Crises bring out the best and worst in people, as has been demonstrated vividly this past week by the behavior of President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Obama showed his best face in Tuesday’s news conference with visiting French President François Hollande. Obama was cool and restrained, analytically clear, and appropriately apolitical in describing how the United States will work with France in combating the Islamic State. He avoided inflaming the delicate and potentially dangerous situation following the shoot-down of a Russian military jet by Turkey.
Perhaps most important, Obama embodied America’s best self by combating the panicky, anti-Muslim sentiment that’s loose in the country following the Paris attacks. In voicing the welcome to immigrants that’s chiseled on the Statue of Liberty, he reminded us where America’s real strength lies.
Obama has often misfired on Syria and the Islamic State. I wish he had been a more aggressive leader since this crisis began four years ago. I wish he hadn’t sounded petty and political last week in criticizing GOP politicians. But Tuesday he was a model of responsible leadership.
Now look at Trump’s behavior over the past few days. He has displayed a level of irresponsibility that borders on recklessness. This is a time when the essence of leadership is clarity and restraint — when even politicians should put aside their usual braggadocio and self-aggrandizement for the good of the country.
Trump has done the opposite. He appears to be inflaming the situation deliberately, to advance his presidential campaign. It’s rare that we see this level of demagoguery in U.S. politics, but it’s frightening. His divisive comments play so directly into the polarizing strategies of our terrorist adversaries — who want to foment Western-Muslim hatred — that a case can be made that he has put the country at greater risk.
Trump tosses hand grenades of rumor, slander and intolerance. He makes inflammatory statements with no factual support, such as his assertion Nov. 14 that “our president wants to take in 250,000 [refugees] from Syria,” or his claim Saturday that “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” in Muslim neighborhoods in New Jersey when the twin towers fell.
These aren’t just a politician’s exaggerations: They’re dangerous fabrications, meant to engender fear at a time when calm is needed.
Trump’s comments Monday on waterboarding were also damaging to this country. Remember, this is a technique that the United States (and most of the rest of the world) now regards as an illegal form of torture. “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. . . . And I would approve more than that. . . . Believe me, it works. And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”
Put aside questions of ethics and morality. These public calls for torture are the verbal equivalent of the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
Are Trump’s comments really making us less safe? I fear that’s so: Professional counterterrorism experts say that the United States has had relatively few “lone wolf” attacks partly because Muslim Americans believe they are part of the national community. They have a stake in the United States and its security. The FBI and local law enforcement agencies work 24/7 to build this sense of trust and cooperation so that when Muslim communities see extremists in their midst, they will report them to authorities.
These essential threads of interdependence are what Trump is ripping apart. Try to read his words as a Muslim neighbor would, when Trump said Nov. 17, “We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.” Or when he responded to a question two days later about creating databases to track Muslims, “certainly” and “absolutely.” Trump’s defenders say he misspoke, or was responding to a question — but that’s precisely the point. He wasn’t being clear and careful, on a subject where clarity is essential in this moment of crisis.
Let’s state the problem in the simplest terms: If Muslim Americans come to believe that prominent leaders (such as the top GOP presidential candidate) view them as less worthy of rights and protections than others, then the job of the Islamic State’s recruiters will become easier. The work of intelligence officers, cops and soldiers who have been trying to stop our terrorist adversaries will become more difficult.
It’s hard to imagine that someone would put the country at greater risk for personal political benefit. But that’s exactly what Trump has been doing. It’s outrageous behavior, and responsible Republicans must insist that it stop.