President Obama delivered some remarks Monday that were ostensibly intended to update the American public on the administration’s ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State, but the big news Obama made came in the form of a scathing rebuke of Donald Trump’s posture on terrorism. Earlier this week, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee laid out a series of monstrous proposals that would enshrine religious discrimination as official U.S. policy and treat the country’s Muslim population as suspected criminals. A clearly angry President Obama, who was a target of Trump’s conspiratorial gibbering, responded with an explanation of how literally everything Trump wants to do is stupid and backwards.
Trump, in his speech, promised to unilaterally suspend all immigration from “areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.” He also accused American Muslims of being knowing accomplices in acts of domestic terrorism – “they know what’s going on,” as Trump put it. Here’s what the president had to say in response to Trump, in part:
OBAMA: Groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda. That’s how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.
This was essentially a rehash of what Obama said in the aftermath of the Islamic State-inspired San Bernardino shootings, and it remains as accurate today as it was back then. The Islamic State promotes an apocalyptic vision of a grand confrontation between Islam and the West that will bring about the end of the world. It is to our detriment if we do anything to feed into or validate those claims, as they are a central feature of the terrorist group’s propaganda. Trump is certainly not the only Republican who “falls into the trap,” as Obama put it, but he’s more enthusiastic than others in striving to make overt hostility towards the Muslim world the policy of the United States.
Referring to Trump’s anti-Muslim policy proposals, Obama asked: “Do Republican officials actually agree with this?” To a certain extent, yes, they do. But the larger problem is that Republican voters overwhelmingly agree with it. Exit poll after exit poll during the Republican primaries showed broad support within the GOP for Trump’s plan to suspend Muslim immigration. And that makes it difficult for the Republicans who don’t agree with that proposal to denounce it with any real force – they’re wary of alienating their own base of support. So they may not personally agree with it, but denouncing it would leave them politically vulnerable, which means the smartest thing for them to do is just shut up. That’s why Republicans on Capitol Hill are doing everything in their power to duck questions about Donald Trump.
And while Trump may relish the controversy and the attention he’s dredged up, he’s nonetheless at a distinct disadvantage here. Trump may be good at commanding media attention, but you know who’s better at it? The god damn president of the United States. When Barack Obama calls you out on something, it’s going to make a lot of news and necessarily put you on the defensive. And the entirety of the Democratic Party is standing behind Obama ready to pile on as much as possible. Those are moments when Trump needs allies. He’s needs party officials with rank and influence to get out there and speak on his behalf and try to reframe the story along better lines. But right now he’s almost completely on his own, with only his Twitter account and some hapless surrogates on cable news available to mount a defense.
The Trump campaign put out an official statement in response to Obama’s remarks that read: “President Obama claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people.” It’s not entirely clear what that means, but it sure sounds like he’s accusing Obama of some form of light treason, which is inflammatory enough to make sure that he stays isolated on this one.
That isolation hurts Trump. It hurt him with the Gonzalo Curiel fiasco, and it looks like his eruption of terrorism and Muslims is going to damage him even further. A new poll out from Bloomberg shows Trump’s support cratering in the aftermath of his attacks on Curiel, and 61 percent of respondents disagreed with the suggestion that Obama “has not taken forceful action to stop domestic terrorism because he sides with Muslims.” Trump seems to believe that the unguarded Islamophobia and nativism that lifted him to victory in the Republican primary will have the same impact in the general election, but thus far they’ve accomplished little beyond turning Trump into a pariah and a punching bag.