It’s generally unfair to judge political candidates on what their supporters say. Campaigns simply have no control over random comments from random voters, no matter how obnoxious they may be.
But candidates and campaigns are responsible for the public responses to those random voters. Take Donald Trump’s town-hall event in New Hampshire last night, for example.
At his first public appearance since Wednesday’s GOP primary debate, Republican front-runner Donald Trump on Thursday fielded a question from a supporter in New Hampshire about Muslim extremism. The issue? The questioner described Muslims as a “problem in this country,” before adding, “you know our president is one” – and Trump just let it slide. […]Thursday’s questioner went on to ask what Trump would do to curb the growth of extremist training camps. “We’re going to be looking into that,” the real estate mogul responded.
Again, Trump’s not responsible for the question. There may be room for a conversation about why the Trump campaign has attracted so many bigoted supporters, but I’m not blaming the candidate for what the voter asked.
That said, Trump clearly heard what the questioner had to say. “We’ve got a problem in this country called Muslims,” the man said. “You know our president is one. He’s not even American.” Instead of cutting the man off, Trump allowed the voter to add, “But anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: when can we get rid of them?”
There were any number of ways the Republican frontrunner could have responded, including taking the high-ground approach John McCain took in 2008. Instead, Trump replied as if the question had merit.
Kevin Drum noted last night, in reference to Trump, “I’m sure he’ll be walking this back soon.” I assumed the same, expecting the campaign to argue, at a minimum, that when Trump said, “We’re going to be looking into that,” he was referring to imaginary U.S. training camps, not Muslim Americans themselves.
But that’s not the explanation Team Trump offered, at least not at first.
On the contrary, when pressed by MSNBC to elaborate, Trump said, “Christians need support in this country. Their religious liberty is at stake.”
About an hour later, the campaign said in a statement, “To be clear, Mr. Trump’s response to the question regarding training camps in this country was we will look into it.”
It seems about once a week or so, Trump will say or do something outlandish, prompting another round of “Has he gone too far this time?” questions. The incident is nearly always followed by a new poll showing Trump’s support growing among Republican voters, which starts the cycle anew.
But after last night, perhaps the better question is, “Can Donald Trump ever go too far?”
Postscript: Fox News’ Howard Kurtz last night argued that it’s “unfair” to point to this incident as proof “that Trump supporters believe Obama’s a Muslim.” A CNN poll published last week found that 43% of Republicans believe the president is, in their minds, a secret Muslim. A Public Policy Polling survey recently found similar results – with Trump supporters, in particular, believing this nonsense in even greater numbers.