Donald Trump has allegedly committed another devastating gaffe. That’s great news for Trump, because with each universally condemned howler, he has historically gained another couple of points in the polls.
What’s unusual about this latest crime against decency, though, is that it has nothing to do with what Trump said—it’s about what he failed to say in response to some dingbat at a campaign event:
At a town hall event held on Thursday evening in Rochester, N.H., Mr. Trump took the man’s question, which began with the statement: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.”
The audience member continued, “We know our current president is one.” And as Mr. Trump responded, perhaps reflexively, “Right,” the man added, “You know he’s not even an American.”
This comes from a New York Times story titled “Donald Trump Does Not Correct a Man Who Called Obama a Muslim.” Similar takeaways flooded the Web Friday. In what surely must hurt Trump’s feelings the most, Hillary Clinton piled on with a tweet: “Donald Trump not denouncing false statements about POTUS & hateful rhetoric about Muslims is disturbing, & just plain wrong. Cut it out.” And Sen. Bernie Sanders—Clinton’s surprise Democratic primary rival—called on Trump to apologize to Obama.
It’s unlikely that Trump will follow Sanders’ advice. Nor will he obey Clinton’s request to “cut it out.” There’s a term for what Trump did in allowing one of New Hampshire’s finest to voice his opinion sans correction: pandering. It happens all the time, and typically on issues with more real-world consequences than the outgoing president’s religious affiliation and birthplace. Why don’t these other instances of pandering elicit nearly as much outrage as this one did?
Trump did not correct this gentleman scholar because he shared a belief that’s widespread among the voters Trump has successfully courted and hopes to retain. As Slate’s Jeremy Stahl noted, 66 percent of Trump’s supporters believe Obama is a Muslim and 61 percent don’t believe he was born in the United States, according to a recent poll from the left-leaning Public Policy Polling. Polls of Republican voters writ large, meanwhile, have shown roughly half do not believe that Obama was born in the United States, and the number increases if you include those who are “not sure.” So it actually would have been politically damaging for Trump to correct this fan of his. (Clinton, by the way, should understand perfectly well the power of these myths against Barack Obama: Her 2008 campaign was the first to exploit their potential.)
If it’s now the case that candidates should land in cable news hot water whenever they don’t correct voters’ false premises, that’s fine. But it means we’ve got far, far more pressing material to work through.
Consider climate change. Certainly some of the candidates must believe, privately, that climate change is a serious, man-made problem that the next administration should address. Aside from Sen. Lindsey Graham, though, not many candidates will prioritize or even admit to this. That’s probably because a plurality of conservative Republican voters, according to a recent Gallup poll, does not believe that the effects of global warming will ever materialize. Only 37 percent of conservative Republicans believe that the effects of global warming will happen in their lifetimes. Since the effects of global warming are happening right now, only that 37-percent tranche maintains the factually correct belief on this issue. Trump was actually confronted with a question about climate change in the very same town hall meeting where he got the Muslim question. And he responded with an affirmative pander, polling the crowd on the issue for a show of hands, apparently to prove that because the assembled Republican voters didn’t believe in global warming it couldn’t be that important. Notice how that story did not explode in nearly the same way, though global climate change is arguably far more consequential than the question of where Trump believes Obama was born.
For an even more topical example, let’s look at a dominant sentiment among conservative voters and presidential candidates right now: Planned Parenthood must be defunded in the next government spending bill. It’s mathematically impossible for congressional Republicans to achieve this while President Obama wields a veto pen. Yet the persistent myth is that with a little more “spine” congressional Republicans could will themselves to victory without any damaging real-life consequences: namely, a shutdown in the federal government for which they would likely be blamed politically. It’s a myth in which many conservative voters believe, and that many presidential candidates mirror back to them. Where’s the commensurate outrage when candidates fail to correct voters about that?
Let’s not forget too that Congress will also have to sign off on an increase in the debt ceiling this fall, another area where pandering has become the accepted status quo. Remember, the genesis of the summer 2011 debt-ceiling battle was the 2010 Tea Party wave election, in which dozens of candidates pledged never to increase the debt ceiling—again, mirroring misinformed voters’ belief that doing so was optional. As a result, the United States suffered a wholly unnecessary credit downgrade to cap off the most annoying political summer in recent memory.
Yes, it is a fiction that President Obama is a Muslim from Kenya. If the dunce who badgered Trump about this Thursday night hasn’t picked up on that yet, he’s probably never going to, even if a candidate corrects him. As tedious as it is to see that racist myth persist in 2015, perhaps the outrage for candidates failing to correct voters should be directed toward more consequential issues going forward.