The Donald Trump experiment has been fascinating (and a little sad) to watch. A marvel of modern marketing, Trump has dominated the Republican race without saying anything remotely substantive. He’s basically an empty vessel onto which people can project their own anxieties and biases. But Trump wisely dog whistles just enough to convince disillusioned nativists that he’s one of them. (Recall that he lunged into presidential politics by reigniting the utterly stupid birther controversy.)
From the moment Trump launched his campaign, he’s tapped into the cultural hysteria behind the anti-immigration movement. He began by complaining about the “rapists” and “criminals” from Mexico and has reiterated that his big plan is “to find them [the marauding Mexicans, one assumes] and get them out.” As I wrote a couple weeks ago, Trump's supporters are so happy to hear this xenophobic message that they don’t notice that he can’t explain how he’ll accomplish it. All they hear is “get them out” and “build a wall” – and that’s enough.
The sordid consequences of Trump’s strategy emerged during a rally in New Hampshire on Thursday. After his speech, Trump opened it up for questions and an audience member (literally the first questioner) said the following: “We have a problem in this country, it’s called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know, he’s not even an American. Birth certificate, man.” Trump, naturally, missed the opportunity to interject here, so the man continued: “But any way, we have training camps…where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them [the Muslims, I gather].”
Trump’s response (or non-response) to this man’s question is revealing in so many way: “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.” Setting aside for the moment how perfectly vacuous that remark is, the important point is that Trump declined to push back. Not one word about how utterly insane that question was or about how our president is, you know, an American.
Trump has decided to ride the wave of nativism that Obama’s election and the concomitant Tea Party movement let loose in the conservative bloodstream. There were flashes of this during Obama’s first election, when the woman at the John McCain rally called Obama “an Arab.” To his credit, McCain immediately disabused that woman of her racist beliefs. But Trump isn’t McCain, and the conservative base has only grown more feverish.
According to recent CNN/ORC poll, 43% of Republicans believe that Obama, a self-professed Christian, is a Muslim. Even more telling, 54% of Trump supporters think that Obama is a Muslim. No one should be surprised by these findings. This half-concealed racism has been in the political air since 2008.
As a candidate, Trump has figured out how to channel this energy without explicitly endorsing it. Notice that he never says more than he has to. No matter the topic or the question, Trump offers some variation of the phrase “We’re going to change things” or “We’re going to do something special” or “We’re going to take our country back.” As the incident with Jorge Ramos at Trump’s press conference illustrated, Trump’s supporters know exactly what he means when he says these things.
The tragedy of Trump is that his candidacy is a farce but the hatred he’s whipped up is very real. As the CNN poll demonstrates, the man who asked that question is not a minority in that room, and we can expect to hear more of this on the campaign trail. If Trump had the capacity for shame, he’d put an end to this hatred before it explodes into action (as it already has in Boston).
But if Trump lacks anything, it’s shame, so don’t hold your breath.