It’s at the point in Donald Trump’s campaign for president when it’s plausible to ask whether the billionaire real estate mogul is looking for a face-saving way out of a race he never expected to win, but can’t find one. How else to explain his increasingly erratic behavior over the past two weeks, culminating in this weekend’s extravaganza of race baiting, 9/11 fabrication, promise breaking and calls to restore torture as administration policy?
It was less than two weeks ago that Trump traveled to Iowa and delivered an unhinged rant comparing his chief rival to a “child molester” and calling Iowa voters “stupid.” Afterward, his poll numbers went up. In Iowa.
Running for the presidential nomination in a party that claims to object to “big government,” he’s been pitching the idea of a national “deportation force” – a sort of federal police force that would have thousands of agents roaming the country in search of undocumented immigrants to summarily deport. He continued to lead the Republican field.
It’s almost as though Trump is searching for something he can say that is outrageous and offensive enough to cause people to desert his cause. Last week, for instance, he signaled that he was open to depriving Muslim Americans of their civil rights based solely on their religion. His rallies were still packed.
So maybe, coming in to this weekend, he decided it was time to dial the outrage meter up a few more ticks.
At a rally in Birmingham on Saturday, Trump was interrupted by an African American man associated with the Black Lives Matter protest movement. The protestor, identified as Mercutio Southall, was assaulted by a number of people in the overwhelmingly white crowd who knocked him to the ground, punched, kicked and attempted to choke him. In interviews after the incident, Southall said his assailants also yelled racist slurs.
“Get him the hell out of here,” Trump thundered from the stage as security moved in to escort Southall from the building.
In an interview on Fox News the next morning, Trump was unapologetic about the violent reaction of his supporters to Southall, even appearing to condone it. “Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” he said.
Trump followed up on Sunday afternoon by retweeting wildly false information about homicide rates in the U.S. in a graphic illustrated with a picture of a gun wielding black man in military fatigue pants with a bandanna covering his face.
Citing the non-existent “Crime Statistics Bureau” of San Francisco, the graphic purports to provide 2015 crime statistics – data that not even the FBI has available yet – and claims that blacks are responsible for the vast majority of murders in the U.S., whether the victims are black or white.
While 2015 data hasn’t been compiled yet, data from previous years shows that while blacks are consistently responsible for the majority of murders in which the victim is black, it is whites who murder the vast majority of whites.
But African Americans weren’t the only targets of Trump’s wild accusations over the weekend. At the same rally where Southall was beaten, the billionaire former reality television star insisted that as the World Trade Center collapsed following the 9/11 attacks, killing thousands, Muslims across the river in Jersey City were dancing for joy.
“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”
Considering there is absolutely no contemporaneous evidence for this happening, and that law enforcement officials in New Jersey flat out say it never happened, a candidate possessed of even a tiny bit of self-doubt might have rethought his position. Not Trump.
On Sunday, challenged by ABC’s George Stephanopolous, Trump insisted, "It did happen. I saw it," said Trump. "It was on television. I saw it.”
“There were people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey, where you have large Arab populations. They were cheering as the World Trade Center came down,” he said. “I know it might be not politically correct for you to talk about it, but there were people cheering as that building came down, as those buildings came down. And that tells you something.”
Trump also used his appearance to break a promise he made to the Republican Party that he would not seek to run as a third party candidate. In September, Trump signed a loyalty pledge the read in part, “I will endorse the 2016 Republican presidential nominee regardless of who it is. I further pledge that I will not seek to run as an independent or write-in candidate nor will I seek or accept the nomination for president of any other party.”
The language in the pledge seems definitive, but on Sunday, Trump made it clear that he doesn’t consider it binding. “I will see what happens,” he told Stephanopoulos. “I have to be treated fairly.”
Finally, on Sunday, Trump called for the reinstitution of waterboarding as a means of interrogating people believed to be affiliated with the terror group ISIS. Waterboarding is a form of simulated drowning that is widely considered torture. The U.S. government brought war crimes against Japanese officers who used the practice on American soldiers during World War II.
The Obama administration banned the use of the technique, which intelligence officials had used on suspected members of Al Qaeda in the years following 9/11.
“I would bring it back, yes. I would bring it back,” Trump said Sunday. “I think waterboarding is peanuts compared to what they’d do to us.”
It’s too soon to say what effect his most recent outbursts will have on his poll numbers, but considering that he has paid virtually no price for earlier outrages, it seems unlikely that Trump’s performance over the weekend will hurt him with his backers.
And as the assault on Mercutio Southall in Birmingham showed, those backers are angry and, in some cases, willing to resort to violence. Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric may be creating a monster that, in the end, he won’t be able to control.