The outrages that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has committed against what most people consider decent behavior have been so frequent and varied over the last year that the public has become somewhat numb to them. He retweets another white supremacist? Yawn. He spouts demonstrable falsehoods on national television? Meh.
However, in deciding to attack the family of an American soldier who died in Iraq, he shattered norms and traditions that leaders of both parties tend to honor without question. And the angry response from some of his fellow Republican politicians suggests that Trump may be approaching a level of public toxicity that will make even their grudging support of his candidacy untenable.
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Khizr and Ghalaza Khan, whose son Humayun died protecting his men from a suicide bomber in 2004 while deployed to Iraq, made what may have been the most effective attack on Trump by any of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention last week. In a powerful speech, Mr. Khan noted that Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. would have prevented his son from emigrating from Pakistan, as he did with the rest of his family at age two.
Mr. Khan memorably questioned whether Trump had ever read the U.S. Constitution or visited Arlington Cemetery, where Humayun Khan is buried.
“You have sacrificed nothing,” Khan said. “And no one.”
Harsh words from a grieving father. Surely they stung, particularly to someone as sensitive to slights as Trump. But there is something sacrosanct about the grief of parents of children who die in the nation’s service, and most people who aspire to the White House understand that.
Ten years ago, a woman named Cindy Sheehan, whose son also died in Iraq, camped out on land near then-President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch, demanding a meeting with the president. While she gave angry interviews about his foreign policy to major media outlets across the country, Bush was largely silent.
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Asked about her in a press conference at his ranch, Bush said, “She has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position.”
More recently, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was asked to respond to remarks by the parents of two of the Americans killed in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Both have claimed that the former secretary of state lied to her about the causes of the attack when they met. One of them, Pat Smith, said at the Republican National Convention that she personally blames Clinton for her son’s death.”
“My heart goes out to both of them,” Clinton said. “Losing a child under any circumstances, especially in this case, two State Department employees, extraordinary men, both of them, two CIA contractors gave their lives protecting our countries, our values. I understand the grief and the incredible sense of loss that can motivate that.”
Asked specifically to respond to the claims that she had lied, Clinton said, “As other members of families who lost loved ones have said, that's not what they heard -- I don't hold any ill feeling for someone who in that moment may not fully recall everything that was or wasn't said.”
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Contrast that with Trump, who blasted Khan’s criticism of him at the Democratic National Convention as “vicious,” and insinuated that Mrs. Khan’s silence during her husband’s speech was an example of a woman being oppressed by her Islamic faith.
(Mrs. Khan, in a television interview and a Washington Post op-ed, said that she had chosen not to speak because she was afraid that she would not be able to without breaking down in tears onstage.)
Trump went on, in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, to suggest that his career in real estate and reality television was somehow a “sacrifice” he made to the nation.
Republican leaders across the country, including Trump’s own running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, have been forced to issue statements affirming their support for the Khan family and honoring their sacrifice.
“Donald Trump and I believe that Captain Humayun Khan is an American hero and his family, like all Gold Star families, should be cherished by every American,” Pence said, in a Facebook post, the same day that his running mate was still attacking the Khans on national television.
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The GOP’s two top elected leaders, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both issued statements in support of the Khans and against Trump’s proposed Muslim ban.
Arizona Sen. John McCain issued a lengthy statement condemning Trump’s attacks on the Khans, which he ended by thanking them for choosing to come to the United States, and saying that they made the country a better place by doing so.
“I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement,” McCain said. “I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers or candidates.”
Americans, however, may find it difficult to understand how the remarks “do not represent” the GOP, given that the party just selected Trump as its presidential nominee, and that even as they distance themselves from Trump’s remarks about the Khans, Ryan, McConnell, McCain and other Republican leaders continue to endorse him for the presidency.
And as the public outcry against Trump grows, that’s a real problem for the GOP’s leadership.
The cognitive dissonance of repudiating their nominee’s various statements and proposals while still claiming that they want him in the White House may become too much for GOP lawmakers to bear.
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On Monday, they got a good example of what they are up against when the members of 16 Gold Star families -- like the Khans, those who lost a child in military service – released a punishing joint letter to the GOP nominee.
“Ours is a sacrifice you will never know. Ours is a sacrifice we would never want you to know,” it began.
“Your recent comments regarding the Khan family were repugnant, and personally offensive to us. When you question a mother's pain, by implying that her religion, not her grief, kept her from addressing an arena of people, you are attacking us. When you say your job building buildings is akin to our sacrifice, you are attacking our sacrifice.”
They accused Trump of “cheapening the sacrifice made by those we lost,” and added, “This goes beyond politics. It is about a sense of decency. That kind decency you mock as ‘political correctness.’ We feel we must speak out and demand you apologize to the Khans, to all Gold Star families, and to all Americans for your offensive, and frankly anti-American, comments. We hope you will hear us.”
Trump, who does not apologize for anything, can hardly be expected to start now, which means that if his fellow Republicans are hoping he will provide them with some cover by making peace with the Khans, they are probably waiting in vain.