New Hampshire voters gave Donald Trump his first victory in the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, and less than 12 hours later he fed red meat to the most radical among them when he speculated about assassinating the leader of North Korea on live television.
Whether it’s theater or Trump’s version of throwing darts at what he calls political correctness, Trump is plainly testing the limits of presidential protocol. You can only watch so many rallies where Trump calls for bringing back torture, killing the wives and children of suspected terrorists, and banning all Muslims from entering the country without coming to some conclusions about how he would behave in the White House.
Trump is selling dumbed-down solutions to complex problems, all wrapped in a macho swagger so overdone it would make John Wayne blush.
Don’t like immigrants? Trump will build a wall.
Scared of Muslims? Trump will ban them.
Worried about terrorism? Trump will kill them all.
Trump’s supporters love him because he makes them feel good, but his speeches and interviews are the junk food of political discourse. Everything that comes out of his mouth is crafted to stimulate the same response as when Rocky finally gets up and pummels Apollo Creed.
Wednesday morning was just another example, as Trump appeared on CBS This Morning. Host Norah O’Donnell asked him what he would do about North Korea, given that the rogue state headed by dictator Kim Jong-un had recently violated a ban on missile tests and restarted a plutonium nuclear reactor.
“I would get China to make that guy disappear, in one form or another, very quickly,” Trump said.
Do you mean assassinate him? O’Donnell asked.
“No,” Trump began, before evidently changing his mind and saying, “well, you know, I’ve heard of worse things, frankly. This guy’s a bad dude.”
Let’s break this down. First, presidents of the United States, and people who want to be president, don’t talk about assassinating other world leaders, no matter how odious they happen to be. Even if we don’t always live up to our highest values, most Americans would agree that that’s not a road we want to go down.
Second, does Trump actually think he can contract out some kind of hit on Kim to Beijing? That Xi Jinping, as a favor to The Donald, is going to destabilize a nuclear power on his doorstep that has both a huge standing army and millions of starving citizens?
The answer is that of course Trump doesn’t. But he does know that some of his supporters will eat up the suggestion with a spoon and ask for seconds. And he knows that suggesting it will do him no harm and might even help him with his followers.
There’s a recurrent meme in the political press right now about the need to respect the anger Trump voters are experiencing and to recognize their feelings of betrayal and loss of control in a country with both a changing economy and changing demographics.
But it’s getting tough to give anybody cheering for war crimes, murder and discrimination the benefit of the doubt.
Are Trump supporters angry? Sure. But the measure of a person isn’t whether or not they have feelings. It’s how they act on those feelings. Martin Luther King Jr. was angry. So was Father Coughlin. But there’s a reason why history reveres one and reviles the other.