Donald Trump has been making increasingly extreme remarks targeting minority groups since the start of his 2016 campaign, so it was disturbing but not really surprising when his campaign announced on Monday afternoon that he's in favor of a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," including U.S. citizens. While experts agree that Trump's proposal violates all kinds of U.S. and international laws, taking another step toward fascism makes sense for his campaign because, as Vox notes, his supporters like that he'll say what no one else will, and headline-making controversies make his poll numbers go up.
But there's a more immediate reason that Trump decided it was time to take his Islamophobia to the next level. A few hours earlier, a Monmouth University poll showed Ted Cruz taking first place in Iowa with 24 percent, and Trump in second with 19 percent. The survey was big news for Cruz, who's been gaining momentum in the state — though a new CNN poll has Cruz in second, trailing Trump by 13 points in Iowa.
Trump was clearly anxious about this development, because he highlighted the CNN poll in a speech on Monday night, and tweeted about it repeatedly:
I am especially grateful for the tremendous support I have received from the Evangelicals in the just out Iowa CNN poll. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2015
Some journalists speculated that Trump's anti-Muslim statement was about shifting the conversation away from Cruz's Iowa lead:
" and I think he actually believes it." 2/2— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) December 7, 2015
(Megyn Kelly and Fox News's Chris Stirewalt seemed to suggest Trump was actually trying to distract America from critiquing Obama's latest ISIS address, but they didn't fully articulate their "secret Democrat" theory.)
Sure enough, Monday night's conversation was entirely dominated by Trump, not the Cruz campaign's success in Iowa. But Trump didn't just steal the Texas senator's headlines — he unwittingly highlighted his refusal to take a stand against even the most blatantly un-American sentiments. Many of Trump's GOP rivals were quick to denounce him, though some have been dabbling in Islamophobia themselves:
Donald Trump is unhinged. His "policy" proposals are not serious.— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) December 7, 2015
I disagree with Donald Trump's latest proposal. His habit of making offensive and outlandish statements will not bring Americans together.— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 8, 2015
.@Realdonaldtrump has gone from making absurd comments to being downright dangerous with his bombastic rhetoric.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 7, 2015
Every candidate for president needs to do the right thing & condemn @Realdonaldtrump's statement.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) December 7, 2015
Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson didn't issue very forceful condemnations of Trump's remarks, but Cruz was the only candidate Graham called out by name. "Donald Trump today took xenophobia and religious bigotry to a new level," he told The Guardian. "It is time for Ted Cruz to quit hiding in the weeds and speak out against Donald Trump’s xenophobia and racial bigotry."
While campaigning in South Carolina on Monday night, Cruz was asked if he supports banning Muslims from entering the U.S. "No, that is not my policy," he said. "I believe the focus should focus on radical Islamic terrorism. And we need to be directly focused on threats to the United States. We need a commander-in-chief that perceives what the threat is and then targets all of our resources to protecting this nation against radical Islamic terrorists."
When asked if he's concerned about the rhetoric some Republicans are using against Muslim Americans, Cruz still refused to go after the man working to counteract his Iowa momentum. "I don't believe most Americans are using language against Muslim Americans," Cruz said. "We're using language against radical Islamic terrorists."
So Trump can steal the news cycle and provoke other candidates into lashing out at Cruz, but the Texas senator still won't hit him back. For a guy who just dared the leader of the free world to "insult me to my face," Cruz is showing impressive restraint.