As the Trump impeachment inquiry accelerates, the president has revealed that he plans to release unspecified information about Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. Vindman, a Jewish immigrant whose family fled the Soviet Union when he was 3, testified in the impeachment inquiry about his concerns over the president’s behavior toward Ukraine; this testimony in turn led a number of Trump defenders to accuse Vindman of being un-American and a possible spy for Ukraine.
To those insinuating dual loyalty, it matters little that Vindman is a Purple Heart recipient who still has shrapnel inside his body from when he was wounded in the Iraq war. The lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army is also an adviser to the president on important national-security matters. But his testimony is inconvenient, and so Trump’s defenders have handily dismissed his service to our country.
The allegations against Vindman are not just steeped in xenophobia but also reflect the common anti-Semitic trope of the disloyal Jew. Anti-Semites stoke paranoia and fear about Jews by accusing them of secretly plotting against the countries they live in. The smear helped the Nazis demonize Jews as enemies of Germany. Here in the U.S., similar accusations have been leveled not just against Jews but also Catholics and, in today’s political climate, increasingly against Muslims, too.
In 19th-century America, nativists resented the new influx of Catholic immigrants. The anti-Catholic animosity was so strong that, on more than one occasion, it resulted in mass violence, with mobs ransacking Catholic homes, smashing windows and breaking furniture. American nativists depicted the Catholic Church as a foreign entity with monarchical tendencies, portraying the church as incompatible with American democracy and calling into question the loyalty of Catholic citizens. The claims resurfaced as recently as John F. Kennedy’s run for the presidency in 1960, when prominent Americans said that Kennedy’s winning the White House would allow the Vatican to exert nefarious political influence.
Such fears are part of what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls “denationalization” — the process by which “you take people who are your neighbors and you define them not primarily as your neighbors and fellow citizens but primarily with some larger world community, all of whose members hold the same views.” Today, Muslims are the ones denationalized, in some of our laws and in our public perception of Muslims’ rights.
A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that almost half of all U.S. adults believe that “some” American Muslims are anti-American; this number includes 11% who think “most” or “almost all” American Muslims are anti-American. When Muslims are seen as disloyal to the U.S., it’s easier to strip them of their rights. An August 2017 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that almost 1 in 5 Americans believe that, under the U.S. Constitution, American Muslims do not have the same rights as other American citizens. Which rights might they be thinking of? A 2015 poll by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Americans favor protecting religious liberty for Christians over other faith groups, ranking Muslims as the least deserving of this right.
And it’s not merely public opinion that Muslims should be afforded fewer rights; there’s plenty of legal and policy advocacy, too. For example, it has become routine for Muslims to face fierce local opposition every time they set out to build a mosque. In one case in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the opposition even brought a case challenging a county approval of building plans for a mosque. In court, the opposition went so far as to argue that Islam is not a religion but rather a “geopolitical system bent on instituting jihadist and sharia law in America.” Because Islam is not a religion, the argument went, the mosque construction plans did not get to benefit from any of the county or federal laws that protect religious organizations.
The argument that Islam is not a religion also undergirds efforts to prevent Muslim religious arbitration. Proponents call these measures “anti-sharia bills.” Since 2010, 201 such bills have been introduced in 43 states. In 2017 alone, 14 states introduced a bill, with Texas and Arkansas enacting the legislation. Idaho introduced a bill in 2018.
As most legal scholars will point out, the proposed laws do nothing to strengthen U.S. protections — they don’t protect against any real abuses or solve any problems. (In fact, they have weakened protections for vulnerable individuals.) But as the original architect of these bills has explained, that’s not the point; what matters instead is that the bills stoke fear and hatred of Muslims.
And that’s always the point with disloyalty smears. With Vindman, it is being used to destroy his credibility. With Catholics, Jews and Muslims, the smear questions their dignity and helps pave the way for the stripping of their constitutional rights.