Demagogues love to market the Big Lie. When Donald Trump insists that “thousands and thousands” in Jersey City’s “Arab population” cheered the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, and that he watched the cheering on TV, he’s libeling an entire ethnic group as bloodthirsty traitors. That’s like what the Nazis did in the ’30s, when they libeled all German Jews as treasonous commies and bloodsucking capitalists. (The Nazis could never decide which.)
But I write today not to highlight the latest Trump lie — there’s no evidence whatsoever that mass cheering broke out in Jersey City on 9/11, no police reports, no TV coverage, nothing — because it takes just two paragraphs to toss it in the trash. What’s far more interesting is when a demagogue spreads his poison via verbal sleight of hand. So let’s assess Donald Trump at his subtlest (if there is such a thing).
I’m talking here about Trump’s support for a Muslim database. Which he sort of endorsed until he didn’t, which he didn’t endorse until he sort of did. The bottom line — at least this morning, after repeated questioning — is that he refuses to categorically rule it out. All of which tells us a lot about how the Republican frontrunner plays his craven game, and plays on the fears of his fans.
Let’s take this chronologically. Last Thursday, a Yahoo News reporter asked Trump, “Do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on an ID?” Trump replied, “Well, we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”
OK, Trump didn’t specifically endorse a Muslim database, but he didn’t bat it away, either. The problem, however, is that he toyed with the idea of a Muslim database not just once but twice. Because, later on Thursday, an NBC News reporter sought clarification by asking him, “Should there be a database system that tracks Muslims in this country?” And again Trump refused to say no. He replied: “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases. I mean we should have a lot of systems. And today you can do it.”
Huh? What did Trump mean by the word beyond? Was he talking about tracking Muslims in all kinds of ways except databases, or in addition to databases?
It appeared, as the NBC News interview continued, that he did support a Muslim database. The reporter asked, “But Muslims specifically? How would you get them registered?” And Trump replied: “It would be good management. What you have to do is good management procedures.” The reporter asked, “Do you go to mosques and sign people up?” And Trump replied: “You sign them up at different places. But it’s all about management.” The reporter asked, “Would you have to legally be in this database?” And Trump replied: “You have to be.”
But hang on. In a Friday tweet, Trump appeared to be renouncing everything he’d said the night before: “I didn’t suggest a database — a reporter did.”
So yesterday, on ABC News, host George Stephanopoulous spoke to Trump and sought clarification: “You did stir up a controversy with those comments over the database. Let’s try to clear that up. Are you unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?”
Stephanopoulos couldn’t have made it easier. It was like coaxing a kid to home plate for a swing at T-ball. All Trump had to say was “Yes,” that he was ruling it out.
But he said the opposite: “No, not at all. I want a database for the refugees that — if they come into the country. We have no idea who these people are …. And I definitely want a database …. We have to go with databases …. When I look at the migration and the lines and I see strong, very powerful-looking men, they’re men, and I see very few women, I see very few women and children, there’s something strange going on …. And a database would be fine.”
So there it is. I think. Trump does want a database — but maybe not for American Muslims (which is what he appeared to tell NBC News, when he spoke of registering people at mosques), maybe only for the Muslim refugees. (Although, in a priceless fact check, Stephanopoulous quickly said: “Just for the record, though, the statistics do show the majority of the refugees coming in are women and children.” Trump, being a post-fact kind of guy, didn’t bother to dispute that.)
What I conclude, from the database episode, is that Trump is not a doctrinaire demagogue. He has no particular agenda. He’s wedded not to an ideology, but to his own verbal flatulence. He’s reckless and feckless in his remarks, riffing in the moment to stoke the fears that drive his poll ratings. If you were to ask the guy, “Ya think maybe we should waterboard some Syrian refugees and live-stream it on Twitter?,” he’d probably say, “Yeah we gotta look at a lotta big beautiful things.”
These days, some of his most virulent critics are calling him a fascist. I disagree. I think he’s just playing a fascist on TV. And in the current climate, that’s arguably just as dangerous.