Despite Donald Trump's repeated assertions — on Wednesday night at a rally in Florida and again on Thursday morning in an interview with CNBC — President Obama is not the founder of the Islamic State (or ISIS, in Trump's non-Post-style-compliant usage).
The militant group, which started referring to itself as the Islamic State three years ago, was formed in 2002 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to the Mapping Militants project at Stanford University. Originally called Jama'at al-Tawhid wa'l Jihad, it joined al-Qaeda to form al-Qaeda in Iraq — and then, in 2013, split from al-Qaeda to become the Islamic State.
Obama no more founded the Islamic State than shopkeepers paying extortion money created the Mafia. Which, of course, would seem to have been Trump's actual point: That it was Obama's foreign policy that created the space for the Islamic State to gain power. Trump has made a similar argument before. At a rally in Mississippi in January, he claimed that "Hillary Clinton created ISIS with Obama," in her position as secretary of state. In June, he said the same thing during a "60 Minutes" interview: Hillary Clinton invented the terror group.
The extent to which Obama deserves blame for allowing the Islamic State to expand in the months after the Syrian civil war began or credit for the United States' (belated) focus on the group is a subject best left to others. But, regardless, Trump later denied that was actually his point, which we'll get to. So let's instead focus on how Trump's rhetoric overlaps so poorly with his campaign effort.
Donald Trump likes to outrage. He prides himself on it. He's got the perfect excuse, rolled out a year ago this week: He's simply not "politically correct." He's not PC, he told Fox News' Megyn Kelly in the first Republican debate last August, which is why he makes jokes about the physical appearance of women. Trump avoids the nuanced pronouncements of more experienced politicians and is clearly comfortable with being imprecise in how he makes his points. In his eyes, he's simply telling it like it is.
"All I do is tell the truth," he said during his interview with CNBC on Thursday. "I am a truth-teller."
Part of what motivates Trump to make questionable statements is that he feeds off the approval of his base. He has been repeating the line about Clinton being responsible for the rise of the Islamic State for a while. But the response from blaming Obama was different. His description of the president as the founder of the Islamic State at that rally this week gained volume and frequency as the crowd ate it up. It was almost Pavlovian, watching Trump ride the wave of applause as he said, over and over, that the U.S. president had founded the group.
Trump has made other comments that attempted to link the president to the terrorist group. In June, he implied that Obama was perhaps sympathetic to terrorists, telling an interviewer on Fox News that "we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart or has something else in mind."
"And the something else in mind — people can't believe it," he continued. "People cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There's something going on."
Polling subsequently showed that there was a segment of the Republican base that agreed with Trump's suggestion that the president might be sympathetic to terrorists. A survey last fall found that 43 percent of Republicans think Obama is Muslim, despite his regularly noting that he isn't. There's a reinforcement back and forth: Trump embraces arguments common among a subset of the conservative right and that subset applauds his candidacy.
This may also help explain Trump's bigger flub from earlier this week. On Tuesday, he said at a rally that "Second Amendment people" might be the only way to keep Clinton from appointing justices once she was president. Despite Trump's attempts to reframe the comments as somehow suggesting he was talking about electoral organizing, it was pretty clear that he was picking up on a dark joke that's not uncommon on the right: That at some point government overreach might need to be addressed with the use of the weapons the Second Amendment protects. He was saying something that he probably knew resonated with many people who like him.
Politicians always pander to their bases, but it rarely looks like this. Trump does his "truth-telling," which often means saying things that have been an undercurrent on the right for years. He gets loud appreciation for saying those things. It's a spin cycle.
Most politicians wouldn't do that — mainly because they're trying to expand their support outward. Hillary Clinton could say a lot of things that would be applauded by the Democratic far left, but that's not who she's trying to appeal to. (Well, also they probably wouldn't think she was being sincere, which is another problem.)
Clinton is focused on the general election, making a push to get Republican voters to pick her over Trump — or at least to stay home on Election Day. At the same time, she has a tightly controlled operation that's contacting voters on the ground and television spots running on the air. She has local surrogates making her case across the country.
Trump has ... Trump. He isn't running ads, he doesn't have folks in the field. It's himself, and recent reports suggest that there's not much that even top-level staff can do to get him to control his message. Again, the point about Obama's foreign policy, implemented by then-Secretary of State Clinton, can be made without accusing them of founding a group of murderous terrorists or saying that Obama is, as Trump put it on CNBC on Thursday, the Islamic State's "most valuable player." But Trump has proven to be immune to efforts to hew to more acceptable talking points.
One way a campaign staff would hold leverage over their candidate is by citing polling to show how the opponent is stacking up, or not. In this case, it should be easy: Trump, they can say, you are trailing badly and need to change what you're doing. But Trump continues to say publicly that he's doing well, that he gets big crowds at rallies, that he beat everyone in the primaries. Does he actually believe that he's on a viable path to the presidency? Maybe. And if so, why stop speaking off the cuff?
What's more, Trump almost always refuses to declare that anything he has done is a mistake. His explanation for the "Second Amendment" comments doesn't make sense; it would have been simple to say he misspoke. He didn't.
On Thursday morning, Trump spoke with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt about the Islamic State comment. From a transcript, reported by NBC's Katy Tur:
HEWITT: Last night you said that the president was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant, you meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace.
TRUMP: No, I meant that he's the founder of ISIS, I do. He was the most valuable player. I gave him the most valuable player award. I give her too, by the way.
HEWITT: But he's not sympathetic to them. He hates them; he's trying to kill them.
TRUMP: He was the found, his -- the way he got out of Iraq was the founding of ISIS.
HEWITT: By using the term "founder," they're hitting you on this again. Mistake?
TRUMP: No, it's no mistake. Everyone's liking it. I think they're liking it.
Trump asked Hewitt if he liked it; Hewitt did not. But as long as everyone else does, as long as the fans at those rallies do, that's what matters most.