Donald Trump’s campaign trail commentary flows seamlessly but is often vague on specifics and even facts.
He says he saw “thousands of people” cheering in New Jersey as the World Trade Center towers collapsed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Not true, say local law enforcement and elected officials.
He is open to shuttering mosques, saying there’s “absolutely no choice.” But the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion.
And he has assailed the federal government for accepting “250,000” Syrian refugees. The Obama administration has agreed to allow in no more than 10,000 this fiscal year.
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It’s become almost standard for Trump in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination: make statements that defy truth, or promises that go beyond the power of the presidency. Yet his rhetoric resonates with supporters, who laud Trump for his blunt and politically incorrect style and have put him atop polls since he announced his candidacy in June.
Nearly 47 percent of Republican-leaning voters support the deportation of people in the U.S. illegally and oppose the acceptance of refugees from Syria, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found.
But in a general election in which voters represent a broader cross-section of viewpoints and the electorate becomes more diverse in terms of race, education and age, Trump’s outspoken views would deeply challenge Republican efforts to recapture the White House, strategists say.
“What he’s saying is totally irresponsible,” said Dick Wadhams, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked on state and national campaigns.
Trump’s supporters are extremely dissatisfied with the government but are “not in tune with all that’s going on in the world and how it works,” Wadhams said.
For example, when Trump talks about ending birthright citizenship for children born to parents in the country illegally – a move that would require a change to the Constitution – or constructing a 1,900-mile wall along the border with Mexico, he’s reaching beyond what appears to be logistically possible, even if his supporters cheer his plans.
“You can’t just say things and think they’ll magically happen,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., whose district spans a large swath of southern Arizona down to the Mexican border. Grijalva noted that hundreds of acres along the border belong to sovereign Indian tribes such as Tohono O’odham Nation. To construct a wall as proposed by Trump would require appropriations and waivers from Congress.
Trump’s campaign declined interview requests and did not respond to an email seeking comment about details of his policy proposals.
In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks this month, talk on the campaign trail suddenly and overwhelmingly turned to foreign policy.
While many candidates in the crowded Republican field have laid out proposals to defeat Islamic State, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the violence in Paris, Trump has focused on Muslims in the United States. In addition to suggesting that mosques be closed, he also committed to creating a national database to monitor Muslims, but has not said how he would implement such changes.
“We’re going to have no choice” but to close mosques, he said during a recent Fox News interview, adding that if authorities believe there is “talk of jihad” in them then they would need to be closed. “There’s absolutely no choice. Some really bad things are happening, and they’re happening fast.”
Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who has organized focus groups of Trump supporters, said his support comes from how he articulates his message.
“They don’t believe what Trump is saying is wrong. They believe Trump is correct,” Luntz said, describing the candidate’s supporters as “working-class underachievers.”
A focus group Luntz oversaw this summer of men and women from the Washington area found that they cared less about social issues than about the national debt, border control, the economy and national security. Above all, they were racked by a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
“He’s the only one out there saying, ‘Let’s bomb the … out of ISIS’,” Luntz said. “No way any other presidential candidate would say that, and that’s why people like him.”
And, he added, Trump’s supporters “also distrust the media, so the more of what he says upsets the media, the more his fans like it.”
Trump’s rhetoric is essentially fear-mongering and harmful to the country as a whole, said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington.
“It’s very, very dangerous and detrimental to the country,” Hooper said. “When you’re pandering to the lowest common denominator of your party, it can lead to bigotry and give false perceptions.”
Rivals are taking note. A super PAC supporting John Kasich, the Ohio governor, has pledged to highlight why Trump is not fit to become president in a barrage of television advertisements leading up to the Iowa caucuses in February. The group began a $2.5-million ad campaign this week focused on Trump, who has threatened to sue for defamation.
John Weaver, a chief strategist to Kasich’s campaign, which is separate from the super PAC, said Trump is a “very clever demagogue.”
“He’s playing on the anxieties of some people and in turn receiving support,” he said.
“I love Don Rickles,” Weaver added, likening Trump to the comedian known for his insults and politically incorrect humor. But “I would not want Don Rickles to be president.”