Donald Trump’s speech on terrorism Monday afternoon may have been the most effective speech he’s delivered so far. This isn’t saying much, given the lameness of his past speeches, but people who believe his premises—and these include a broader swath of people than his intense followers—may find his critiques, conclusions, and proposals quite compelling.
The key thing is, his premises were almost all wrong.
His main premise, repeated over and over, was that President Obama and, by extension, Hillary Clinton have allowed “thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as the savage killer” in Orlando. These multitudes include a “tremendous flow of Syrian refugees.” If Clinton is elected president, he went on, she has a plan to admit “hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, with no system to vet them.”
Let’s stop there. Of the 4 million Syrian refugees, 18,000 have been referred by a U.N. agency for “possible settlement in the United States.” Of those, the U.S. government has actually taken in about 2,000—and those only after a 20-step screening process that took two years or more for each refugee. President Obama has set a goal of accepting 10,000 refugees, but he has so far fallen short. No “thousands upon thousands,” no “tremendous flow,” nothing in the plans of Obama or Clinton for admitting “hundreds of thousands.”
It’s also worth noting that, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation, 80 percent of the people legally accused of jihadist terrorism inside the United States are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents—and of those, three-fifths were, like the Orlando gunman, born in the United States.
Trump said that, though the Orlando shooter was born here, his parents were Afghan immigrants, and his father has expressed support for the Taliban. “The bottom line,” Trump said, “is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here.”
This is a bit misleading. For one thing, just about every killer is in America because his parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were allowed to come here. The Orlando killer’s parents came to the United States in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was president, as a refugee from Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed regime. Is Trump suggesting that the U.S. government—which was supporting the Islamic opposition to the Communist regime at the time—should not have let him in? Meanwhile, though the killer said that he was inspired by ISIS to shoot up the Orlando nightclub, there is no evidence that he had any contact with it or any other jihadist group. (The father, a very strange self-proclaimed leader of a rival revolutionary organization that aspires to return and rule Afghanistan, has said he opposes ISIS.)
As Trump and other Republicans have done on many occasions, he lambasted Obama and Clinton for refusing to identify the terrorists as followers of “radical Islam.” This “continuing reluctance to even name the enemy,” he added, “broadcasts weakness across the world.”
Clinton rebutted this point in remarks earlier on Monday. “To me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think, mean the same thing. I’m happy to say either, but that’s not the point,” she said, adding, “I’m not going to demonize and demagogue and declare war on an entire religion,” adding that Trump “plays into ISIS’s hands.” Referring to these remarks, Trump crowed in his speech that he’d “forced” her to utter the words. Some news agencies accepted his claim, saying she had “flip-flopped” on the issue. But in fact, she—and Obama—had made this point many times. Several Republicans and retired American generals, such as David Petraeus, have done so as well, warning that anti-Muslim rhetoric only feeds ISIS’s claims that America and the West are at war with Islam.
In yet another instance of Trump’s attempts to take credit for things he had nothing to do with, he boasted that NATO announced a new counterterrorism policy only after he criticized them for not having one. In fact, NATO issued “policy guidelines on counterterrorism” in 2012.
Other claims he made are absurd on their face. He proclaimed, “Hillary Clinton says the solution is to ban guns. She wants to take away Americans’ guns, then admit the very people want to slaughter us.” In fact, she has never advocated banning guns, though she has called to reinstate the 1994 assault-weapons ban. She has also sought “common-sense gun control,” including stricter registration requirements—measures that a majority of Americans favor.
Trump claimed that Obama, with Clinton’s support, has “damaged our security by restraining our intelligence gathering and failing to support law enforcement”—without citing any evidence, mainly because there isn’t any. And he blamed many of our problems, including the rise of ISIS, on Obama’s “apology tour” at the start of his term—which was no such thing at all, and, of course, he said nothing about Obama’s drone strikes, the recent progress of Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS, or the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden (which Clinton, as secretary of state, supported).
Finally, there’s his almost comically crazy claim that more gays and women should vote for him than for Clinton, because he would keep Muslims who hate them out of the country while she would welcome them in. Trump isn’t known for his kind words on gays or women in the past; that he’s doing so now, to exploit a terrorist attack for political purposes, goes beyond his usual bar for cynicism, and that’s saying a lot.
Monday’s speech showed Trump at his angriest, most demagogic, and—when he smiled broadly and said, “Thank you,” after each round of applause—most pathetically self-regarding. Yet it also showed him more capable of self-discipline (his nonscripted sarcastic asides were kept at a minimum), it showed his scriptwriters very capable of pushing all the populist buttons. This is a time of great anxiety: The government isn’t doing everything that can be done to stop the danger, but there isn’t a lot more it can do—lone-wolf killers who can purchase semi-automatic weapons legally are hard to detect, much less stop—without cracking down on liberties to an extent that we have never seen in this country. Trump thinks he’s being tough, and he is—but at least as much on ordinary citizens as on criminals, and much less than he thinks on the jihadist leaders, who would use his rhetoric and policies as giant posters for recruitment.