Hillary Clinton delivered a speech midday in Cleveland yesterday, reflecting on Americans’ efforts to come to terms with the massacre in Orlando a day earlier. “Democratic and Republican Presidents have risen to the occasion in the face of tragedy,” she said. “That is what we are called to do my friends, and I am so confident and optimistic that is exactly what we will do.”
Clinton’s remarks included literally no references to her GOP opponent. In fact, the speech didn’t mention Republicans at all, except to offer occasional bipartisan praise. The point was to emphasize Clinton’s belief that this is a “moment when we all need to stand together,” with a “sense of common purpose.”
A few hours later, Donald Trump delivered a speech of his own in New Hampshire. It was, to my mind, arguably the scariest American speech of my lifetime.
In a speech reacting to the massacre in Orlando where 50 people were killed, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump doubles down on his proposal to ban immigration of Muslims, and he expanded his proposal to “suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or allies.”Speaking at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics Monday, Trump did not mention foreign policy, discuss the fight against terrorist group ISIS, or propose solutions to combat hate or extremism, instead he said the attack early Sunday morning at the Pulse nightclub was the result of the U.S.’s immigration policies.
In December, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was asked about Trump’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The Wisconsin Republican wasn’t pleased. “This is not conservatism,” he said, adding that Trump’s proposal “is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”
That may have been true once, but in 2016, Donald Trump is the dominant figure in Republican politics. Confronted with a brutal massacre – committed by an American on American soil – the presumptive GOP presidential nominee had an opportunity to show what kind of leader he intends to be. He did exactly that – which is precisely the problem.
Relying on a prepared script and trying to read from a teleprompter, Trump relied on a combination of demagoguery, ignorance, and lies to present a platform that assaults American values in ways that should be disqualifying.
The falsehoods in his remarks came so often and so quickly, it was enough to push professional fact-checkers into retirement. Trump said the Orlando shooter was “born in Afghan,” for example, which is both untrue – the gunman was born in New York, not far from where Trump was born – and bizarre given that “Afghan” is not a place.
Then again, for a presidential candidate who believes people born in Indiana are “Mexican,” perhaps this wasn’t too surprising.
But this was just the tip of a mendacious iceberg. Trump lied about the number of refugees coming to the United States. He lied about the vetting process for refugees. He lied about NATO’s counter-terrorism efforts. He lied about Clinton’s approach to gun reforms. He lied about the Obama administration’s policy on intelligence gathering.
This, however, isn’t what made Trump’s speech so frightening. Rather, more important than his uncontrollable lying was the desperation with which the Republican candidate hoped to sow the seeds of distrust, suspicion, and fear. Consider this excerpt from the remarks:
“Now, the Muslim community, so important. They have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad. They know it. And they have to do it, and they have to do it forthwith…. But the Muslims have to work with us. They have to work with us. They know what’s going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death, and destruction.”
In Trump’s mind, American Muslims are “they,” while everyone else is “us.” He also believes – without any evidence at all – that American Muslims are aware of the dangerous people in their midst, but they refuse to tell “us” about would-be terrorists before it’s too late. There was also this:
“Altogether, under the Clinton plan, you’d be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East with no system to vet them, or to prevent the radicalization of the children and their children. Not only their children, by the way, they’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is and we don’t know what’s happening.”
Trump is brazenly lying about the details – Clinton isn’t talking about “hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East” and there is absolutely a vetting system in place – but note how he also wants Americans to believe scary Middle Easterners are coming to indoctrinate your children.
In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in American history – literally one day after the bloodshed – Donald Trump wants as many people as possible to distrust their Muslim neighbors, to see them as “The Other,” and to question their loyalty.
This included oblique threats, too. “When people know what’s going on and they don’t tell us, and we have an attack, and people die, these people have to have consequences,” Trump said. “Big consequences.”
This is the kind of language from an ostensible political leader that gets people hurt.
Two hours after Clinton urged Americans to “rise to the occasion in the face of tragedy,” Trump urged Americans to fear immigrants, Muslims, and refugees.
To be sure, we’ve all heard ugly and divisive speeches from political demagogues, but remarks like these from a major-party presidential nominee aren’t normal. On the contrary, they’re terrifying, Trump is the first nominee in generations who desperately wants Americans to be afraid – if that means a near-constant stream of lies, so be it – so that they’ll put aside their better judgment and invest their trust in his authoritarian instincts.
Republican insiders were reportedly unhappy with Trump’s latest tirade, largely because he strayed so far from the GOP’s post-massacre script. But more important than election-year messaging is the nightmare of the candidate’s policy prescription.
Trump is crossing every line, abandoning every norm, and thumbing his nose at every American principle presidential hopefuls have traditionally honored. If this works, and voters decide to reward such deceitful fear-mongering, the country will never be the same.