WASHINGTON — Less than a year ago, Donald Trump jolted the American political system and shocked much of the world by proposing a temporary ban on all Muslim entry into the United States.
Fast forward to Monday night and the ban was all but absent from the debate between Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as the two candidates sparred over everything from the economy and taxes and racism to the Islamic State terror group and the Iran nuclear deal.
On December 7, 2015, when he first proposed the ban, Trump was just one contender in a crowded GOP field, with many predicting the comment could spell the end of his political run.
The proposal, which came shortly after an Islamic State attack in Paris, drew denunciation from Trump’s fellow Republicans; commentators predicted that such an ill-conceived and contentious proposition would sink him; and people from all over the political spectrum said the move disqualified him for the office of president.
It’s hard to imagine that eight months after Trump’s call for prohibiting Muslims from entering the country, the topic would not even be discussed in the first debate. But it wasn’t.
The fact that it didn’t even enter the debate in any significant way shows how far the Trump campaign has managed to turn the once-unspeakable into the so-mundane-it-doesn’t-need-to-be-spoken-about, altering the American political landscape even before voters go to the polls.
The only minor allusion to Trump’s rhetoric regarding the Muslim community came when Clinton was discussing foreign policy and the fight against global terror.
“We’re working with NATO, the longest military alliance in the history of the world, to really turn our attention to terrorism. We’re working with our friends in the Middle East, many of which, as you know, are Muslim-majority nations,” she said. “Donald has consistently insulted Muslims abroad, Muslims at home, when we need to be cooperating with Muslim nations and with the American Muslim community.”
Clinton’s counterpunch seemed to be directed toward Trump’s broader messaging relating to Muslims and not just the ban. He has also called for surveillance of mosques and the establishment of a database of all Muslims living in the US.
The two have also differed on using the term “radical Islamic terrorists” to describe Islamist extremists.
After Trump first put forward his idea for the ban, numerous officials warned that it endangered American safety and undermined its counterterrorism strategy.
President Obama’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the time: “The fact of the matter is ISIL wants to frame this as a war between the United States and Islam, and if we look like we’re applying religious tests to who comes into this country, we’re sending a message that essentially we’re embracing that frame.”
Indeed, several terrorist organizations, including Islamic State, began to use Trump’s words to recruit others to their cause. A video by the East African militant group Al Shabaab, for instance, showed a video of Trump’s speech and said of the US, “Tomorrow, it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.”
Obama himself responded to the pledge last June by calling the episode of a major party’s nominee seeking such a policy one of the most “shameful” moments in American history, citing the constitutional preclusion of religious tests.
“If we ever abandon those values,” Obama warned, “we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world, but we would have betrayed the very things we are trying to protect.”
“That’s not the America we want,” he added. “It doesn’t reflect our democratic ideals. It will make us less safe.”
As the campaign wore on, attention shifted from dismay over Trump’s plan to whether he was folding on it — after he altered his initial proposal by saying he wanted to screen and ban immigration entry for people from certain territories and not make it based on their religious identity.
He argued that he wasn’t “softening” his stance, but also tried to say that his campaign pledges are just suggestions because he is not the president.
“No, I’m not softening my stance at all, but I’m always flexible on issues,” he said on NBC’s “Today” program in May. “I am totally flexible on very, very many issues, and I think you have to be that way.”
“I’m not the president right now so anything I suggest is really a suggestion, and if I were president, I’d put in legislation and do what I have to do,” he added.
But even after that exchange, Trump repeated his call for the ban after the Orlando massacre — in which a Muslim man killed 50 in a gay nightclub — and said that American Muslims “know what’s going on,” suggesting they are complicit with radicalization in their communities.
Clinton responded with a blistering speech that such a proposition, along with Trump’s policy ideas, make him “temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified” to be president.
It was a theme she continued to hammer during the debate, but somehow his proposed ban never came up, even as candidates spent precious moments during the 90-minute showdown talking about tax returns, 400-pound hackers, paying back contractors and Miss Universe candidates.
There are still two debates to go, but with the conversation having shifted in a roller coaster of an election year, it’s no longer unfathomable that such a controversial proposal, one that could change America for generations if enacted, could go insufficiently interrogated from now until November 8.