By Hastings Wyman –
The problem that critics of Donald Trump’s controversial proposals have not solved is how to criticize them without helping Trump in the process. Trump throws out simplified, red-meat policies on Islamist terrorists and illegal immigration. His critics, including his erstwhile foes for the GOP nomination as well as Democrats, respond with biting critiques of the messenger as well as the message, then try to explain the complications of the issues at hand.
Trump called for a temporary “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the US “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
His Republican rivals were quick to take issue. Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged,” adding that “His ‘policy’ proposals are not serious.” Bush also said that Trump played into the hands of Islamic extremists, who “want us to marginalize Muslims so that they move in their direction, rather than in ours.” John Kasich hit Trump’s “outrageous divisiveness.” And Lindsey Graham said Islamic countries would be unlikely to cooperate with Trump in the Middle East after his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US.
GOPers were not Trump’s only critics. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called Trump’s proposal “irresponsible, probably illegal, unconstitutional, and contrary to international law, un-American.”
Trump responded, on ABC, that thousands of people contacted him to express their support for his policy. They “just want to see something happen.”
Trump also ignited a firestorm of criticism for his statement that Mexico is sending us drug smugglers, “criminals” and “rapists” (though he did acknowledge that some were good people). He vowed to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and to build a wall to keep them out in the future.
Jeb Bush, when still in the running, said that Trump’s “views are way out of the mainstream of what Republicans think.” He added, “No one suggests that we shouldn’t control our borders… ” he said. “But to make these extraordinarily ugly kind of comments is not reflective of the Republican Party.”
And House Speaker Paul Ryan said “we have to come up with a solution that doesn’t involve mass deportation.”
Lindsey Graham summed up anti-Trump sentiment by saying that Trump is “a race-bating, xenophobic, religious bigot.”
But through all the sturm und drang, Trump continued to gain within the Republican and even independent electorate. His 33% “ceiling” became 50%, then began pushing 60%, at the ballot box as well as in opinion polls.
One likely reason is that Trump took center stage as the candidate who wants to take serious action to keep terrorists out of the country and to solve the immigration problem. His supporters see the New York billionaire as someone who will get things done to solve sproblems. His critics are left in the unenviable position of nitpicking Trump and, by implication, supporting the status quo. The exact details of his proposals may not be nailed down, but it is clear to Joe, if not Jane, Sixpack, that Trump shares their concerns and will do something to address them. They believe that, one way or another, Trump will “put America first.”
Now the question is what will happen in the General Election. Whether the same dynamic will prevail when the electorate expands to include college-educated suburbanites, as well important minority groups that hold considerable sway, remains to be seen.
Hillary Clinton appears, in part, to be pursuing a line of attack similar to that of Trump’s fellow Republicans. Addressing a Latino audience in Los Angeles last week, she called Trump’s language about Mexican immigrants “hateful,” hitting “his plan to create a deportation force to round up millions of people.” She also criticized his plan to build a wall and to “scrap” President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. And last fall, in a CNN town hall, Clinton called Trump’s advocacy of a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country “shameful and offensive,” as well as “dangerous.” She has not put her own solutions in the spotlight, leaving her, like Trump’s Republican critics, as the status quo candidate. If Trump’s campaign for the GOP nomination is any guide – and it may not be – Clinton may find this a losing strategy.
Clinton has also begun to call Trump “risky.” This may be a better anti-Trump strategy, though it surely needs stronger language. Even The Donald must see that his slash-and-burn personal attacks on fellow Republicans are now coming home to roost. But whether he will – or even can – change his style in the next few months remains to be seen. As does Trump’s appeal as the candidate who will “do something” about Islamist terrorism and illegal immigration. Stay tuned.