Donald Trump has almost single-handedly – well, single mouth-edly – driven media coverage beyond the standard talk of convention bounces on to speculation about just how weird his campaign can get – and, yet again, whether the current state of crisis in his candidacy can be overcome. But before talk of the first use of nuclear weapons, of not endorsing Paul Ryan and John McCain, of ejecting crying babies, and so on – the list grows too rapidly to keep it current – waaay back on Sunday, Trump’s most recent paroxysm of impulse and insult started with his response to the Democratic National Convention speech by Kazir Khan, with his wife at his side, about his son’s death while serving in the military in Iraq.
Trump’s response to the Khans in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week is by now well rehearsed, though it seems not to have been rehearsed at all going in. In the space of two minutes, Trump makes bigoted and sexist intimations about Mrs. Khan, responds to the invitation to respond directly to Mr. Khan by referencing terrorism, and suggests that the work he put into being a real estate developer/personal brand was somehow comparable to the sacrifice represented by the death of the Khans’ son, Humayun, while serving in the United States military.
The widespread criticism of what was at best a lack of empathy for, and at worst, the denigration of, a military family has been swift and sustained. The Texas public shares the regard for the military that fueled the mixture of angry and bewildered responses to Trump’s handling of the Khans. In the February 2015 UT/Texas Tribune Poll, the military was the most favorably viewed institution in society by Texas voters, with 78 percent holding a favorable attitude, including 92 percent of Republicans.
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It’s no surprise that Republican elites were swift to distance themselves, and Sen. John McCain Monday morning issued his own strong condemnation, saying in part, “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.” McCain, however, has already been subject to Trump’s seemingly cavalier attitude toward military service when Trump criticized McCain for being captured after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam war.
By attacking the mother of a fallen soldier, Trump has confounded what was seemingly a good political position – his strict and anti-politically correct position on Muslim immigration – at least among Republicans – by displaying a reflexive lack of regard for an institution that is so highly regarded by this same set of voters.
Attitudes in Texas toward Muslims do convey more complexity than the relatively unambiguous regard for the military. In the June 2016 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Poll, 73 percent of Texas voters said that Muslims face “a lot” or “some” discrimination in U.S. today, only 22 percent said “not very much” or “none at all”. But this result wasn’t driven primarily by Texas’ Democrats; among Republicans, 64 percent recognized the discrimination faced by Muslims here in the U.S. Even among Trump supporters – and here, we mean not just those who said that they were voting for Trump against Clinton in November, but those who say that they want Donald Trump to be elected president, as opposed to merely casting a vote to keep Clinton from the White House – 54 percent said that Muslims face a lot or some discrimination. Even amongst those who expressed support for Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States (52 percent of Texans overall and 76 percent of Republicans), 63 percent still said that Muslims face a lot or some discrimination.
Now, these seemingly conflicting attitudes might appear hard to reconcile, but there is a plausible path to both thinking that Muslims are discriminated against, while at the same time holding a view that in effect discriminates against Muslims. That path makes a distinction between those already living in the country (like the Khans), and those from another country. Of course, this appears to be a rather difficult cognitive needle to thread, as Trump is quickly discovering.
Trump’s response to the Khans (and to the media reaction) raises yet again the question about the limitations of his unconventional candidacy. On the heels of both parties’ conventions, the major take-away was how Trump’s doom-and-gloom affair had ceded to the Democrats the mantle of the patriotic party, while the overall contrast in management of each’s convention multiplied how beleaguered many Republicans appeared to feel, rather publicly, in its aftermath. Trump’s follow-up really added insult to injury in the aftermath of the Democratic convention because, in terms of the political calculus, it was such a self-inflicted wound. Though moving, Mr. Khan’s speech was not televised in prime time. Though it garnered positive coverage, the criticism of Trump was unlikely to live on far beyond the DNC if the Trump campaign had either ignored it, or had Trump issued a more traditional response in the key of empathy rather than of combativeness. A conventional candidate would have sought to ignore the criticism on account of its source and sympathize away while sidestepping the criticism. Donald Trump continues to illustrate that he is not that sort of conventional candidate, and to extol this fact as one of his (many) virtues. But in appearing to lack respect for the military and for the sacrifices of military families, he may have gone a convention too far.