The Only Possible Speeches

As Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report, it was a day of two quite different speeches:

Donald J. Trump left little doubt on Monday that he intends to run on the same proposals on immigration and terrorism that animated his primary campaign, using his first speech after the massacre in Orlando, Fla., to propose sweeping measures against Muslims that pay little heed to American traditions of pluralism.

Without distinguishing between mainstream Muslims and Islamist terrorists, Mr. Trump suggested that all Muslim immigrants posed potential threats to America’s security and called for a ban on migrants from any part of the world with “a proven history of terrorism” against the United States or its allies. He also insinuated that American Muslims were all but complicit in acts of domestic terrorism for failing to report attacks in advance, asserting without evidence that they had warnings of shootings like the one in Orlando.

It was vintage Trump, but Martin and Burns do point out this “represented an extraordinary break from the longstanding rhetorical norms of American presidential nominees” and “more closely resembled a European nationalist’s than a mainstream Republican’s” way to frame things, but that’s the bet Trump has made. The Republican base wanted that, the American public probably wants that too – tolerance and respect for religious diversity will get us killed, and everyone is out to kill us. That’s what this was about:

Mr. Trump, who drew criticism last fall, including a sharp rebuke from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, for first suggesting a constitutionally questionable ban on Muslim immigration, on Monday described Islamic extremism as a pervasive global menace that was penetrating the United States through unchecked immigration.

Citing the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 by two men with ties to Chechnya and instances of radicalization in Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community, Mr. Trump painted a bleak portrait of the country as under siege from within and abroad.

“They’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the Islamic State. “And we don’t know what’s happening.”

And every American Muslim is in on this:

He accused American Muslims of failing to “turn in the people who they know are bad,” effectively blaming other Muslims for the shooting in Orlando and the attack last year in San Bernardino, Calif., that was carried out by a married couple inspired by the Islamic State.

“They didn’t turn them in,” Mr. Trump said, “and we had death and destruction.”

It was powerful stuff, and much of it was nonsense:

He repeatedly stretched the facts, for example, in describing the United States as overrun by dangerous migrants. He claimed the country has an “immigration system which does not permit us to know who we let into our country,” brushing aside the entire customs and immigration enforcement infrastructure. And he asserted that there was a “tremendous flow” of Syrian refugees, when just 2,805 of them were admitted into the country from October to May, fewer than one-third of the 10,000 Syrians President Obama said the United States would accept this fiscal year.

Mr. Trump described the gunman in the Orlando shooting as “an Afghan,” though he was born an American citizen in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States over three decades ago.

Actually he was born in Queens, just like Donald Trump, but no matter:

Mr. Trump assailed the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, accusing her of favoring immigration policies that would invite a flood of potential jihadists to the United States, which he warned could be “a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan Horse ever was.”

He was on fire. She went the other way:

Mrs. Clinton, speaking in Cleveland earlier in the day, argued that engaging in “inflammatory, anti-Muslim rhetoric” made the country less safe. Delivering the sort of conventional speech that most presidential contenders would offer in the wake of tragedy, she did not mention Mr. Trump. But, while saying the “murder of innocent people breaks our hearts, tears at our sense of security and makes us furious,” she described proposals to ban Muslim immigration as offensive and counterproductive.

“America is strongest when we all believe we have a stake in our country and our future,” she said, calling to mind the bipartisan spirit that took hold after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when she was a senator from New York.

Mrs. Clinton has sought to present herself as the default choice of mainstream voters, including Republicans disturbed by Mr. Trump, and on Monday she stressed the importance of building relationships between law enforcement agencies and American Muslims.

“Our open, diverse society is an asset in the struggle against terrorism, not a liability,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Yawn. That’s merely true. That left the basic contrast:

As Mrs. Clinton reached for the mantle of statesmanship, Mr. Trump’s speech amounted to a rejection of the conventional wisdom that he must remake himself for the November election as a more sober figure and discard the volcanic tone and ethnic and racial provocation that marked his primary campaign.

That also left Republicans sputtering:

Some Republicans said Mr. Trump’s determination to play to his hardline base was undermining his standing as a general election candidate.

“He has to do what Reagan had to do. Reagan eventually had to make a sale that he was not a risk,” said Thomas M. Davis III, a former Republican congressman, recalling the 1980 election. “There is time, but the way he’s going about it now doesn’t do it at all. It keeps him in the hunt, but it doesn’t get him elected.”

John F. Lehman, a former Navy secretary and an adviser to John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, said he anticipated that Mr. Trump’s standing would improve after the Orlando attack. But he said Mr. Trump’s Muslim ban went “too far” and questioned whether he had made any effort to learn about national security.

Mr. Trump’s remarks may come as an acute disappointment to Republican leaders in Washington who have spent the days since he claimed the party’s nomination pleading with him to button down his campaign, only to see him intensify its racial tenor.

It is enough to convince senior Republicans that talk of an eventual pivot is folly – that he is unwilling or incapable of being reined in.

“Everybody says, ‘Look, he’s so civilized, he eats with a knife and fork,'” said Mike Murphy, a former top adviser to Jeb Bush. “And then an hour later, he takes the fork and stabs somebody in the eye with it.”

Mike Murphy has a way with words, but so does Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, who calls this the most terrifying speech of Trump’s campaign:

The fact that it was more of the same – demagoguery, fearmongering, outright lies – shouldn’t blind us to its disgusting content. Seemingly of the belief that simply saying “radical Islam” will win the war on terror (in this, at least, he doesn’t depart from the party he now leads), Trump mouthed the phrase many times Monday afternoon. But he also mouthed many other phrases, each one more disturbing than the next. He accused the president of consciously keeping law enforcement from doing its job; he scolded Hillary Clinton for saying Muslims were peaceful; he claimed he was right to call for a Muslim ban; he talked of huddling with the NRA to help prevent attacks…

Yeah, yeah, the list goes on and on, but there was this:

The lowest moment of the lowest speech in this very low campaign came near the end, when Trump, noting that Muslims must talk to authorities about their neighbors, said, “The Muslim community, so importantly, they have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. And they know it. And they have to do it forthwith.” It was all there: the “us” that doesn’t include Muslim-Americans, the not-so-vague menace behind the warning, the claim about what “they” know.

In the prepared version of the speech, Trump specifically mentioned prison time for people who refused to cooperate. But in the actual speech, he said this instead: “These people have to have consequences. Big consequences.”

This last-minute edit is the essence of Trumpism. Demagogues often leave things to the imaginations of both followers and victims. Therein lies both part of their appeal and their power to frighten.

Trump is good at that, as Ed Kilgore explains in Media Outlet Banned for Trying to Make Sense of Trump Remarks on Obama:

It’s not unprecedented for Donald Trump’s campaign to ban reporters or entire publications from coverage of his events or direct receipt of his propaganda. Usually this happens when said reporter or publication writes something negative about the candidate that displeases him or his people. But Team Trump did reach a new and hilarious low today by banning one of the Newspapers of Record for political affairs, the Washington Post, because the paper tried to make sense of rambling Trump remarks about President’s Obama’s reaction to the Orlando massacre.

Here’s what Trump said:

“Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind – you know, people can’t believe it,” the Post quoted Trump as saying on Fox News Monday morning. “People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”

Trump, who called on Obama to resign for not using the term “radical Islam” in his address to the nation Sunday, explained to Fox News, “He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands – it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”

What was Trump talking about? Kilgore explains the Post’s dilemma:

Speaking of an either/or proposition, Trump’s remarks were either an incoherent word salad, or intended as innuendo about the president’s attitude toward “radical Islamic terrorism” connoting sympathy or even culpability. The Post’s Jenna Johnson, understandably, assumed the latter:

“Donald Trump seemed to repeatedly accuse President Obama on Monday of identifying with radicalized Muslims who have carried out terrorist attacks in the United States and being complicit in the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando over the weekend, the worst the country has ever seen.”

By way of background, Johnson mentioned that innuendos about Obama’s background and inclinations toward Muslims are not exactly new for Trump:

“For months, Trump has slyly suggested that the president is not Christian and has questioned his compassion toward Muslims. Years ago, Trump was a major force in calls for the president to release his birth certificate and prove that he was born in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly stated as fact conspiracy theories about the president, his rivals and Muslims, often refusing to back down from his assertions even when they are proven to be false.”

That’s all entirely true. So what’s Team Trump complaining about? What other interpretation of the “there’s something going on” or “he gets it better than anyone understands” language would it offer?

That was pretty clear-cut, and led to this:

Donald Trump is rescinding the Washington Post’s credentials to cover his campaign events, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said Monday in his latest attack on the press.

“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” Trump posted on Facebook.

Trump had posted to Facebook nearly 20 minutes earlier “to show you how dishonest the phony Washington Post is.”

“I am no fan of President Obama, but to show you how dishonest the phony Washington Post is, they wrote, ‘Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting’ as their headline,” Trump said. “Sad!”

And that led to this:

In a statement, Washington Post editor Marty Baron said the decision would be damaging to a free and independent press.

“Donald Trump’s decision to revoke The Washington Post’s press credentials is nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press,” Baron wrote in a statement. “When coverage doesn’t correspond to what the candidate wants it to be, then a news organization is banished. The Post will continue to cover Donald Trump as it has all along – honorably, honestly, accurately, energetically, and unflinchingly. We’re proud of our coverage, and we’re going to keep at it.”

And the context:

The Trump campaign has banned a number of news outlets from attending his events and press conferences over the past year, including POLITICO, Univision, The Des Moines Register, Buzzfeed and The Huffington Post.

These things happen – Trump is who he is – but Ed Kilgore has the last word:

Seems clear to me that Trump got caught in a clumsy and audible dog whistle and instead of shrugging it off as he often does, he decided to make an example of Johnson and the Post (assuming being excluded from Trump events is a punishment) for some reason beyond my understanding. But it did so by way of asserting what amounts to a right to be incoherent, and that’s a new one, even for Trump.

Fine, but it wasn’t that, as demagogues often leave things to the imaginations of both followers and victims:

Donald Trump on Monday refused to clarify what he meant when he said “there’s something going on” with President Obama’s refusal to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and said he’d leave it up to others to interpret his comments instead.

“Well, you know, I’ll let people figure that out for themselves Howie,” the presumptive GOP nominee told WRKO radio host Howie Carr, as flagged by BuzzFeed News. “Because to be honest with you there certainly doesn’t seem to be a lot anger or passion when he – when we want to demand retribution for what happened over the weekend.”…

“There was certainly not a lot of passion,” Trump told Carr of Obama. “There was certainly not a lot of anger. So, you know, I’ll let that, we’ll let people figure it out. But it’s very, very, it’s a very sad situation when we have the kind of a tragedy that we had and we have a president that gave a press conference and talks about gun control. Well this was a licensed person, who could have had a gun anyway.”

Trump went on to say that Obama wants to take the guns away from people so “the bad guys will have the guns, the good guys won’t.”

That is certainly not true, but, to some, that sounds true, and that’s good enough. That also may be enough to win the White House. That’s the gamble, and as much as Republican elected officials, fearing the end of their careers if they’re tied too closely to Trump’s rants, are distressed by these rather random rants, Jonathan Chait argues that Donald Trump is the fearmonger Republicans have been waiting for:

In some ways, Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party and diverted its attention into populist obsessions with trade, immigration, and identity that are orthogonal to the core interests of mainstream conservatism. But on the subject of Islamic terrorism, Trump has not hijacked orthodox conservatism. He has intensified it, given it a more explicit policy objective, and brought its ideas closer to their logical conclusion.

Consider where they’ve been:

A dozen years ago, George W. Bush ran for reelection, at a time when the post-9/11 fog of panic that had transformed him into a fearless and admired war leader had not yet dissipated. At that time, when Republicans wanted to depict Democrats as soft on Islamic terrorism, they would accuse them of seeing terrorism as a matter of “law enforcement.” (To take one of many examples, Bush charged during one debate, “My opponent said this war is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement. No, this war is a matter of using every asset at our disposal to keep the American people protected.”) The accusation had political force because it conveyed a larger metaphor: that Bush (allegedly) took terrorism seriously, and his weak, intellectual, vaguely French opponent did not. But it was also connected to a real policy idea. Neoconservatives believed that overturning hostile regimes in the Middle East would spread pro-Western democracy and eliminate sources of cultural, political, and financial support for terrorism. Their conviction that the war on terrorism must be an actual, military war, and not merely “intelligence and law enforcement,” reflected a genuine policy doctrine.

Obviously, it failed. And after the Bush doctrine collapsed, Republicans were left groping for a point of differentiation on terror policy. (In 2008, when Barack Obama said he would pursue Osama bin Laden into Pakistan if necessary, John McCain depicted his opponent as overly aggressive: “He said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.”) This did not prove to be a politically fruitful line of attack, especially after the strategy Obama outlined resulted in the killing of bin Laden. And so by Obama’s second term, Republicans had retreated to a different line of attack: Democrats are too politically correct, too sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, to identify the source of Islamic terrorism. Only Republicans can defeat the enemy because only Republicans can identify it in sufficiently blunt terms.

That’s what changed:

This is [now] the standard right-wing line on terrorism. “We need a President who is serious – who will identify the enemy by name and do everything necessary to defeat it,” wrote the staunch movement conservative Ted Cruz. “As a matter of rigid ideology, far too many Democrats – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton – will refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.'” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “President Obama could also help if he weren’t so reluctant to acknowledge the domestic danger from ISIS. Mr. Obama did say in his Sunday remarks that this was ‘an act of terror,’ though he still can’t muster the words Islam or jihad or Islamic State.” And it is also Trump’s line: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”

But why exactly will uttering the words “radical Islamic terror” catalyze ISIS’s defeat? Most Republicans have no answer. It is merely a taunt, meant to signify Obama’s alleged lack of spine, without any policy content.

That meant that was a useless comment, but Donald Trump fixed that problem:

Trump, almost alone among his party’s leadership, has developed the talking point into an analysis. He opposes not only the handful of words Obama uses to identify the enemy, but the entire strategy of trying to distinguish the minority of dangerous extremist Muslims from the peaceful majority. Rather than focus the scope of government targets, Trump proposes to widen it.

This idea undergirds his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants and refugees. It also animates his lies that Muslim-Americans celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and that Muslim-Americans in San Bernardino knew about the impending attack last summer but did nothing to stop it. It is the same thread that allows him to claim vindication in the Orlando massacre for his policies, which putatively would target only immigrants, even though the Orlando attack was carried out by a native-born U.S. citizen. Trump has defended his ban on Muslim refugees not merely as a tool to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the border disguised as refugees, but on the grounds that the entire Muslim population, peaceful and radical alike, is the breeding ground for a fifth column. There is “no way to screen [refugees], pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalizing.”

Extending his rationale to the second generation is an important and chilling expansion of Trump’s doctrine. He proposes to treat all Muslims as a suspect class of probable enemies. What Trump calls “political correctness” is simply the presumption that Muslims are mostly peaceful and, in the absence of evidence of hostile intent, have a right to equal treatment. As with most of his policies, Trump has left the details of his plan vague, but its overall contours are clear enough. The plan is to persecute Muslims.

That was the missing policy content. Trump fleshed things out, although Chait sees two problems here:

First, there is the moral objection against discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religion and nationality. Trump would subject the vast majority of innocent Muslims to exclusion and discrimination in order to stop the dangerous minority. It is worth considering the conservative approach to this trade-off in contrast to its approach to gun control. Terrorists have increasingly turned to gun violence as their primary tool of mass murder. Currently, a person on the terrorism watch list is unable to purchase a seat on a plane, but they can buy an assault rifle. It would be possible to at least limit their access to dangerous weapons by strengthening gun laws. But Trump and his entire party reject any such measures out of hand. “They will try to exploit this terror attack to undermine the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms of law-abiding Americans,” wrote Cruz. Any imposition at all upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners is intolerable, while impositions upon the rights of law-abiding Muslims are fervently desired. The right’s calculation of which group should be inconvenienced, and to what degree, is governed by identity politics rather than strategy.

Then there is that rather pesky practical problem:

Since radical Islamists recruit allies by presenting the conflict as a division between Muslims and the West, any rhetoric that plays into the war-of-civilizations narrative aids their cause. What’s more, treating the Muslim community as aliens or with suspicion increases the number of radicals, and decreases the number of allies who will help identify extremists. This was precisely the strategy that inspired the Bush administration to carefully and extensively distinguish between Islam and the ideology of the terrorists who claimed to represent it. Six days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush told the world, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” In succeeding years, Bush repeated this message over and over. Obama has followed the same strategy, identifying terrorists as “thugs and killers,” and asserting, “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”

Well, those days are gone now:

The post-Bush-doctrine Republican Party is no longer guided by an idealistic and impractical vision for defeating radical Islam. All it has left is a residue of fear and nationalism, ripe for manipulation by a demagogue. The logic of Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party is most glaringly obvious when it is splayed against the backdrop of the terrorist threat. He has taken control of an empty vessel and steered it toward its only possible course.

That means that Trump’s speech was the only possible speech a Republican could give now. Perhaps Trump could have chosen to sound statesmanlike, like Hillary Clinton, saying what’s merely true, but then he’d sound like Hillary Clinton – without her decades of experience in these matters and her considered knowledge of the geopolitical dynamics at play. One might question her judgment, rightly enough, but not her experience and knowledge. Donald Trump played the cards he had in is hand. The public was frightened and he could fix that – somehow – trust him – he could. He’d be tough.

That’s it, all of it. But while Hillary Clinton’s speech was a yawn, offering what’s merely true, what Trump was offering, while exciting and amazing, was what never was and never will be – and it’s time to choose. It may be that Americans will have to resign themselves and settle for what’s merely true. The other option looks a whole lot like disaster.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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