Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump tried to do away with the latest controversy dogging his campaign -- his repeated claim that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton founded ISIS -- with a tweet Friday morning claiming that he was just being “sarcastic.”
Whatever Trump was being, it wasn’t sarcastic, but the reaction to his initial statement and his refusal to back away from the “founder” claim in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt has angered the ever-shrinking band of people willing to go to bat for Donald Trump in the media. The latest outrage is how the rest of the press covered the issue. Some object, curiously, because Trump has said similar things in the past. Others claim is that the media knowingly and disingenuously suggested that Trump actually believed the words that came out of his mouth, adopting a “hyperliteral” reading of comments that were clearly not meant to be taken seriously.
Most offensive, apparently, were the outlets like ABC that ran stories explaining who actually did found ISIS. “Nobody can be this stupid, not even our media,” fumed Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist.
Hemingway’s optimistic appraisal of the human race notwithstanding, she’s wrong. The truth is that people really can be that “stupid.” And they are the ones Trump is talking to.
They’re the ones who cling with demented certainty to the idea that President Obama was born in Kenya -- a notion that Trump used as his entree into the world of partisan politics. They’re the ones who insist that Obama is a secret Muslim at the same time that they flay him for spending years attending a Christian church with a pastor who offends them.
People -- lots of them -- believe incredibly “stupid” things all the time, usually because someone in a position of perceived authority (like a major party presidential nominee, maybe?) keeps repeating them. Doubtless, anybody literate enough to read The Federalist gets that Trump doesn’t literally believe that Obama sat in a cave with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and founded ISIS. But again, that’s not who Trump is talking to.
He’s talking to people like this guy, who appears to have accepted the idea that Trump supporters are true patriots facing down dangerous traitors in the media and elsewhere:
Trump supporter swings by the press pen in Kissimmee, FL to let us know we're number one!! pic.twitter.com/WzUPBal7nW— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) August 12, 2016
That’s why, when Trump was interviewed by Hewitt on Thursday, he repeatedly refused offers to explain what he meant -- even when Hewitt explicitly spelled it out for him.
Hewitt: Last night, you said the president was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, that he lost the peace.
Trump: No. I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.
In the same conversation, Trump essentially echoed Hewitt, saying that it was the way Obama removed troops from Iraq that “founded” ISIS. He knows, or at least has a general sense, of how ISIS came to its current position of power.
But it was obviously important to Trump to keep the idea that Obama founded the terrorist organization in play. Just as it was important when he discussed it with his supporters Thursday that he emphasize that the president’s middle name is the Arabic name “Hussein.”
Whether Trump is the most cynically manipulative politician of our lifetime or, more likely, a sort of savant who instinctively understands how to feed the worst instincts of his supporters, his words matter.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden may have put it best earlier this week when discussing Trump’s “Second Amendment people” controversy, which was supplanted by this one.
“You get to a certain point in this business, and you’re not just responsible for what you say,” he said in an appearance on CNN. “You’re responsible for what people hear.”