“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down,” Donald Trump told a crowd in Birmingham, Ala., on Nov. 21. While “the phenomenon of internalizing rank falsity on behalf of presumably greater goals is bipartisan,” as Daniel Henninger observed recently in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Trump’s assertion that he witnessed “thousands” of people (mainly Muslims, one presumes) cheering as thousands more died in Lower Manhattan marks a new low in a campaign that seems to have no basement.
For starters, it never happened. The police chief and the mayor of Jersey City have repeatedly denied such an event took place. Not a single news report from the time recounts such an event. Chris Christie, the current governor of New Jersey and Mr. Trump’s fellow contender for the Republican presidential nomination, told The New York Times, “I think if it had happened, I would remember it.” Indeed, we all would remember it; thousands of people cheering the deaths of their fellow Americans would be an appalling scene.
On the other hand, perhaps Mr. Trump’s point is that these people who were supposedly cheering weren’t “real” Americans, even if many of them were “technically” U.S. citizens. If that’s the case, then this is political déjà vu. Questioning the patriotism and “true” allegiances of people is a proven political tactic. The most notorious example, of course, is the experience of 120,000 Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Both U.S. citizens and resident aliens were taken from their homes and forcibly interned in remote camps simply because, the U.S. Constitution be damned, they were deemed insufficiently American.
“The broad historical causes” of that manifest injustice, wrote the members of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in 1983, include “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” Sound familiar? Rumors of subversion and sabotage abound. The demagogues, those cynical chaplains to the fearful and outraged, assemble their congregations and deliver their stem-winders. Suspicion leads to fear, which then metastasizes. The panic ends where it always ends: the mob finds a scapegoat and does the voodoo it does so well.
As my predecessor Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., wrote in this column shortly after the release of the commission’s report in 1983, “the fever of war poisons our imaginations, inflates our assumptions and distorts our vision. Hindsight should not make us feel superior to those who went before us. It should, though, give us a few sobering second thoughts about our present imaginations, assumptions and visions.” Those sobering second thoughts should extend to our views of Mr. Trump, yet as of this writing he enjoys a comfortable lead among Republican primary voters nationwide.
Let me be clear: I don’t know who I’ll vote for next year. Most likely, I’ll do what I’ve done for the last several elections and write in a name, a kind of “pox on both your houses” from a faithful citizen. What I do know, however, is that Mr. Trump’s claim that he witnessed this “event” on the Hudson can mean one of only two things: Either he knows that it never happened and he is engaging in an odious form of demagoguery akin to shouting “fire” in a theater and then pointing the mob to a would-be arsonist; or he truly believes that it happened and that he witnessed it. If that is the case, then he is teetering on the brink of clinical derangement. Either way, he shouldn’t be president.