Donald Trump's moral cowardice

It's easy to treat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE’s presidential campaign more like a circus sideshow than a serious effort. Trump is probably best known for his reality television persona. His presidential website says very little about his positions on the issues, but does boast that "'You're Fired!' is listed as the third greatest television catchphrase of all time." (This makes me wonder what the top two catchphrases are, and whether the people who said them might also make good presidential candidates on the strength of this accomplishment).

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But it's a mistake not to take Trump seriously. Even if his campaign ultimately fizzles out, he is playing with fire by making dangerous statements that could well appeal to people with an interest in taking violent action. Last June, Trump claimed that immigrants from Mexico are rapists and other criminals. Last week, Trump failed to correct a man who made despicable claims about Muslims. A Trump supporter at a town hall event in New Hampshire declared that "we have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims." The man went on to repeat the tired, false claim that President Obama is a Muslim and "not even an American." The level of insanity went up a notch (if that's possible) when the man told Trump that "we have training camps growing where they want to kill us" and demanded to know "when can we get rid of them?"

Parts of this incoherent rant are difficult to decipher. Was the Trump supporter claiming Muslims have set up training camps in the U.S.? Was he asking when we could rid of those camps, or more broadly, when we could expect to get rid of all Muslims? Either way, there are some ugly sentiments bubbling to the surface here, and some clear, outright lies that Trump ought to have corrected. Muslims are not a "problem" in this country. Obama is a U.S. citizen and a Christian — though there would be nothing wrong if he were Muslim. But the fact that his detractors continue to incorrectly describe him as a Muslim is clearly part of an effort to exclude him from the American community — as the questioner made absolutely clear by declaring that Obama is "not even an American."

This man's statements dripped with racism and Islamophobia. It was essential for Trump to correct his errors and denounce his hatred. That's important for at least three reasons. First, Americans need to have accurate information both about the president and about Muslims. False information breeds suspicion and fear. Second, Trump has himself contributed to the phony controversy/conspiracy theories over Obama's background by baselessly suggesting the president might be a Muslim who was born outside the U.S. Third, we know that there are people out there who are willing to take violent action. Last month, two men in Boston beat a homeless man with a metal pipe and urinated on him. Police reported that the men said "Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported." Trump's initial reaction was to describe the incident as a "shame," but also to explain that "the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country, they want this country to be great again."

Trump later tweeted that the "Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence." The time to make that statement was when he was first asked about the Boston incident. His initial remarks about his followers being passionate were disgusting. But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up as a beginner's mistake. Trump had another opportunity to stand up for the principle of treating people with respect when the town hall questioner in New Hampshire stoked fears about Muslims in the U.S. But Trump failed to call out the questioner, saying only, "We need this question. This is the first question," and, "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things. You know, a lot of people are saying that and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening. We're going to be looking at that and many other things."

This is a grotesque moment. Trump's presidential campaign may seem like a campy reality TV show, but something sinister is happening here, and Trump lacks either the awareness or the maturity to understand that and to check the dangerous emotions his campaign is bringing to the surface.

Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press. His second book, Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security, will be published next year by the University of Wisconsin Press.