Remember when John Kerry was permanently labeled a “flip-flopper” thanks to a smart Bush team and an enabling press, who, with few exceptions, loved the label, adopted it, and breathlessly discussed it? It was fine to discuss his positions and character, of course, but any normal political act was instantly labeled another “flip-flop” by a press almost sexually enamored of a swaggering war President.
That’s normally how things work. Labels get stuck because the press is lazy and people easily accept quick caricatures in place of actual characterization. Bush was dumb (instead of arrogantly incurious), Gore was boring and a liar (instead of neither), McCain was grouchy (true!), Obama was aloof and arrogant (kind of true), etc. That’s the way it usually works.
That’s why one of the more genuinely frightening things about this election is that it has revealed, once and for all, the power of pure thuggishness in the face of any rationality. It’s why no labels have really stuck on Donald Trump. The rage he channels is enough to flatten the incredible contradictions, reversals, and sheer ignorance that underpins his campaign, like a boiling river leveling a hapless and god-beseeching floodplain town. His position on terrorism, or rather “terrorism”, makes this clear.
Yesterday, on the (shudder) Brian Kilmeade radio show “Kilmeade and Friends” (the plural is somehow sic), Trump was talking about the comments of the newly-elected London mayor, Siddiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of any major Western city. Trump, of course, has threatened to ban any Muslims, but said graciously of Khan that he could be an exception. Khan replied “This isn’t just about me – it’s about my friends, my family and everyone who comes from a background similar to mine, anywhere in the world.”, adding “Donald Trump’s ignorant view of Islam could make both our countries less safe – it risks alienating mainstream Muslims around the world and plays into the hands of the extremists. Donald Trump and those around him think that western liberal values are incompatible with mainstream Islam – London has proved him wrong.”
This seems pretty rational. Pretty unremarkable, really. And certainly not dismissive of terrorism, but rather dismissive of the role that bluster plays in defeating it (hint: zero). Trump, raring up to his full height of ignorance, told Kilmeade:
Well, I assume he denies that there’s Islamic terrorism. If you look at this radical Islamic terrorism all over the world right now, it’s a disaster what’s going on. I assume he’s denying that. I assume he’s like our President that’s denying it’s taking place.
What’s interesting here is how, through sheer incompetent bravado, Trump has once again managed to shift the window. At first, it was just through sheer obsequious pusillanimity that President Obama refused to label terrorism “Islamic”, because if he said it five times fast it would go away. Now, they deny that it ever actually happens. It got really good after Kilmeade asked him about the ban.
It’s a temporary ban. It hasn’t been called for yet. Nobody’s done it. This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on. But we have radical Islamic terrorism all over the world. You can start at the World Trade Center, frankly, you can go to Paris, you can go to San Bernardino, all over the world. If they want to deny it, they can deny it. I don’t choose to deny it.
This has all the hallmarks of a clown who has literally zero idea what he’s talking about. First off is the use of “frankly”. Trump uses “frankly” almost as much as Newt Gingrich, for whom it was a favorite word. Gingrich would say it when he was about to lie. Trump uses it to make the obvious sound like a deep thought, something he’s telling you because he’s such a straight shooter. “Frankly, there was terrorism at the World Trade Center. Also Paris. Bet you didn’t read anything about that in the press!”
The second part is saying “I don’t choose to deny it” as if anyone really does. Listen, if there happen to be any Republican reading this (in which case, hello!): no one denies there is Islamic terrorism. Some people think that labeling it as such is unhelpful and divisive, a choice I (frankly) think is almost as silly as the idea that if you call it Islamic that somehow weakens it. This is just bluster and nonsense, and another sign of how Trump has managed to once again change the terms of the debate, through 100% dishonesty.
The third is how he is now sort of backtracking on his plan. It’s just a “suggestion”, but no one has proposed it. I’m not really sure that Trump understands what calling for a policy during a Presidential campaign means. I mean that literally: I don’t think he understands how anything works. This is terrifying and maddening, and in a just world, the combination of sheer unprincipled improvisation and dangerous ignorance would be enough to sink him.
It’s not though, because the brute force of his somehow-to-some attractive personality overrides it. But while I think there will always be a strong rearguard of support, especially in certain intractable pockets, there will start to be some attrition as the campaign wears on, just through repetition and his ability to lie. When you think everything you say is true, you’ll say anything. Once we get beyond the primary, and he’s faced with people who don’t love him for his Mexican-bashing and who aren’t paid to agree with him, I think it’ll fade. I don’t expect “racist” or “demagogic” to have an impact on his voters, but maybe “unprincipled on any position” would work?
For proof positive of how the Trump campaign doesn’t work, and how his brain refuses to learn anything, this is the primary sentence. “This is just a suggestion until we find out what’s going on.” He’s been using that “until we find out what’s going on” for months. It was even made into a campaign ad. It’s literally amazing. Donald: it’s terrorism. That’s what’s going on. It’s super complex, but there are people who have been studying it for decades. Some have even written books, or published articles in journals. It’s something you can find out about.
I honestly think Donald Trump believes that “we’ll figure out what’s going on with this terrorism thing after the election.” He actually thinks that it’s a detail to be worked out later. He’ll just be elected, and will send out his guys to get to the bottom of it for once and for all. That’s his policy. But he’s a leader, so, you know, they’ll work hard. Maybe they’ll even work in shifts.