trump is not unique to him but lies within the base desires of the lower selves of each and everyone of us. It is known in Islamic parlance as nafs al-ammarah bis su’. It is no small wonder that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught us that the greater jihad is the killing of the ego. Moreover, the xenophobia and racism that we are currently witnessing in the US is not unique but rather a microcosm of the problems and malaise facing many parts of the world at this time.




The challenge confronting each one of us witnessing this tragic global reality is to commit ourselves even more to the struggle against racial oppression, chauvinistic nationalism, class exploitation and all forms of intolerance that continue to ravage our world. We should never underestimate the modest contributions we can all make as individuals in our daily social interactions, in our work spaces, our communities, our places of worship and our families.


I conclude with an inspirational quote from the Glorious Qur`an. Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice proclaims in surah al-Tin, chapter 95, verses 4-6:

لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ فِي أَحْسَنِ تَقْوِيمٍ

ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ

إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ فَلَهُمْ أَجْرٌ غَيْرُ مَمْنُونٍ


We have indeed created the human being in the best of moulds

(i.e. with great potential for self-growth),

Then We render him the lowest of the low,

Save those who believe

(not in a God that sanctions racial or class superiority),

and do righteous deeds

(including works of compassion and justice),

for them is a reward unending (Q95:4-6)

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