This isn’t something that will hurt Donald Trump much among his populist base. But the kerfuffle over Trump’s failure to correct a questioner that claimed President Obama was a Muslim and not even an American is a club that the mainstream media will beat him with for the rest of the presidential campaign. Blaming a candidate for the prejudicial or even crazy comments made by their supporters is unfair. Less unfair but part of the political game is the way candidates are judged by their responses to outrageous questions that don’t put sufficient daylight between their positions and those of the persons expressing a controversial opinion. But in this case, the candidate can only blame one person for the fact that a prejudiced nativist birther would steel his thunder: Donald J. Trump. The criticisms for his failure to correct or rebuke the questioner have some traction because only a couple of years ago, no one was doing more to promote wacky theories about the president’s birth or his faith than Trump.
The incident, which took place at a New Hampshire town hall event where Trump spoke, involved a person asking the following question:
“We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. Our current President is one. We know he’s not even an American,” said a questioner at a town hall in New Hampshire. “We have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of them?”
Trump’s response seemed to validate the comments:
“A lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We’re going to be looking at that and a lot of different things,”
Trump may have considered that a neutral dismissal of the charge but, in this case, that isn’t nearly good enough.
Let’s state the obvious that needs to be reiterated. Growing Islamist terrorism is a global crisis that President Obama has fumbled in part because he refuses to confront the religious roots of the problem or commit the resources to needed to address it. Part of that is a troubling growth in lone wolf terrorism inspired by Islamists in this country. But American Muslims are not in of themselves a problem. The overwhelming majority of them are honest, decent, hard-working and loyal citizens. Though allegations of a broad anti-Muslim post-9/11 backlash in this country are utterly without foundation, prejudice against Muslims is a noxious virus that deserves to be condemned along with all other forms of hate. Moreover, there are no “training camps” in the United States where Islamists are gathering to “kill” Americans. It goes without saying that is the responsibility of all decent persons, let alone those who aspire to be president of the United States, to condemn such prejudice. They should do so, not only because it is right, but also because not drawing a line between the urgent concern over Islamists and hate against all Muslims undermines the effort to combat Islamist terror and those who rationalize it.
As for the president, let’s also specify that while it is no insult to call someone a Muslim, the president long ago made it clear that he is a Christian and deserves to be taken at his word about his personal faith the same as any other person. As for his not being born in the United States that is an urban legend that was debunked by the publication of his birth certificate years ago. Yet for those afflicted by Obama derangement syndrome, it has become a matter of faith that that the object of their anger can’t merely be an American Christian with whom they disagree. Instead they insist he must be a Muslim Manchurian candidate bent on the destruction of all they hold dear not because he is a hard-core liberal and a product of elite left-wing institutions such as Columbia and Harvard, but because he is an Islamist mole.
One needn’t be a supporter of the president to be dismayed by the persistence of this nonsense on the margins of our political discourse. Those who promote these ideas aren’t merely wrong. They are also hurting the cause of conservatism by diverting Americans from the strong arguments against Obama’s harmful policies. Surely, for any principled conservative, opposing ObamaCare and the Iran nuclear deal ought to be reason enough to think ill of the president’s tenure in office. But some people find it easier to live with his victories by putting it down to a grand conspiracy rather than accepting that sometimes those in the wrong are able to win in a democracy. There is much to criticize about President Obama but even his most fervent critics need to accept that his election and re-election have everything to do with his historic status as our first African-American president and nothing to do with conspiracies.
It’s true that the first people to circulate the rumors about Obama’s foreign birth may have been Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008. But far from an innocent party in this birther movement, Trump was its noisiest advocate until not that long ago. He prefers not to dwell on this insanity since he started his amazingly successful run for the presidency this past summer. But if many in the media found it hard to take him seriously once he started his campaign it was not just because we saw him as a vulgar real estate mogul/reality television star but also because we remembered his birther antics.
Trump subsequently claimed on Twitter that he was right to remain silent because Obama wouldn’t defend him if someone attacked him in his presence. Perhaps not. But Obama hasn’t wasted his time trying to prove Trump isn’t a U.S. citizen. Nor can we take seriously his assertion that rebuking the questioner would have opened him up to charges that he was interfering with free speech. But it’s true that if he had done so, the man would have been within his rights to claim it was unfair since Trump has been America’s leading birther.
Respectable candidates of all varieties have their crackpot followers. But Trump can’t disown his tinfoil hat crowd because he did so much to encourage their craziness.
Trump’s popularity and his ability to channel the anger of many Americans about the failure of our political class has rendered him immune to all sorts of gaffes and outrageous comments over the last three months. Indeed, a lot of people like him because he says these things, not in spite of them. This incident will probably be no different. But it does serve as a useful reminder for those not yet besotted with the Donald of just how irresponsible a figure he has been. Trump owns the birthers as much as he does the New York luxury building he named for himself. Though his comments were offensive, that foolish New Hampshire citizen did the country a favor when he forced Trump to confront his own extremism. Trump’s birther chickens have come home to roost.