In his latest outburst, Donald Trump has pinned blame for ISIS on Barack Obama.
“In many respects, you know, they honor President Obama,” Trump said Wednesday in Florida. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.”
Trump added, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”
Just two months ago, Trump set off a firestorm when he implicitly accused Obama of treason, suggesting the president might have known about the Orlando massacre and done nothing. Trump insisted he hadn’t said that, then promptly did so again the following day. At the time, that seemed like a nearly unfathomable depth, since surpassed by Trump’s obscure apparent joke earlier this week about gun owners preventing Clinton from appointing judges to the Supreme Court. In that case, as with the treason allegation, Trump—who typically boasts of his blunt talk—has insisted what he meant was different from the most obvious interpretation.
The ISIS remark is different, because this time Trump is insisting he meant just what he said. It’s not hard to factually debunk Trump’s accusation. For example: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late terrorist, founded Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, ISIS’s predecessor organization. Zarqawi’s organization was founded in 1999, or, in its more recent form, as ISIS, in 2006, the former when Obama was a lowly state senator, and the latter when he was a freshman U.S. senator. There’s also the fact Obama has launched thousands of airstrikes and deployed ground troops to combat ISIS. There are reasonable critiques of Obama’s ISIS strategy, but the idea that he’s a founder of the group is plainly ridiculous.
But the facts are beside the point, aren’t they? It’s really just about ridiculing Obama however possible, and tossing red meat to the president’s critics. Given Trump’s freewheeling speaking style, there’s little indication he had thought through the comment for long before he made it. In an excellent piece this week, Dara Lind made the observation that many of Trump’s most outlandish comments have come in places where he seems to be caricaturing conservative thought. Gun-rights advocates have argued that citizens need guns to defend against government tyranny; Trump went just a little further, advancing that to the idea that someone could shoot either Clinton or her nominees. Pro-life advocates argue abortion is bad and should be stopped; Trump, going against decades of anti-abortion messaging, advanced that to the idea that women who get abortions should be punished.
“The problem with treating Donald Trump as the conservative id, though, is that Trump isn’t a conservative,” Lind wrote. “He’s not saying things he believes because he doesn’t know he’s not supposed to say them; he’s saying things he doesn’t believe because he thinks other people do.”
This was true of Trump’s treason accusation, too. Leading Republican voices had accused Obama of selling out U.S. interests with the Iran deal, his handling of Israel, and other matters. Trump took it a step further and went directly to the suggestion that Obama was a traitor.
Accusing Obama of treason, or of founding ISIS, are however neatly of a piece with Trump’s baseless insistence that Obama is not American and was born abroad—just new ways to portray him as an alien other. Ironically, Trump himself has been labeled an other, completely alien to the existing U.S. political system and its norms. It stands to reason that he’d mirror such attacks: When Trump is criticized, his go-to rhetorical turn is “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” which is why ever since Clinton labeled Trump unfit for office because of his “temperament,” Trump has made criticizing her own temperament a centerpiece of his stump speech, using the word repeatedly.
Thursday morning, Trump gave an interview to Hugh Hewitt, the conservative radio host who was an early Trump critic but has since come around. Recognizing the factual bankruptcy of Trump’s “founder” jibe, Hewitt, a far more informed foreign-affairs observer, tried to throw Trump a life raft.
“Last night, you said the president was the founder of ISIS. I know what you meant. You meant that he created the vacuum, he lost the peace,” Hewitt said.
Trump threw the life raft right back, insisting he meant exactly what he had said.
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS. I do. He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton,” he replied.
HH: But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them.
DT: I don’t care. He was the founder. His, the way he got out of Iraq was that that was the founding of ISIS, okay?
HH: …. But by using the term founder, they’re hitting with you on this again. Mistake?
DT: No, it’s no mistake. Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it. I give him the most valuable player award. And I give it to him, and I give it to, I gave the co-founder to Hillary. I don’t know if you heard that.
Given the opportunity by Hewitt to turn an outlandish remark from a demonstrable falsehood into mere hyperbole, Trump wasn’t interested. He knows the comment means nothing, but he can’t bear to admit a mistake. (This interview could serve as a useful reminder next time Trump insists he’s being misinterpreted or misunderstood. He has indicated time and again that he means what he says.)
For obvious reasons, it’s difficult to have a useful political discourse when disagreements over policy can only be ascribed to actual identification with the nation’s enemies. (Or when presidential candidates are flirting with assassination, but that’s another story.) Trump isn’t thinking that way, though. He’s thinking about immediate political payoff. “Everyone’s liking it. I think they’re liking it,” he said. In fact, voters favor Clinton over Trump on handling of terrorism by a sizable margin.