Election 2016

Trump's Outrageous Attacks Against Father of Slain Muslim Soldier Aren't Gaffes—It's How He Talks to His Base

Among Trump supporters, white nationalist sentiment far outstrips allegiance to the U.S. military.

Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock

Many are the pundits who view the attack by Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump on the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq as an ego-driven gaffe—one Trump just can’t let go of because of his allergy to admitting mistakes.

But while the attack may indeed be ego-driven, it’s in line with the campaign’s messaging, which appears to be crafted by political operative and longtime dirty trickster Roger Stone. The bet is this: In the demographic the Trump campaign has targeted, white nationalist sentiment far outstrips allegiance to the U.S. military, a multicultural force that Trump has described as “a disaster.” 

At issue are remarks made from the podium of the Democratic National Convention by Khizr Khan, father of the late Humayun Khan, a United States Army captain who ordered his unit away from a suspicious vehicle and approached it himself, only to be killed when it exploded. Referring to Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims who wish to enter the U.S., Khizr Khan issued a direct challenge to Trump during the nationally televised convention, asking if the GOP standard-bearer had ever read the U.S. Constitution and offering to lend him a copy. Trump, he added, had “sacrificed nothing and no one.”

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Trump’s initial response was rather tame and lame, when he told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News’ This Week that, hey, he had sacrificed plenty by creating all kinds of jobs and having “tremendous success.” But Trump couldn’t stop himself from insinuating that Khizr Khan’s wife, Ghazala, stood silently by his side at the convention because her religion forbade her to speak. (Not true, she responded in an interview on CNN; she was simply too overcome with emotion to speak.)

Still Trump, who took three draft deferments during the Vietnam War, just couldn’t stop insulting the family of the slain Army officer, and took to Twitter to accuse Khizr Khan of “viciously attacking me.”

Trump Allies Tar War Hero

That’s all small stuff compared to what came next from Team Trump. Roger Stone, business partner of campaign manager Paul Manafort and the campaign’s apparent messaging guru, took to Twitter on Sunday night to advance a scurrilous article by right-wing conspiracy nuts Walid and Ted Shoebat that alleges Khizr Khan is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and that his slain son Humayun was an Islamist terrorist.

Brian Tashman of Right Wing Watch reports that Ted Shoebat “has called for gay peopleMuslim AmericansHillary Clinton and others to be put to death by the government, while Walid has said that Jesus Christ would ‘kill gays,’ lashed out at ‘dumb Jews’ and said that only ‘liberals, idiots and gay lovers’ would mourn the recent attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando.”

This isn’t the first time Stone has allied with right-wing conspiracy theorists in the service of the Trump campaign. I reported for AlterNet on a rally in Cleveland co-hosted by Stone and far-right radio host Alex Jones of InfoWars, at which the messaging offered by the right-wing fringe figures featured at the gathering turned out to be a preview of that advanced by the campaign at the Republican National Convention later that evening, with particular focus on a false allegation of criminality against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. 

Stone apologized for his tardiness in arriving at the rally, saying he was delayed by meetings with the Trump staff. It was Stone who convinced Trump to appear on Jones’ radio program in December; months before Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., Jones called for the deportation of Muslims already in the U.S.

It's Brand-Building

What I’m trying to get at is that, despite the horror of establishment Republicans and the handwringing over whether Trump is sinking his campaign, his ongoing jihad against the Khans is a feature, not a bug, of his messaging. He knows that those who are inclined to vote for him will accept these libels against the Khans; it’s their way of discrediting them.

If you think no one would possibly believe such crazy accusations, think again. Philip Klinkner, professor of government at Hamilton College and coauthor of The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America, found that if you asked a voter one question, you could determine whether or not he or she supported Trump for president: “Is President Obama a Muslim?” If the answer was yes, bingo! 

After examining data from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot survey, Klinkner wrote on Vox on June 2, “If they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.”

At the root of Trump’s appeal, he found, was racial, religious and cultural resentment—not concerns about the economy or trade deals. Negative views of both blacks and Muslims are hallmark sentiments of Trump supporters. 

Attack to Have Little Effect?

At least one prominent pollster sees little damage coming Trump’s way from the continued war of words between Trump, the Khans, and those—including U.S. Senator John McCain and President Obama—taking Trump to task for insulting the grieving family.

“I don't expect it to have a huge impact on the numbers in the presidential race because what we've found, when Trump goes off on one of these outrageous tangents, is that his voters tend to just rally around him about it,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, told Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart. “Some of the examples of that are when he said that stuff about Muslims in New Jersey actively celebrating 9/11. That was something that was clearly, factually untrue and sort of a wild accusation, but when we asked about that in the weeks after he said that, we found that all of his supporters said they thought that that happened, too. We saw the same sort of thing with his Muslim ban.”

In fact, Jensen said, any backlash against Trump by the political or military establishments will only push his supporters to rally around him in a “cult-like” manner.

In other words, Trump’s attacks on the Khans will only serve to build his brand among those already leaning his way.

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Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist for The American Prospect. Follow her on Twitter @addiestan.