Another day, another sputtering orgy of confusion following a cryptic Donald Trump tweet. This one came Thursday, a few hours after a van plowed into a crowd on the Barcelona pedestrian mall of Las Ramblas, an attack claimed by the reeling Islamic State. The president replied, via iPhone:
Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
It seemed to be a reference to a story Trump told at campaign rallies during the 2016 primaries, which in turn was a garbled version of an Islamophobic meme that has made its way around the internet for years. In the fable, the legendary U.S. General John J. Pershing once ended a wave of Muslim terrorism in the Philippines by executing prisoners with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. Other superstitious fighters were so terrified by the prospect of being killed while touching part of a forbidden animal, the story goes, that fighting immediately stopped, for some period of time. (For 25 years, Trump said at a North Charleston, South Carolina, rally in February 2016; a few weeks later, in Costa Mesa, California, it had jumped up to 42.)
Journalists and commentators, who’ve gotten more comfortable calling out the president’s lies, turned to the fact-checks that circulated the last times he told the story, mainly on Snopes and Politifact. The general conclusions: that the story was bogus, implausible, and an insult to the memory of an American hero. In praising the execution of even fictitious prisoners, after all, Trump was endorsing a war crime. “I’ve never met an American officer who would carry out an order to commit an atrocity like this,” David French wrote in the National Review.