There are a few topics in American politics that have unmatched power to excite and divide. The KKK is one. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is another.
You might think that given the polarizing nature of both issues, it would be impossible to run for president without clearly delineating your stance on them. And yet Donald Trump, the current frontrunner in the Republican primary, has been able to maintain a neutral public position while not only staying in the race, but also dominating it.
How could he accomplish such an impossible feat? For starters, few of his supporters follow politics closely enough to notice his many inconsistencies, or to notice that Trump stands tall — for nothing at all.
Despite not being a politician, Trump has a remarkable ability to doublespeak. Take this exchange during the CNN-Telemundo debate last week:
MODERATOR: A brand new Telemundo poll says that three out of four Hispanics that vote nationwide have a negative opinion of you. They don’t like you. Wouldn’t that make you an unelectable candidate in a general election?
TRUMP: First of all, I don’t believe anything Telemundo says.
Less than sixty seconds later:
MODERATOR: For the record, you have said publicly that you loved Telemundo in the past. But it is not just a Telemundo poll. We have…
TRUMP: I love them. I love them.
During an MSNBC interview the previous week, Trump demanded of Morning Joe anchor Mika Brzezinski, “Nothing too hard, Mika.” Despite being a tough guy known for “telling it like it is,” Trump can’t handle tough questions. That’s because he’s remarkably unwilling to let his actual opinions get in the way of being adored by his fans. Even when those fans are the likes of David Duke and the KKK.
Thankfully, not all journalists play by Trump’s rules. On February 28, a Sunday morning, CNN’s Jake Tapper did what few journalists have been willing to do: demand specific answers without accepting the standard evasion tactics from Trump. Tapper asked, “Will you publicly condemn David Duke and say you don’t want his vote or that of other white supremacists this election?” Not once but twice, Trump played dumb on who Duke is and what exactly the KKK stands for. He told Tapper, “I don’t know anything about David Duke… I have to look at the group… I will do research on them.”
Later on, the candidate tweeted, “As I stated at the press conference on Friday regarding David Duke — I disavow.”
You got that? Trump didn’t know who Duke was when asked about the endorsement during the Sunday morning talk show circuit, but nevertheless apparently Tapper’s question was irrelevant because Trump already disavowed Duke the previous Friday.
Despite not being a politician by trade, Trump sure has politico-speak and political strategizing down pat. He may say he’s disavowed white supremacists (when the audience hearing that declaration is small enough), but what does he actually feel? It’s often hard to pin down the real beliefs of those running for office; thankfully, though, one thing Trump isn’t good at is behaving like a rational candidate with a record that makes it impossible for opposition researchers to expose his true beliefs.
Here are a few windows into what Trump may feel about the likes of Duke and the KKK:
● On Twitter, a recent study indicated that more than half of the accounts praising Trump — accounts that the candidate retweets — are those of white supremacists.
● In the early days of Trump’s real estate business empire, he had a handy way to (illegally) screen potential tenants: applications in the do-not-rent pile were marked with the letter “C” for colored.
● While Trump may claim not to be familiar with the KKK, one member of his family — his father, Fred — surely was. In 1927, Fred Trump was one of eight individuals arrested during a Klan rally in Queens.
Best case scenario: Trump doesn’t want to anger any white nationalist supporters. Worst case: he secretly feels a kinship with the Klan. Neither quality is what most Americans would want in a president. But luckily for Trump, few of his supporters outside those circles have noticed.
This strategy of Trump’s — pretending to be neutral in every possible scenario in order to appease his audience — is working. It’s successful because few of his voters are paying attention beyond select sound bites and rally appearances. For such a straight shooter, Trump seems unable to actually stand against anything that might be unpopular — and this applies, too, to Israel and its enemies.
During that same CNN-Telemundo debate, Trump, unlike Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, refused to take a side in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Trump maintained he would be a neutral arbiter during negotiations, even when they are between the terrorist group Hamas and the democratic government of Israel.
In the face of this supposed neutral stance on the conflict — an impossible, intangible and ultimately meaningless position — Rubio responded, “I don’t know if Donald realizes this. I’m sure it’s not his intent perhaps. But the position you’ve taken is an anti-Israel position. And here’s why. Because you cannot be an honest broker in a dispute between two sides in which one of the sides [the Palestinians] is constantly acting in bad faith.”
Since the beginning of his campaign, Trump has hoped that the same five tough-guy catchphrases and an image of strength could catapult him to the nomination, perhaps even the presidency itself. Sadly, he might be right.
He was recently endorsed by another politician who has made his career on a tough-guy image: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie dropped out of the race after finishing a disappointing sixth in New Hampshire, a state Trump carried.
Trump beat Christie at his own game. Christie’s biggest mistake was having built a political record to undermine his campaign, with stances on issues unavoidably cemented in the public record. Trump has come to the brink of the Republican nomination by doing the opposite: pretending to stand for everything when in reality he stands for nothing at all.
Bethany Mandel writes on politics and culture, usually from a conservative perspective.