Let’s not sugarcoat things: Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner for president of the United States, is spreading falsehoods and stoking fears about blacks, Muslims, and Latinos. The dark turn in the race has created significant new challenges for his rivals – challenges most seem unsure how to handle. After all, what does one do about a candidate who is neck-deep in a fever swamp while head and shoulders above his rivals in the polls?
Trump has surged into a clear lead among Republicans in surveys since the deadly attacks on Paris, amid heightened public concern over whether Americans face similar dangers at home. It’s a vexing situation for the Republican Party, which has spent years struggling to move toward a more welcoming tone. How long can Trump go on dominating the race without causing lasting damage to the brand, even if he ultimately fails to win the nomination?
The last few days have been dizzying. On Saturday, Trump told a crowd in Alabama that “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” on 9/11 in Arab neighborhoods in Jersey City as the World Trade Center came down. There is no evidence this ever happened; the mayor, the police, locals, researchers who have investigated the claims, and officials in nearby cities like Paterson, with large Arab and Muslim communities, say it’s a phony rumor that’s hung around for years.
The closest approximation The Washington Post could dig up was one academic researcher who found unconfirmed reports of a handful of teens shouting in front of a South Paterson library. Presented with evidence on ABC News contradicting his claim, Trump responded that he had personally seen it happen on television. “People over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down,” he said.
Hours after the ABC interview, Trump changed subjects. He re-tweeted a graphic touting fake crime statistics from a made-up source falsely indicating that 81% of white murder victims were killed by black attackers. FBI statistics in 2014 indicate 82% of white murder victims were killed by a white attacker.
In both cases, the intent behind the hoaxes were crystal clear. The Jersey City story was meant to bolster fears that broad swaths of Muslim citizens are terrorist sympathizers. The phony crime statistics were invented to reinforce bigoted arguments that black Americans are prone to violence.
The tweet came a day after a Black Lives Matter protester interrupted a Trump event in Alabama and then was allegedly attacked by attendees. “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said on Fox News when asked about the incident.
Trump’s Jersey City claim occurred as the candidate was engaged in a back-and-forth over how far he would go to investigate Muslims in America. Last week, Yahoo News asked Trump whether he would register all Muslims and potentially issue ID cards noting their religion. Trump did not bring up the idea himself, but made headlines when he declined to rule it out. He then told an NBC News reporter he would “certainly implement” a database. In a subsequent interview with Fox News, Trump said he had misheard the NBC questions and had been talking about monitoring Syrian refugees, not the broader Muslim population. But neither Trump nor his campaign has definitively ruled out creating a Muslim database. Asked three times on Monday whether Trump had taken the idea of registering all Muslims or issuing religion specific ID cards off the table, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks referred MSNBC to his Fox comments but did not directly answer the questions.
Trump’s latest comments are not the first time he has delved into unsupported conspiracy theories and out-of-nowhere facts. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog has awarded his statements the harshest false rating of any 2016 candidate. Trump has claimed at points that illegal immigration is fueled by a Mexican plot to offload criminals (there is zero evidence for this idea), that President Obama was planning to bring in 250,000 Syrian refugees (the real number is 10,000), and that the “real unemployment rate” was as high as 42% (it’s officially 5% and alternate, higher measures are still nowhere close). And of course, Trump briefly considered a presidential run in 2011 while spreading debunked conspiracy theories about Obama’s birth certificate.
But Trump isn’t the only candidate to cross into inflammatory territory on religion. Earlier this year, Dr. Ben Carson said he could not support a Muslim president while warning that Muslim citizens may have “different loyalties” and citing far-right theories claiming that outwardly assimilated U.S. Muslims could be using religious edicts to conceal radical motives.
Carson, who has had his own strained relationship with fact-checkers, told reporters on Monday that he had seen the same footage of celebrating Muslims in New Jersey that Trump described. “I saw the film of it,” Carson said. He later apologized through a spokesman, saying he was thinking of the Middle East and not New Jersey.
Another 2016 GOPer, Texas Sen. Cruz, told radio host Glenn Back last week that Syrians were caught at the border “trying to cross over illegally” into Texas. This was an exaggeration: In fact, they approached the normal port of entry and requested asylum from authorities.
Trump’s campaign is posing a dilemma to rival candidates. The real estate mogul relishes punching back against the press and rival contenders alike. The candidates, in turn, seem reluctant to alienate potential supporters who (1) have expressed fears of ISIS infiltration and illegal border crossings, (2) are skeptical of rising protests against police brutality, and (3) are suspicious that party elites are minimizing all three.
Cruz, for example, said he disagreed with the idea of registering Muslims, but made clear he bore no ill will toward Trump, whom he’s praised consistently throughout the campaign. Cruz, not known for mincing words, did raise eyebrows when he warned in an Associated Press interview later that the “tone” among some Republicans might be getting out of hand on immigration.
For others, there’s a basic frustration of constantly getting sucked into the Trump orbit while trying to focus on other things.
“Every day [Trump] says something that in some instance or another is worthy of being called out, and I think that’s happening,” Sen. Marco Rubio told NBC News on Monday. Rubio, who called Trump’s 9/11 claims “not true,” added, “I have to focus on my campaign and on my message, and move forward from there.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who served as a U.S. attorney in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and whose constituents include the communities Trump accused of celebrating the attacks, offered a surprisingly gentle response to Trump’s Jersey City claim. “I don’t recall that,” Christie said, but he added “there could be things I forget too.”
Others have taken more aggressive tacks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich held conference calls denouncing Trump this week and a pro-Kasich super PAC is running anti-Trump ads. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told ABC News on Monday that Trump “continually manipulates the facts in order to magnify people’s angst and fears.”
Outside the campaign, a variety of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups have condemned rhetoric by Trump and other candidates regarding refugees and Muslim Americans. The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred, issued a statement saying it was “dismayed and concerned by presidential candidates’ incendiary anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Besides Trump’s flirtation with a Muslim database, the ADL noted Cruz’s call to take in only Christian Syrian refugees and Carson’s use of a metaphor likening concerns over refugees to a “rabid dog.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the ADL, told MSNBC he had been encouraged to see Republicans condemning Trump’s comments on Muslims. But he said the trend worried him. “When this kind of rhetoric goes unchecked it fuels anti-Islamic behavior and I don’t say that in some abstract way,” Greenblatt said. He cited reports of threats to mosques and individual Muslims in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. “Words have consequences,” Greenblatt said. “We need to acknowledge that.”
Already, there are signs he’s dragged candidates like Cruz to the right on immigration in tone and rhetoric.
Liz Mair, a Republican strategist leading a new outside campaign to derail Trump, told MSNBC she opposes him on ideological grounds over issues like health care, immigration, and trade. But she expressed confidence that the eventual GOP nominee would be able to exorcise any lingering Trump effect. “Trump is so centered on himself it’s very hard for me to believe that he’s going to allow people to see him as in lockstep with anyone we do nominate,” she said. “He likes keeping his brand quite apart from other people in the party.”