One of Donald Trump’s attractions as a presidential candidate was his defiance of etiquette. In a YouGov poll taken in March, the top answer given for “why so many people are supporting Donald Trump,” by far, was that “he is not politically correct.” Three months later, a Pew survey asked whether “people need to be more careful about the language they use to avoid offending people with different backgrounds,” or whether, alternatively, “too many people are easily offended these days over the language that others use.” Fifty-nine percent of Americans and 83 percent of Trump supporters chose the statement that “too many people are easily offended.”
In Trump, these voters have gotten what they wanted: a president who doesn’t fuss about cultural or ethnic sensitivities. But Trump’s indifference isn’t a display of courage. It’s a display of apathy. He has difficulty feeling, or feeling moved by, the pain of people different from him. To that extent, he’s a sociopath. This is what we’re now seeing as Trump ignores questions about his policies against Muslims.
Last December, Trump proposed “a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Six months later, after wrapping up the Republican nomination, he began to recast this policy as a ban on people coming from terror-infested countries. Evidently, Trump’s advisers had persuaded him to ditch the religious test. But Trump never had a problem with it. Here’s how he answered Lesley Stahl when she interviewed him and his running mate, Mike Pence, for the July 17 edition of 60 Minutes:
Stahl: (to Pence) In December, you tweeted, and I quote you: “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.”
Trump: So you call it territories, OK? We’re gonna do territories. …
Stahl: So you’re changing your position.
Trump: No, I—call it whatever you want. We’ll call it territories, OK?
Speaking to Sean Hannity a week later, Trump dismissed the idea that he was backing down. “My position’s gotten bigger,” he insisted. “I’m talking about territories now.” In a July 24 appearance on Meet the Press, he explained:
I actually don’t think it’s a rollback. In fact, you could say it’s an expansion. I’m looking now at territories. People were so upset when I used the word Muslim. Oh, you can’t use the word Muslim. Remember this—and I’m OK with that, because I’m talking territory instead of Muslim. But just remember this: Our Constitution is great, but it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide, OK? Now, we have a religious—you know, everybody wants to be protected. And that’s great. And that’s the wonderful part of our Constitution. I view it differently: Why are we committing suicide? Why are we doing that? But you know what? I live with our Constitution. I love our Constitution. I cherish our Constitution. We’re making it territorial.
In Trump’s answers, you can see a pattern. First, no apology. Second, no acknowledgment of retreat. Third, no acknowledgment that discrimination on the basis of religion is wrong. Trump gets that some people are upset, but he sees it as hypersensitivity: “Oh, you can’t use the word Muslim.” He also gets that some people see religious discrimination as a constitutional problem. He thinks that’s honorable and sweet. But it’s not his main concern.
Trump harbors several hostile beliefs about Muslims. He has said that “Islam hates us,” that Muslims are favored over Christians in U.S. immigration policy, and that they’re “trying to take over our children and convince them … how wonderful Islam is.” He has repeatedly, falsely accused Muslims of seeing “bombs all over the apartment” of the terrorists who attacked San Bernardino last year. He has suggested that Muslim communities should “suffer the consequences” when such evidence goes unreported, and he has brushed aside concerns about demographic profiling in these cases. “Whether it’s racial profiling or politically correct, we better get smart,” he says.
But what distinguishes Trump, even from other Muslim-baiting politicians, is his indifference to the confusion and fear his remarks have generated. On Oct. 9, at a town-hall debate in St. Louis, a woman rose to ask him a question. “Hi. There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them,” she told him. “With Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?”
Trump was standing 10 feet from the questioner. “Well, you’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame,” he began. But instead of answering her, he turned away. “We have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on,” he said. He repeated his lie that “in San Bernardino, many people saw the bombs all over the apartment.” When the debate moderator asked Trump to clarify “whether or not the Muslim ban still stands,” he refused to say yes or no.
A month later, Trump was elected president. Now it was even more important to spell out his intentions. On Nov. 10, Trump spoke to reporters as he left the U.S. Capitol. He talked about immigration, health care, and jobs. A reporter called out: “Are you going to ask Congress to ban Muslims from entering the country?” Trump stared at the reporter, said, “Thank you, everybody,” and walked away.
On Wednesday, Trump again spoke to the press, this time from the doorway of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida. He answered questions about defense procurement and about this week’s violence in Europe, which included an assassination, an attack against Muslims, and another attack suspected of having been committed by a Muslim. A reporter called out: “Has it caused you to rethink or re-evaluate your plans to create a Muslim registry or ban Muslim immigration to the United States?” Again, Trump didn’t say yes or no. He offered no guidance as to whether he wanted a registry or a ban. He simply replied: “You know my plans. All along, I’ve been proven to be right, 100 percent correct. What’s happening is disgraceful.”
News outlets have interpreted Trump’s answer as a defense of explicitly anti-Muslim policies. He “appeared to stand by his plans to establish a registry for Muslims and temporarily ban Muslim immigrants,” said the Washington Post. A New York Times headline concluded: “Trump Suggests Berlin Attack Affirms His Plan to Bar Muslims.” That’s unfair. Trump never really proposed a Muslim registry, and since June, he has consistently spoken of filtering refugees by country, not by religion. In the wake of his remarks on Wednesday, aides have repeated that he wouldn’t apply a religious test.
When Trump said, “You know my plans,” he wasn’t reviving the idea of a Muslim immigration ban. He was waving away the whole tiresome subject. He was saying that he had changed that policy, that reporters knew it, that they were ignoring the change, and that he wasn’t going to play their game. If the dishonest media want to keep asking about a “Muslim ban,” Trump figures, it’s their problem.
But it’s not their problem. The people for whom it’s a problem are Muslims. They’re scared. They need reassurance. A normal president would feel that. He would set aside his beef with the media. “Of course I don’t support a ban on Muslims or a registry of Muslims,” he would say. “To every Muslim citizen of this country, and every Muslim around the world, I want you to know: This country does not discriminate on the basis of religion, and I would never do that.”
But Trump doesn’t say that. Three times in three months, he has had the chance. Three times, he has spurned it. He has treated the question as a game between himself and the press. He doesn’t feel the humanity at stake, even when it’s standing 10 feet away. He senses no obligation to reach out, to clarify, to reassure. Trump is the perfect rebuke to the culture of political correctness. He feels nothing.