HOW WE GOT FROM THERE TO HERE…. Those who were politically engaged in 2001 no doubt recall that, not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, some ugly, nativist impulses came to the fore. And while I’ll concede that opinions may vary on the point, I’m inclined to believe the American mainstream resisted the worst temptations, and the social fabric remained intact.

But as recent developments suggest, we may be sliding backwards. I found this recent column Jon Meacham pretty compelling.

The controversy in New York has helped create something America largely avoided in the aftermath of September 11: a climate of anti-Muslim hatred. My liberal friends think I am wrong about the seemingly distant autumn of 2001, arguing that the country turned nativist then. I disagree: to me, the remarkable thing about the aftermath of the 2001 attacks was the muted reaction to Islam itself from the broad whole of the nation. Certainly there were exceptions, but when you think of how much worse the anti-Muslim backlash could have been in the emotion of that hour, the country comes out quite well.

Now, as New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has pointed out, the lower-Manhattan fight has become fodder for the midterm elections and for the larger politics of opposition to President Obama. What America rightly resisted in the autumn of 2001 is threatening to subsume the autumn of 2010. History offers some guidance. In 1957, President and Mrs. Eisenhower attended the opening of the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington. (They doffed their shoes; the first lady padded about in her nylons.) “And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends,” the president said, “that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.”

How did we get to this point? There is a school of thought that suggests the Park51 plan was a spark that started a fire — the anger and bitterness was widely muted for years, but the notion of converting a closed clothing store into a community center was just too much for hair-trigger conservatives to take.

I don’t buy it. When the New York Times first reported on the proposed building in early December, there was literally no political, social, or religious reaction — no one cared. A few weeks later, Laura Ingraham, co-hosting Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News program, interviewed Feisal Abdul Rauf’s wife on the air. “I like what you’re trying to do,” Ingraham said. Everyone was all smiles. There was no “controversy.”

If Park51wasn’t responsible for exacerbating tensions, how did we get from there to here? It’s probably not one thing, but rather, a variety of circumstances working together. During trying economic times, for example, vulnerable, anxiety-ridden people are more easily manipulated by demagogues, playing on fears and divisions.

Just as important, during the Bush/Cheney era, Republicans had less of an incentive to inflame these passions. In 2010, however, the GOP and the conservative movement in general see an electoral benefit in pitting Americans against each other, and they’re not letting the opportunity go to waste.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.