Donald Trump saved the "libertarian" portion of his Saturday speech at the annual Freedom Fest in Las Vegas for the opening paragraph. "I happen to like Rand Paul, I really do," the billionaire television character generously revealed. Why, the two GOP presidential competitors have even played golf together!
Thus the defining characteristics of Trump's disconnected series of campaign mouth-blurts were established early: casually narcissistic, content-free, non-humble-braggadocio. But at least unlike other portions of the speech, Trump's golf anecdote didn't involve just making shit up.
Example: For entire minutes, in an address that rarely stayed on a single topic for longer than 30 seconds, the purported GOP front-runner went on about how "If you're a Christian" from Syria, "you cannot get into this country," because the U.S. only allows in Syrian Muslims. Trump has been repeating this claim for months. And it's not true, as you might predict from thinking about the issue for longer than the duration of a belch.
In fact, something closer to the opposite is at play. The United States has only accepted a tick more than 1,000 refugees from Syria (whose brutal civil war has displaced 4 million people), largely due to fears that Islamic extremists may be among their midst. The more scrutiny that national-security screeners apply to Syrian refugees, the more likely that members of the Christian minority will also be kept out. It's almost as if there's a lesson there. "Oh, I could talk about Syria all day," Trump chortled. Don't say he didn't warn us.
What other paranoid fantasies came darting out of the Donald's rictus-like mouth? That the Mexican government is conducting the same prisoner-exporting exercise that Fidel Castro did during the Mariel boatlift, only "more sophisticated." PolitiFact, not even assessing the Mariel claim beyond paraphrasing University of Chicago demographer Tom Smith as saying "there is no such evidence that the same thing has happened in Mexico," addressed Trump's ongoing contention that "the Mexican government forces many bad people into our country" thusly:
Setting aside the question of whether Mexicans who have come to the United States are "bad" or not, there is no evidence of any Mexican policy that pushes people out of Mexico and into the United States. As has been the case for decades, a combination of economic and family factors accounts for most of the migration from Mexico to the United States. We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
Trump and his fanbase portray his campaign against Mexican "rapists" as a brave truth-telling exercise in the face of pro-immigrant collusion between vote-buying Democrats, greedy Republican businessmen, anti-American media and the venal Mexican government. The ensuing conspiracy theories almost write themselves.
"I guarantee that the country of Mexico" is behind the recent wave of anti-Trump protests, the candidate said Saturday. When a questioner during audience Q&A identified himself as a Mexican-American libertarian dismayed at Trump's immigration rhetoric, the candidate shot back "Did the government of Mexico put you up to this?"
For all the attention Trump has stirred up over illegal immigration, including a sudden, hyperbolic national debate over "sanctuary cities" (about which please read Shikha Dalmia and Steve Chapman), his concrete policy recommendations about the issue could fit inside a fortune cookie: Build a wall along the southern border. (This last line was the only one of Trump's to generate significant boos at Freedom Fest; the speech drew much applause and many hoots of pleasure.)
Like all the other issues Trump referenced Saturday (trade agreements, ISIS, the economy, Russia being driven into the arms of China) immigration was best addressed using a combination of cherry-picked anecdote and blustery application of Great Man Theory. For instance, this was one complete sentence: "If I win the nomination, I will win the Hispanic vote, because I'll take our jobs back from China!"
You see, America's problem is that we don't have competent enough negotiatiors. And you've seen the Donald negotiate on TV! Besides, when he can't step in himself to do things like fix our relationship with Russia because he's "nice," well, let's just say he knows some guys who can really negotiate. And if the Trump administration's negotiating charm fails to, say, dislodge American hostages from a given regime, then we'll just "double or triple the sanctions." That the audience of a libertarianish conference lapped these bits up would be disheartening if it wasn't so comical.
This is the single dumbest speech I have witnessed in 17 years of covering American politics. Not just the lies, the policy positions (such that they existed), or even the dizzying heights self-regard, but the level of basic human intelligence and decency. For a guy who complains that the media only quotes "half-sentences," Trump's real adversary is the full-length transcript. These aren't speeches, they're seizures.
Trump is genuinely puzzled how call centers in India can be cheaper for American companies than ones in Arizona, since they're so far away. He says things like, "Not that it matters, but I'm much richer" than you think. He can't even deliver the hoariest of campaign cliches without making it sound additionally narcissistic, such as "My whole thing is make America great again."
The only thing Donald Trump will make greater in 2015-16 is the exit velocity with which whole swaths of Americans will leave even the theoretical orbit of the Republican Party. There's a reason why the Robert Kuttners of the world are actively cheering him on, while National Review writers compete against one another to write the most bilious takedown.
Republicans could be the party of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose respectful-to-all-sides speech last month about lowering the Confederate battle flag over her state's capitol was one of the genuinely great pieces of recent American oratory. Or it can be the party of bestselling conservative entertainer Ann Coulter, who snorted ignorantly on Kennedy that Haley "is an immigrant and does not understand America's history," and then when called out on the collectivist error (Haley was born in South Carolina) tweeted out: "2d gen immigrant, as she constantly brags. Maj. Nidal Hasan, Anwar al-Awlaki, Octomom -we R getting the best ppl!"
Donald Trump is, as National Review's Kevin D. Williamson has pointed out, "a tax-happy crony capitalist who is hostile to free trade but very enthusiastic about using state violence to homejack private citizens," and also "a lifelong supporter of Democratic politicians." That such a record can be forgiven by conservatives and Republicans—Ann Coulter, for one, has gone from calling Trump a "clown" four years ago to gushing this week that he's "magnificent"—is like a flashing neon sign to the growing ranks of never-gonna-be-Republicans that all else can be forgiven if only you ratchet up the rhetorical ante against violent Mexicans, actual crime evidence be damned. Will even Cuban- and Vietnamese-Americans vote GOP in 2016 at this rate?
As a politically independent journalist and small-l libertarian, all of my incentives point toward propping up, not tearing down, Donald Trump. I am certainly not invested in the GOP, and it's materially helpful when ideological adversaries have such a clumsy, off-putting grasp on basic facts and argumentation. That some Republicans look at those same incentives and choose Trumpmentum is this week's most amazing, and damning, political development.