Much has been made about the moment when a man in a Trump t-shirt stood at a New Hampshire event Thursday to ask the GOP’s leading presidential candidate a question.
What followed were a series of remarkable statements made loudly and clearly into a microphone. America has a problem: Muslims. President Obama is a Muslim. There are terrorist training camps operating inside the United States. When are we going to do something about that?
Trump’s response — rapid and relatively casual — amounted to this: People are saying that. We’re going to look into that.
Trump’s campaign has offered what appears to be quickly becoming one of The Donald’s preferred defenses: Trump heard only part of the question — specifically, the “terrorist training camps” part. So, his response was limited in its meaning only to that.
Inside Trump campaign headquarters, that might sound like a reasonable response. This is, after all, the campaign that began with a speech in which Trump declared undocumented people coming across the U.S.-Mexico border to be rapists and criminals. It is the campaign that surged rather than faltered after Trump disparaged Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and prisoners of war everywhere. This is a campaign in which the candidate joined another in declaring that Asians are the source of America’s alleged “anchor baby” problem. And this is the most-talked-about politician in America after he doubled down on all of the above.
But, understand this: When a businessman-turned-entertainer finances an extended effort to prove that the president of the United States is not American-born, U.S. citizen and is therefore constitutionally ineligible for his job — and when those claims are regurgitated uncritically and to the contradiction of all documentary evidence by television networks, blogs and professional bloviators — that question asked at Trump’s New Hampshire rally is precisely what you can expect to get.
We live in the kind of truly interesting times that are the stuff of a purported Chinese curse. This is an era in which conspiracy theories can thrive with ease, thanks to the Internet. This is a time in which rumors can become hard to distinguish from reported news — especially if one has spent enough time hearing about the bias and dishonesty of the “mainstream media.” These are the conditions under which inchoate, counterfactual and irrational fears become what millions of Americans (and counting) consider to be a part of their politics — or at least the plain and unpopular “truth.”
These are the conditions in which 54 percent of Trump supporters and some 43 percent of Republicans believe that Obama is a Muslim. Those numbers weren’t conjured; they come from a CNN-ORC poll out this week.
Yes, Trump said that “people are saying that.” One of the folks saying such things the loudest and the most frequently has, for some years now, been Donald Trump. Now that he’s running for president, Trump has managed to give his most outlandish ideas and theories the imprimatur of hard-charging, politically incorrect but legitimate presidential politics. That’s quite a feat.
Trump, of course, isn’t the first to harness some of the ugliest parts of American culture for political gain. But he does appear to be one of the very best at it.
People have a right to hold a variety of political and policy opinions. They have a right to believe that different paths will behoove the country and even to point to different issues as the nation’s primary problems. These certainly rank among the very reasons that people must run for president in this country, why polls are taken and why elections exist. But when lies, innuendo and actual hate speech — and make no mistake: advocating the removal of a religious group or even suggesting that you might be willing to look at that is almost unarguably that — something for sure is amiss.
One organization that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and undocumented immigrants has gone so far as to start mapping the many places that it believes Trump has taken his presidential campaign and fomented a brand of hate that makes harassment and even violence likely. That’s its theory.
This is mine: The misinformation campaign around Obama, his place of birth, his citizenship, his loyalties, his faith and the crimes and threats to national security that Obama is supposedly therefore unwilling to tamp out — it all began years ago. Donald Trump has been one of its leading voices, and no part of that question at his New Hampshire event — heard or unheard — should have come as a true surprise.
And despite it all, we engage in another meaningless exercise in mass outrage — that will likely lead to another bump in the polls for Trump.