On one level, it seems like Donald Trump has taken a big step beyond anything he has done before by proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.
On another level, this is what Donald Trump has done throughout the campaign: make comments that push the envelope beyond what anyone had imagined, igniting a firestorm, bringing condemnation from much of the media and political establishment, enabling him to dominate the campaign for yet another week. And in the process, he casts himself as the truth-teller, the man who can keep the country safe, and often rises in the polls.
Trump called into several morning shows yesterday, doing battle with the anchors, doggedly defending his plan and giving not an inch, though perhaps a few centimeters.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo told Trump, “You’re acting out of fear, not making us strong, and rejecting what America is all about.”
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked how Trump felt being compared to Hitler. (The Philadelphia Daily News headline, “THE NEW FUROR,” depicted him giving what loosely looked like a Nazi salute.)
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough interrupted the interview and went to break, telling Trump “you can’t just talk,” but then came back for half an hour and told him that “banning all Muslims from coming here is counterproductive.”
Of course, Trump’s fans love him even more when the mainstream media come down on him like a ton of bricks.
The Republican front-runner did make the point in these interviews that the ban would be temporary, and his camp says Muslim-Americans in the armed forces would be exempt. He did not say how long he envisions the ban lasting until U.S. officials “can figure out what the hell is going on.”
What feels different about this round are the denunciations not just from most of Trump’s opponents but from big names throughout the party, including Dick Cheney and Paul Ryan. The former vice president is not exactly known as a squish when it comes to dealing with the Middle East and protecting the homeland. Even Rudy Giuliani parted company with his friend.
The same goes for the MSM. It’s not surprising that conservative and liberal commentators who have been pounding on Trump would bang him even harder. Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol tweeted, “Trump has entered John Birch Society/Pat Buchanan territory. Important to save conservatism from him.”
But NBC’s Richard Engel, who has been based in the Middle East for many years, doesn’t usually comment on partisan politics. He said: “The country is in a panic.There is demagoguery.This is really not the country that I know…
“The world sees the leading political candidate from one party making these kind of statements and still doing well and having these rallies…
“So from the world perspective, it is absolutely an image, an impression, a black spot on our collective foreign policy and our conscience. And it also just feeds into the ISIS narrative.”
In a taped segment for "World News Tonight," Barbara Walters flatly asked Trump: "Are you a bigot?"
"Not at all," he replied. "Probably the least of any person you've met."
The truth is, some Republican primary voters—no one knows how many—will embrace the idea of keeping Muslims out of the country. I’ve heard a number of commentators say privately that Trump will probably pick up a few points in the polls.
It’s hard to imagine that Trump would have gone there had it not been for the San Bernardino massacre. The fact that the female half of the couple came in on a spousal visa does raise serious questions about who gets to come to America.
Many people in this country are understandably scared, as even President Obama has been acknowledging. Trump’s critics say he is stoking and exploiting that fear. Trump’s supporters say he is responding to that fear with a tough-minded approach that flouts political correctness.
This is reminiscent of Trump’s insistence that he saw on television thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on 9/11, though no one has been able to find any such footage. Trump stoked that controversy for a good 10 days, keeping the focus on his signature issue and climbing to a 20-point lead over Ted Cruz in CNN’s latest national poll.
We are now in for a week of saturation coverage of whether Trump went too far, which keeps the white-hot spotlight on the front-runner. Whether the outrage of fellow Republican politicians blunts his progress or boosts his standing is, for the moment, the overriding question in politics.