On Monday, Donald Trump strongly implied that Barack Obama was somehow complicit in, or at the least turning a blind eye to, Islamist terror, a shocking and unfounded accusation to make against the president of the United States. When The Washington Post accurately reported his comments, a furious Trump announced he was banning the newspaper from his events.
On Tuesday, Obama ripped Trump while explaining his reluctance to refer to “radical Islam.” And Trump, who had been so outraged by the Post’s headline, responded by, well, accusing Obama of treason.
“President Obama claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and for that matter, the American people,” Trump said in a statement to the AP. “When I am President, it will always be America First.”
Although various observers other than Trump disputed the meaning of his comments yesterday, his statement today leaves no doubt: He’s plainly accusing Obama of putting the interests of the enemies of the United States over those of its own citizens. It is a watershed moment, though perhaps it’s only a small leap from claiming that the president is not actually American, as Trump has repeatedly done, to claiming that he is acting to harm America.
Trump acts in many ways as a caricature—not in that he is comedic, but in the way he takes the script for a standard conservative American politician and amplifies it just a little bit more, to the point of making accusations that are unheard-of, and often frowned upon by the GOP. Many Republicans speak stridently about immigration and the need for increased security at the Southern border, to the point that the party was already scared about losing Hispanic support. Trump took that a step further, and accused Mexicans of being criminals and rapists while promising to build a massive border wall. Many Republicans warn about the threat posed by Islamic radicalism, but Trump took that a step further, calling for a total ban on Muslim immigration that horrified fellow GOP leaders.
So it is with Trump’s statement today. Republicans have hated Obama’s conduct of foreign policy, especially the nuclear deal with Iran. Senator Ted Cruz, one of Obama’s most outspoken critics, said this in March:
Our friend and allies, we've abandoned them. This has been the most anti-Israel administration we have ever seen. And we have shown weakness and appeasement to our enemies.
That’s already a controversial stance. (Is this really the most anti-Israel administration ever?) But Trump takes that idea a crucial step further: Not only is Obama insufficiently friendly to Israel and other allies, Trump contends that Obama is intentionally aiding and abetting foreign enemies.
Not that Trump’s idea makes much sense. Yesterday, he argued that actions were more important than words. Obama’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terror” may or may not make sense, but his actions hardly suggest sympathy toward ISIS. For example, he has launched thousands of airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, in addition to deploying military forces on the ground. He’s literally ordering American troops into combat against ISIS. There’s a great deal of space for disagreement that falls between applauding the president’s strategy and accusing him of favoring the enemy. Trump leaps over it without a second thought.
Today’s American politics is plagued by an inability by many partisans to assume good faith. But generally, as with Cruz’s statement, that’s left in the shadows—perhaps Obama is merely mistaken. Trump’s innovation is to make the accusation of bad faith his go-to move.