We’ve been doing our best to ignore Donald Trump, knowing that he feeds on publicity and hoping his presidential campaign would go spinning down the toilet before he did real damage to the country.
But he’s now doing real damage, whipping up bigotry against America’s beleaguered Muslims, embarrassing the United States abroad and making the country look like a nest of vipers in the Islamic world.
Trump loudly embraced the urban legend that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims in Jersey City openly celebrated the 9/11 attacks. He made loose comments about shutting down mosques and creating a registry for Muslims.
Then he looked around and saw that attacking religious liberty – the first freedom in the Bill of Rights – didn’t hurt his standing among his fans. On Monday, he doubled down by calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration. What next, herd Muslims into ghettoes and make them wear yellow badges?
Trump is a despicable, cruel demagogue. He’s insulted Carly Fiorina’s face, mocked a reporter’s physical disability, demeaned Sen. John McCain’s war record and smeared Mexicans as rapists. He tells obvious lies, like the “thousands and thousands” claim, then acts offended when he’s called on them.
It’s possible he’s the most cynical presidential candidate in American history – and that’s a high bar.
He can’t believe his own baldfaced lies; he’s too smart. He says outrageous things because he knows the furor will dominate the news. He concocts even greater outrages to keep the momentum going. When the cameras start wandering to San Bernardino or Ted Cruz, he reaches deeper in the gutter for something even more ugly and impossible to ignore.
The scariest part of the spectacle are his supporters, the people who eat this up, who don’t care about his lies as long as he’s amplifying their anger. Pollsters say he’s commanded the support of as much as 30 percent of likely Republican primary voters.
Some are dubious. Statistical guru Nate Silver notes that new polling methods are suspect and that the number of Trump supporters – a subset of a subset of a subset – is roughly equal to the number of Americans who believe the Apollo moon landings were faked. As Lincoln said, some of the people can be fooled all of the time.
We won’t know how many Trump diehards there actually are until the Republican primaries start and voters have to seriously contemplate who they want in the White House.
But the fact remains that millions of people support a man whose campaign is about poisoning the way Americans think of each other. To all appearances, they don’t give a damn about facts, don’t give a damn about civility, don’t give a damn about bigotry.
They’re OK with a candidate who has no coherent economic or foreign policy and who will say anything at all to keep himself in the news. If they didn’t exist, Trump’s candidacy wouldn’t exist – and he wouldn’t be coarsening the nation’s politics and legitimizing open, shameless religious hatred.