There has been much approval of the Khans’ speech at the Democratic convention and an equal — if not greater — amount of criticism has been directed at Trump’s response to it.
The criticism of Trump’s response has been as justified as his own response was ignorant, cruel, and inadequate. Writers have been quick to both guffaw at Trump’s understanding of sacrifice and rail against his lack of respect for the sacrifice of dead soldier’s family. The Khans have been held aloft as ideal Americans and the pocket Constitution has flown up the Amazon best sellers’ list. Nevertheless this event contains a worrying foreshadowing of the election that we will see fought until November.
The Democratic Party’s decision to respond to Trump’s manifestly unconstitutional and racist demands that Muslims be banned from the United States, required to inform on co-religionists, and that countries identified as having a history of terrorism, through an appeal to the “real” sacrifice of up-standing “Patriotic American Muslims” concedes much of Trump’s rhetoric and reifies the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim framework of recent American discourse.
In the midst of Trump’s racism and bigotry, he has made opposition to “the failed policy of nation building and regime change” an important position for his campaign. If it is possible to draw a redeeming feature from a campaign saturated in soft fascism, this would be it. Reviewing a decade and a half of contemporary American military intervention in the Middle East, Trump duly notes that it has done nothing to make America safer or the region more stable. It has also resulted in deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals and contributed to the greatest refugee crisis in the region in generations. Opposition to these policies animated Democratic opposition to George W. Bush’s Republican Administration and sustained a healthy, if more muted, skepticism of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
However, the sacrifice of Army Capt. Humayun Khan took place within the framework of such nation building and regime change. In using this moment of sacrifice as a mechanism for undermining Trump’s Islamophobia, the Democratic party is reversing a steady trend towards regarding the Iraq War as an abject failure of foreign policy that came at immense human cost. Instead Iraqis offered as a theater within which Muslim’s proved themselves to be as American as any other citizen. Raised to become an example of the best of America — the proof of the so-called melting pot — Iraq (and by extension the policies that led to it) become a glorious moment to celebrate. Of course the reality could not be more opposed; A path that led to Abu Ghraib is depicted instead as leading to the defeat of Donald Trump and fascism.
As a counter to Trump’s barely-coded discounting of Muslims as unAmerican, the invocation of Khan’s sacrifice seeks recode Muslims as American by defining American in terms of a willingness to participate in such nation building projects. Khan is shown to be as American as any other participant in the Military-Industrial Complex and its foreign adventures. There is no room here to be a good American by opposing the identify of foreign policy with the deployment of the U.S. Military or the creeping militarization of domestic policy. At the same time the praise for Capt. Khan subtly reaffirms the notion that there are loyal American Muslims willing to participant in the broadly defined “War on Terror” and suspect Muslims whose sympathies are questionable. Subsequent discussion of the responsibilities of American Muslims to “cooperate” in the policing of their own communities only adds to this tendency. If anything the discourse emergent from the Khans’ speech and its reception reaffirms the view that it is only possible to be an American in good standing and hold dissenting views if one is white.
The successful marshaling of a favorable media response to the Khans’ speech suggests that the Democratic party intends to deploy this line of attack on Trump through to November. It might prove effective in defeating Trump’s presidential campaign, but it will come at an expensive price. It will crush the only strand of coherent critique offered by the Trump campaign. It will revise the history of the Iraq War in ways that render its real lessons futile. It will offer Clintonian foreign intervention as a force for good at home as well as abroad. It will revive the view that the military is a progressive institution. It will reify the Islamophobia of the past decades and present the expectations of loyalty and self-policing which were perhaps in retreat as newly legitimate. It will restore a definition of ideal citizenship that rests on service in the institutions of the military and on participation in wars against terrorism. It may defeat Trump, but it will be at the cost of legitimizing a more insidious form of the very politics that many opponents of Trump believe that they fighting against. Trump may very lose while Trumpism wins.