In sneering at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, an immigrant Muslim couple whose son Humayun, a US Army captain, was killed protecting American comrades in Iraq, Donald Trump may finally have arrived at his Rhodes-must-fall moment.
Not Cecil but “Lonesome” Rhodes, the protagonist of Elia Kazan’s 1957 cautionary tale, “A Face in the Crowd”, a movie finding a whole new audience thanks to the Republican presidential nominee.
It’s about a drunken rube with a silver tongue who is plucked from obscurity by a savvy media handler and turned, with the help of television, into an influential elite-bashing national treasure.
Then hubris sets in and just as he is about to become a kingmaker, he is caught by a live mic spouting bilious contempt for his fans and financial backers. His fall is instant.
Peggy Noonan, who penned some of Ronald Reagan’s finest speeches, predicted after last week’s Democratic convention that nominee Hillary Clinton and her surrogates would adopt a “picador” strategy against Trump. They would bait the choleric bull into self-destruction.
Whether that was what they hoped to achieve when they included the Khans on the warm-up roster for Clinton’s acceptance speech is unclear. But for many Khizr Khan’s remarks with wife Ghazala in stoic grief at his side were the evening’s most memorable moment, not least when he pulled out his copy of the constitution and offered to lend it to the celebrity casino onwer.
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery”, he asked Trump. “Go look at the the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
“I’d like to hear his wife say something,” was Trump’s typically flip response when New York Times columnist asked him for comment the following evening.
The wise move would have been to honour the dead soldier and extend sympathy and gratitude to the parents. Instead, Trump took umbrage. He had, too, sacrificed, he protested in a television interview, referring to the work he put in building his fortune. “Mr Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me on the stage of the DNC, and is all over TV now doing the same. Nice!” he whined on Twitter
His slimier supporters then went to work, spreading filth via social media to the effect that Khan was a “Muslim Brotherhood agent” and his son was a terrorist sleeper who was killed before he could accomplish his “Islamist mission”.
The bipartisan backlash has been fierce, with Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the 2008 Republican nominee for president leading the charge. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered licence to defame those who are the best among us.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars, representing 1.7 million ex-servicemen, chimed in. “Election year or not,” said the group’s national commander, Brian Duffy, “the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of free expression,” referring to families bereaved by war.
On Tuesday, President Obama asked the obvious question of Republican leaders: “If you are repeatedly having to say in very strong terms what he said is unacceptable, why are you still endorsing him.”
In damage control mode, Team Trump is distributing talking points to surrogates. They are to say that Captain Khan is a hero, Trump wishes his parents well and wants to end “radical Islamic terror” so that soldiers like their son will be safe.
Former Trump consiglieri Corey Lewandowski was on script when said on CNN (where is now a paid commentator): “Every person who has ever died fighting for our country and their families are heroes. The difference is, we’ve got 7000 soldiers who died, $6 trillion wasted in wars overseas, and if Donald Trump was president, we would never have had, and Captain Khan would be alive today.”
While Trump’s claim to have opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq is questionable, he is drawing strong support from elements within the Republican party who see Clinton as a hawk in the thrall of the same neoconservatives who took America to war against Saddam Hussein.
In this regard, as also in his apparent view that extending the NATO alliance up to the Russian border was unnecessarily provocative, he has a legitimate case to lay before the American electorate. But his ill-discipline, hair-trigger ego and mean-spiritedness keep getting in the way.
His biggest blunder in the latest episode may have been to suggest there was some equivalence between the Khan’s sacrifice and his own. This has pushed the media spotlight onto how he advoided being drafted into military service when the Viet Nam war was at its height: student deferments and a doctor’s letter attesting a foot problem that healed up when the risk of having to fight passed.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz has been conducting focus groups to better understand how voters feel about Trump. “Nobody minds when he attacks other politicians,” he told the Washington Post. “In fact they like it. He’s instilling an acountability that doesn’t exist. But they don’t like it when he goes after real people, and they wish he would stop.”