I watched all day Friday on cable this juxtaposition of the Trump video and the old John McCain video from 2008, when he gamely told that hair-swept woman that no, Barack Obama is a good family man and a citizen. By the 15th viewing, it hit me just how insidious the juxtaposition is.
Here’s why. The quasi-informed viewer will reflexively think that the McCain video, buttressed by all the talking heads chastising Trump for not having followed McCain’s admirable example, represents the default Republican handling of such situations over the years. But in fact, of course, it’s Trump who comes far closer to representing the way most Republicans have handled such questions over the years.
Think about it. How many videos have we seen over the years of Republican members of Congress at town halls, or being confronted by reporters, and being asked if they think Obama is a Christian or an American or if he loves his country. We’ve seen loads of them, and they all follow the same script. The member of Congress first chuckles nervously. He then glances from side to side to see who’s around, who might overhear him. You can see the gears turning in his head. “What do I say? This will surely find its way back home to my constituents, so what do I say?” So they say something like “Well, it’s not for me to say” and scamper on their way.
Look. There’s a reason 43 percent of Republicans still believe that Obama is Muslim, and that reason is far from mysterious. It’s that elected Republicans have allowed the rumor to fester.
Thought experiment: Suppose that Republicans from Reince Priebus and Michael Steele (his predecessor) to the senators to the members of Congress and governors and on down to the locals had agreed in 2009 that the party line on such matters would be, “Look, we disagree strongly with the President’s policies, but we don’t question his citizenship, his Christian faith, or his patriotism, and we encourage all Republicans to stop doing this.” What would that percentage be today? Not 43, I assure you. If Republicans had spent six years saying that, pollsters wouldn’t even be still asking the question.
But they most certainly did not do that. Steele is someone I’ve gotten to know and like, he’s a very nice man. But I see here that even he gave one of those cutesy answers back in 2009, when GQ asked him if he thought Obama was a Muslim: “Well, he says he’s not, so I believe him.” That too was a classic dodge, that “Well, he says he’s not.” On the moral see saw, the opening note of skepticism weighs far more than the closing affirmation, and thus signals to the conservative listener/viewer/reader, “This guy’s all right.” And while it’s fair to note that Hillary Clinton gave a similarly yucky answer during the 2008 primary, it’s the Republicans that have been singlehandedly promoting this nonsense for the last six years.
On my personal outrage meter, I regard what Trump did as being in fact not as bad as the kind of disingenuous tap-dancing other Republicans have done. Trump was very clearly just tolerating this guy, humoring him. Yes, of course he should have corrected the man, and he didn’t. But he was obviously trying to be vague and get past it fast. He wasn’t nudging and winking and didn’t come up with some coy and dishonest rhetorical pirouette that fed the man’s rage. “We’re looking into it” ain’t red meat.
What I find far more outrageous is the unified chorus of Republicans now denouncing Trump as if the vast majority of them haven’t spent the past six years behaving as Trump did or worse in such situations. This newfound rectitude is awfully convenient, and it obviously has a lot less to do with any devotion to the principle of civil discourse with respect to the sitting President. No, it’s about them taking advantage of a golden opportunity to dump on Trump and present themselves to people with short memories as being far better on this issue than they actually have been.
Permit me to refresh those memories. Here, I don’t even have to go back very far at all. Do you remember back in February when Rudy Giuliani said he didn’t think Obama loves America and “wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up”? Well, it set off the usual two-day cable shit-storm, such that all the GOP candidates were asked to comment on it. Here is what they said.
Bobby Jindal was the best (as in worst). He flat-out defended Giuliani, saying that “the gist of what Mayor Giuliani said...is true.”
Scott Walker, flying high then, was a close second. “You should ask the president what he thinks about America,” Walker told The Associated Press. “I've never asked him so I don't know.”
Rand Paul and Jeb Bush both said it’s a “mistake to question people’s motives.” That’s better than Walker, but it’s still pretty cautious and still not a no, the mayor was clearly out of line. Others—Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Ben Carson—didn’t respond to media requests for comment.
Oh, and then there was Lindsey Graham. Now Graham was great on Andrea Mitchell’s show Friday: No, what Trump did was an outrage, of course Obama is a Christian, yadda yadda. Back in February, though, he was hedger too. He said: “I am not Dr. Phil. I don't know how to look into somebody’s eyes and find out what their soul’s up to.” He did then say “I have no doubt that he loves his country, I have no doubt that he’s a patriot.” He deserves credit for the second part, but why that Dr. Phil business?
I’ll tell you why. Because until Trump got involved and took his current commanding (and to Republicans like Graham, terrifying) lead in the polls, the default Republican position was to find some way to humor the base on these questions about Obama. So saying something skeptical that fed the base’s rage was required. But now that Trump is guilty of doing what most Republicans have spent the better part of a decade doing, suddenly it’s all too outrageous. There is no principle at work here. Indeed precisely the opposite. This is the definition of expediency.
And if Trump is smart, and he is, he’ll find a way to communicate this when he “apologizes,” and the GOP will get precisely what it deserves.