Donald Trump can do no harm to his campaign no matter how hard he tries – he has said he could shoot someone dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his poll numbers would go up, again – but it seems that there’s something worse than shooting some random tourist dead in the middle of midtown Manhattan:
A bipartisan constellation of decorated combat veterans, members of Congress and family members of slain soldiers admonished Donald Trump on Monday for criticizing the Muslim American parents of an Army officer killed in Iraq, threatening to undermine Trump’s support among core Republican voters.
The condemnations by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and dozens of veterans and family members of those killed in the line of duty served as the most forceful rebuke yet of the mogul’s comments and his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The critiques lobbed at Trump on Monday were the latest turns in a bitter exchange that has dominated the presidential race since the close of the Democratic National Convention on Thursday in Philadelphia. It threatens to hurt Trump’s standing among voters he has been aggressively pursuing: those who aren’t fans of Democrat Hillary Clinton and who hold doubts about her record on national security. The standoff has also frayed Trump’s already delicate alliance with GOP leaders.
Like he cares? He doesn’t:
Trump did not address the controversy directly during a campaign stop in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday afternoon. But he signaled on Twitter earlier in the day that he was not backing down from his criticism of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son Humayun Khan, an Army captain, was killed by a car bomber in Iraq in 2004. Trump said Khizr Khan had “no right” to assail him as he did in a speech at the Democratic convention Thursday.
The broad argument actually has been that Khizr Khan doesn’t know him, so Khizr Khan has no right to say anything about him. The implicit argument has been that Khizr Khan is a Muslim, so he really ought to shut the fuck up. Trump has said that Islam itself is evil – generally, with a few exceptions – the current Mayor of London is okay by him – and Khan says that’s not true – he’s an American too and has a right to speak his mind – and he’s hardly an evil Muslim, and his son was an American war hero. Trump keeps saying that’s fine, but that war hero stuff really doesn’t matter. Khizr Khan has no right to criticize him, and Khan’s wife is pathetic – the Heidi Cruz gambit – but really, some people have the right to speak their mind and some don’t. In response, Khan keeps waving his pocket-copy of the Constitution at Trump. The Constitution doesn’t say that. And so on and so forth.
The argument is about who has to shut up, but Trump may have picked on the wrong fellow. John McCain was having none of it:
McCain, a respected figure on national security issues in the Republican Party, issued a written statement sternly reprimanding Trump.
“In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” said McCain, who was taken prisoner during the Vietnam War. “He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States – to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”
But he still endorses Trump for president. Go figure, but there was more:
Aside from McCain, a bipartisan coalition of veterans, family members of military personnel killed in the line of duty, a veteran serving in Congress and an ex-diplomat sent a letter to Trump calling his criticism of the Khans an affront to each of them. It also called for him to apologize.
“Your statements are unacceptable, especially from someone seeking to serve as Commander in Chief,” the letter said. “The Khans’ sacrifice has earned them the right to ask hard questions of those seeking elected office.”
The list of signatories includes highly decorated combat veterans including Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, who was a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who served in Iraq as a Marine Corps infantry officer, is also on the list.
Organizers said they plan to add many more signatures by opening up the letter online for broader national participation.
Brian Duffy, the recently elected commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, released a statement saying that the organization “will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression.”
Shall we argue about the Constitution then? Does one have to earn the right to ask hard questions of those seeking elected office, by losing a son in a war, or can anyone do that? Does Donald Trump get to decide? Do “strong leaders” decide that? America wants to know, but later, in Carson City, Nevada, there was this:
The woman, in a quiet voice, stood before the crowd of hundreds at a town hall-style event here with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and announced that her son serves in the Air Force. The crowd applauded.
But then the woman said, “Time and time again, [Donald] Trump has disrespected our nation’s armed forces and veterans. And his disrespect for Mr. Khan -“
The reaction of the crowd was immediate and fierce, drowning out her words.
The crowd began to boo as she tried to get through her question. The woman, who was subsequently identified in various media reports as Catherine Byrne of Carson City, continued to speak through the jeers.
“Why are you here?” one woman shouted as the boos rained down.
But, over the boos and taunts, Byrne continued to speak.
“You’ve got a son in the military, how do you tolerate this disrespect?” she asked Pence.
Finally, after allowing the boos to continue for about 10 seconds, Pence moved to quiet the crowd.
“That’s okay,” he said. Trump’s running mate then repeated a line he deployed when confronted by protesters in Ohio last week: “That’s what freedom looks like, and that’s what freedom sounds like.”
He then said Trump is a fine fellow, really. Mike Pence is in over his head, but he’s not alone, as Greg Sargent explains:
Donald Trump’s continuing war with the Khan family – which Trump inexplicably continued to keep in the news this morning with a series of new tweets – raises the specter of a brutal trap for Republicans.
It’s this: If individual Republicans don’t break off their support for Trump’s candidacy now – by, say, withdrawing their endorsements – they run the risk of having no choice but to do so after Trump sinks even further into wretchedness and depravity, to a point of true no return. (Presumably there is such a point.) At that juncture, their move will look unprincipled and desperate, leaving them stained – perhaps irrevocably – with their previous willingness to stick by him during much of his descent, and depriving their break with him of whatever moral force it might have had if done earlier.
As some Republicans are already remarking, Trump’s battle with the Khan family makes it harder and harder to avoid acknowledging the possibility that we really have no idea how low Trump will sink.
The question is about basic decency, and they now know that they’re unlikely to get much of that from Trump:
“Trump is inevitably going to get worse, not better, as his poll numbers get worse,” Tim Miller, a former adviser to Jeb Bush and a frequent Trump critic, told me this morning. “When he’s being criticized and his back is against the wall, he’s going to act out and become more extreme and despicable. Every time we think he’s gone as low as he’s going to go, he manages to sink even lower. There is no argument for waiting until he behaves better.”
“If Republicans are going to have to disavow Trump eventually because of how bad his behavior has gotten,” Miller continued, “it is incumbent on them to get the political benefit of doing it when it’s a principled stand, rather than waiting until they are backed into a corner and there’s no other choice.”
Sargent suggests that goes double for House Speaker Paul Ryan:
Over the weekend he issued a statement declaring that “many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military” and their sacrifice “should always be honored.” But his statement did not mention Trump at all. Ryan has previously said with real eloquence and sincerity that the GOP “stands for” the idea that there are “many Muslims serving in our armed forces” and “dying for this country” and in defense of the Constitution and “pluralism and freedom and democracy and individual rights.” But the GOP’s presidential nominee – the man Paul Ryan is trying to get elected president – belittled the religion of a family that made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of all those things, and if elected, would impose a religious test temporarily barring Muslims from entering the country.
Ryan is trapped:
Many Never-Trump Republicans and conservatives don’t believe Ryan’s position is a tenable one. But the point is that this position on Trump could get harder, not easier, to sustain. As Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush put it: “Trump is a man of sadistic cruelty. With him there’s no bottom.” If this is right, and Trump sinks even lower, leaving no alternative but to cut him loose, Republicans such as Ryan will have done so not in defense of their own principles, but because events forced them to.
Now, it is always possible that Trump will not sink any lower and will suddenly improve. But that is now looking like a much bigger gamble than it did before Trump’s war with the Khans began.
And then add this twist:
This ongoing battle with the Khan family tests one of the core assumptions Trump has made about this race, which is that he can win the presidency largely through sheer media dominance. As I’ve reported, the Clinton campaign questions this assumption, arguing that even if Trump is very good at sucking up all the media oxygen, the antics he’s resorted to in order to do so will only drive up his negatives further and prevent him from broadening his appeal among key voter groups that will help decide this national election. Trump’s war with the Khans is certainly allowing him to dominate the media. Soon we’ll see whether it’s helping him or doing even more damage.
There may, however, be ways out of this trap, like this one:
Roger Stone, an informal adviser to Donald Trump, took to Twitter on Sunday to claim that Khizr Khan, the father of a slain war hero who spoke at last week’s Democratic National Convention, is working for the Muslim Brotherhood. …
The article Stone linked to also alleges that Khan’s son, Captain Humayun Khan, was a Muslim martyr who was killed “before his Islamist mission was accomplished.”
Roger Stone just put a price on the heads of the parents here. Some Trump “patriot” with a gun might “take them out” soon. The parents are working for the Muslim Brotherhood after all. The evidence of that is beyond questionable, actually nonsense, but that doesn’t seem to matter much these days. Last year, when those two guys in Boston beat the crap out of a homeless Hispanic man, they said Trump had said the guy didn’t belong here – and for two days all that Trump would say is that his folks are enthusiastic. On the third day he gave in and said that maybe they should not have done that. We live in dangerous times.
But there is the equivalency argument:
As Donald Trump’s supporters defended the candidate following his repeated attacks on the parents of a deceased Muslim American soldier, one Trump surrogate went as far as saying that Trump sacrificed two of his marriages to create jobs. …
During a CNN panel discussion Sunday, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes defended Trump’s comments.
“Mr. Trump was responding to the fact of sacrificing. Nowhere ever did he ever say that his sacrifice was equivalent or more or even close to what the Kahn’s had given up,” she said.
CNN host Fredericka Whitfield then asked, “Is creating a job considered a sacrifice?”
“You know what, creating jobs caused him to be at work, which cost him two marriages,” Hughes said in response. “Time away from his family to sit there and invest…”
Clinton surrogate Bernard Whitman jumped in to say, “Infidelity cost him.”
“No, actually being away from his family, he’s admitted it,” Hughes insisted. “That is the spin of the media and ongoing bias.”
The argument that Trump lost two marriages, while these folks only lost one son, sounds like something from an Oscar Wilde play. Wilde was the master of farce, but Trump finally settled on what he now says was obvious all along, that the dead soldier’s father clearly wanted America to be flooded with terrorists:
In an interview today with a local ABC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, Donald Trump suggested that what angered critic Khizr Khan was Trump’s aggressive efforts to prevent terrorists from entering the country.
“It’s a very big subject for me, border security is very big. When you have radical Islamic terrorists probably all over the place, we’re allowing them to come in by the thousands and thousands. And I think that’s what bothered Mr. Khan more than anything else. And, you know, I’m not going to change my views on that. We have radical Islamic terrorists coming in that have to be stopped. We’re taking them in by the thousands.”
Where? When? What thousands? You’ll have to trust Trump on that.
All of this leads Robert Kagan, one of the original neoconservatives that gave us the Iraq war, to suggest that there is something very wrong with Donald Trump:
One wonders if Republican leaders have begun to realize that they may have hitched their fate and the fate of their party to a man with a disordered personality. We can leave it to the professionals to determine exactly what to call it. Suffice to say that Donald Trump’s response to the assorted speakers at the Democratic National Convention has not been rational.
Why denigrate the parents of a soldier who died serving his country in Iraq? And why keep it going for four days? Why assail the record of a decorated general who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan? Why make fun of the stature of a popular former mayor of New York? Surely Trump must know that at any convention, including his own, people get up and criticize the opposition party’s nominee. They get their shots in, just as your party got its shots in. And then you move on to the next phase of the campaign. You don’t take a crack at every single person who criticized you. And you especially don’t pick fights that you can’t possibly win, such as against a grieving Gold Star mother or a general. It’s simply not in your interest to do so.
This is not normal:
The fact that Trump could not help himself, that he clearly did, as he said, want to “hit” everyone who spoke against him at the Democratic convention, suggests that there really is something wrong with the man. It is not just that he is incapable of empathy. It is not just that he feels he must respond to every criticism he receives by attacking and denigrating the critic, no matter how small or inconsequential. If you are a Republican, the real problem, and the thing that ought to keep you up nights as we head into the final 100 days of this campaign, is that the man cannot control himself. He cannot hold back even when it is manifestly in his interest to do so. What’s more, his psychological pathologies are ultimately self-destructive.
There are no excuses now:
Many of Trump’s supporters admire him for his bold challenge to political correctness. But his political incorrectness may be only an unintended side effect of his malady. Some of the insults he fires back at his critics are politically incorrect: the racist and misogynist taunts. But others are just childish: making fun of someone’s height, or suggesting that someone’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. It’s not really politically incorrect to say that a prisoner of war is not a hero because he got captured. It’s just a way of saying I don’t care if you’re a war hero. You criticized me and now I’ve got to hit you. Trump’s insults are scattershot – only sometimes touching the raw racist and xenophobic nerves in society. The most important fact is that he is unable to control his responses to criticism. He must double down every time, even if it means digging himself deeper and deeper into the hole.
Imagine such a person as president. What we have seen in the Trump campaign is not only a clever method of stirring up the anger in people. It is also a personality defect that has had the effect of stirring up anger. And because it is a defect and not a tactic, it would continue to affect Trump’s behavior in the White House. It would determine how he dealt with other nations. It would determine how he dealt with critics at home. It would determine how he governed, how he executed the laws, how he instructed the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies under his command, how he dealt with the press, how he dealt with the opposition party and how he handled dissent within his own party. His personality defect would be the dominating factor in his presidency, just as it has been the dominating factor in his campaign. His ultimately self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can barely begin to imagine. It would make him the closest thing the United States has ever had to a dictator, but a dictator with a dangerously unstable temperament that neither he nor anyone else can control.
Still, Kagan is hopeful:
In all likelihood, his defects will destroy him before he reaches the White House. He will bring himself down, and he will bring the Republican Party and its leaders down with him. This would be a tragedy were it not that the party and its leaders, who chose him as their nominee and who now cover and shill for this troubled man, so richly deserve their fate.
Jonathan Chait agrees with that:
Within the Grand Old Party, open racism is extremely rare. Far more common is denial of the persistence of racism in American life, a willingness to pursue policies that disadvantage nonwhites, and a refusal to jeopardize the party’s support among racists. Donald Trump has pulled the cloak away, leaving the party’s alliance with racism exposed for all to see.
Donald Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times, in 1973, came as a result of a lawsuit by the Department of Justice over his refusal to rent to African-Americans. In 1989, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News to demand the death penalty for five African-Americans for a rape in Central Park. (They turned out to be innocent.) He has been credibly accused by former associates of racist statements and practices behind closed doors. As a presidential candidate, he has focused more of his attention on Latinos and Muslims, but the discriminatory quality of his persona has, if anything, grown even more naked. He declared that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is unfit to preside over the most recent of his many lawsuits, this one concerning fraudulent practices at “Trump University,” because Curiel is “Mexican,” which is Trump’s way of saying Curiel descends from immigrants from Mexico. He also proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and then later blamed the rampage in Orlando on the entire Muslim American community, who (he claimed) refused to cooperate with authorities against terrorism.
These statements were not incidental gaffes. They were the foundation of Trump’s appeal.
And that’s a nasty business:
Khizr Khan’s speech before the Democratic National Convention was emotional because it zeroed in on the racist nature of Trumpism. Trump does not merely call for more restrictive immigration policies or a more stern response to terrorism. He blames the entire community for any crime committed by one of its members, separating all of their members from America and the privileges of citizenship on the basis of their heritage. Khan demanded that Trump reconcile his sweeping characterization of all Muslim Americans with the heartbreaking facts of his dead son’s heroic life and the Constitution itself. (It is Trump’s misfortune, or perhaps ineptitude, that the personalized targets of his feuds happen to be the strongest possible refutation of his prejudice: Curiel had to live in hiding from death threats from Mexican drug cartels; Khan is not only a gold-star father but has publicly called upon his fellow American Muslims to turn in radicals.) In response, Trump baselessly insinuated that Khan did not allow his wife to speak, from which it might follow that he adheres to some extreme variant of Islam, and probably was some sort of secret radical. This smear provided yet more confirmation for Khan’s point that Trump refused to judge suspect minorities as individuals, that nothing they say or do can dispel the suspicion attached to them in Trump’s feverish mind.
And that’s the current problem:
These constant displays of racism have placed Trump’s party in a delicate position. Some Republican elected officials have fully embraced their nominee and his ideas; a somewhat smaller number have repudiated them completely. But the vast majority of Republicans have arrayed themselves somewhere along the spectrum between these two positions. The goal of this large middle group is to avoid the taint of Trump’s racist ideas while maintaining the support of the voters who are attracted to them.
Chait reviews how hard that is:
The Republican who has kept the greatest distance from Trump without fully opposing him is Senator Jeff Flake, who represents a state (Arizona) with a sizable and growing Latino population. “There’s one sure thing: I don’t want Hillary Clinton to be president,” Flake tells Politico. Flake stayed home during the convention, and he says he is “nowhere near ready to support” the nominee. Flake wants Trump to earn his support, but first the candidate “has to stop using language that demonizes Latinos and mocks prisoners of war,” Politico reports. Flake considers Trump’s racism unacceptable, but sees his racism as a series of discrete acts that he can stop engaging in, rather than a pattern that reflects unacceptably racist underlying beliefs. Flake withholds any character judgment of the nominee; he simply requires that he stop acting so racist for some undefined period of time in order to endorse him. Other blue-state senators, like Susan Collins (who has said Trump “really has to change” in order to win her endorsement), have trod this same careful line.
A second group, closer to Trump, has disavowed his most wildly racist statements while endorsing his candidacy. Figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell fall into this category. Both issued statements praising the heroism of Captain Khan, but without naming Trump. Like Flake or Collins, they wish Trump would stop saying such racist things, but, unlike them, they will support him regardless.
The third group consists of Republicans who may cringe at Trump but keep their reservations private. This category, probably the largest, includes Marco Rubio, who once called Trump a “con man,” then retreated to the position that the nominee “should stop saying” racist things, and is now openly campaigning on Trump’s behalf. “We have got to come together as a party; we cannot lose to Hillary Clinton,” Rubio told the crowd. “We cannot lose the White House. We have to make sure that Donald wins this election,” Rubio told Republicans this weekend. “The future of our Constitution, of our Second Amendment – even of our First Amendment – the future of whether Obamacare stands or not hangs in the balance.”
All three groups, however, are trying to resolve something that cannot be resolved:
The Republican Party fashions itself as the party of Lincoln, and when its national leaders have used race as a wedge, they have buried it beneath the language of race neutrality. The official party history holds that Barry Goldwater’s rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was merely an overzealous interpretation of constitutional principle, and the mass influx of white Southerners that followed an unrelated coincidence. Those who don’t closely follow conservative rhetoric may not appreciate how deeply the right has invested itself in these fantasies of racial innocence.
And so, even though Trump has sprung naturally from the conservative fertile soil of racism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism, his nomination is truly a sea change. No successful candidate before him has identified himself so tightly with white-identity politics. His place at the top of the ticket, and potentially as head of state, has presented fellow Republicans with an agonizing dilemma. To be sure, their choice is not comfortable. Those Republicans who have distanced themselves from the nominee, even in carefully measured increments, have endured fierce blowback from their own voters and even donors. In a party rife with racism, anti-racism is hardly considered an acceptable basis for partisan disloyalty.
In short, they’re stuck:
What most Republican elites have always wanted is to lead a party that appeals to a majority of the country on the basis of abstract small-government, patriotic themes. Trump has revealed that this is a hopeless fantasy, and what they can lead instead is a party of racists. And they have decided – nearly every one of them – that they will take it.
That’s what happens when there are no excuses left. Maybe Trump should have shot some random tourist dead on Fifth Avenue right in front of Trump Tower – it would have been easier for everyone. Presidential candidates don’t shoot people dead – case closed. But he didn’t do that. He did this, and the case isn’t closed – yet. Perhaps the Republicans will run out of excuses. One can hope.