Donald Trump’s verbal atrocities have struck public nerves before, but so far the discomforts have faded with bizarre haste. Nothing stuck. Not so with the Wrath on Khan, Trump’s heartless attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004.
There’s no mystery about why Trump’s behavior this time is so disgusting to so many for so long. He’s picking on “little guys” not public figures or other politicians. Worse, he’s picking on parents who lost a son in war. Worse again, his attacks on the couple are overtly racist. As much as anything he has done so far in his ego-trip campaign, this sadistic spasm reveals how truly mean, out of control and void of empathy this man is.
“Have you no decency, man?” is the question on everyone’s mind this week. The answer is obviously, “no.” But we’ve known that.
I suspect one additional reason this controversy is still resonating is because it has so personalized the terrifying prospect that Donald Trump could really and truly have the power to send men and women off to die – your kids or your grandchildren or even you.
Hillary Clinton’s pollsters believe that her opponent’s greatest liability is that voters are scared of the idea that Donald Trump’s finger could be on the button some day. That will be the spearhead of the attack against Trump in the general election.
“The finger on the button,” though, is an abstract idea, even if it is a scary one.
But watching Trump in real time be utterly pitiless toward the Khans is anything but abstract; it is intimate and incontrovertible. Trump’s behavior has made a vague worry vivid – that he truly is cavalier and reckless toward other human beings, that he really could press a button, launch a strike, send in troops or call out riot police in a tantrum of spite, malice or anger.
If he has no empathy for Gold Star parents, he has no empathy.
Many other layers of Trump’s biography and performance that support this scary portrait are coming into sharper view after the conventions. That is what is giving the controversy with Khans the “perfect storm” quality that keeps it raging.
Immediately after displaying his rank meanness, Trump displayed his basic ignorance on one of the issues he talks about most – Russia. In an interview with ABC News, Trump revealed that he didn’t understand that Russia had annexed Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014 and that Russia still had forces active in the Ukraine.
Obviously, this isn’t the first time Trump flubbed National Security 101. Most famously, in one of the Republican debates Trump clearly didn’t know what the nuclear triad was (a real tough one – nukes sent via planes, missiles and submarines).
But now we have the picture of a potential commander-in-chief who has no regard for a soldier’s death and the grief it leaves playing generalissimo on a geopolitical map he can’t read and doesn’t understand.
On top of all that – and that’s a lot – we have Trump defending himself from the Khans by equating his sacrifices in life to theirs; equating the sacrifice he made in expanding his inherited fortune into a greater fortune to the sacrifice of a soldier’s life. “Have you no decency, man?”
This egomania digs up one more layer of Trump’s history, how he avoided the sacrifice of service in the Vietnam War.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were put under the microscope to understand how they got out of Vietnam. Most voters didn’t hold it against them, but there was a long spell of scrutiny and debate. Trump has avoided that, so far. Maybe now the laws that have long applied to mortal politicians will start to apply to Trump.
For these reasons and more, Trump’s treatment of the Khans has sparked an epiphany about his lack of character for many people. Much of the world can’t believe it has taken this long.
In his speech at the Democratic convention, the former Republican mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, said the country needed a president that was at least a “sane, competent person.”