WHAT WAS probably the single defining moment of the Democratic National Convention occurred while the convention was happening, but it more properly belongs to the everyday world outside the arena. We can thank Khizr Khan of Charlottesville, Va., for illuminating the real patriotism of a fallen son, the fraudulent patriotism of the Trump campaign, the ways in which that campaign thrives on division for its own sake, and what it means to be an American in the most jagged time in our history.
It was the fourth night of a convention that was unnaturally well-oiled and operationally smooth. Hillary Clinton was yet to make her acceptance speech, the first money pitch for the presidency. Shortly before that, with his wife, Ghazal, beside him, Khan took the podium to pay tribute to his son, Capt. Humayun Saqib Muazzam Khan of the United States Army, killed in a suicide truck-bomb blast in Baquoba, Iraq, on June 8, 2004. Captain Khan, 27, was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
In about five minutes in Philadelphia, Khizr Khan spoke his truth to power and reset the perception button on the ubiquity of the Muslim American experience, in the process revealing the fundamental paucity, the basic emptiness of the Trump presidential campaign — or, more accurately, letting the campaign do that to itself, tweet after reactive tweet.
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“Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy; that with hard work and goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings.
“We are blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams.
“Our son, Humayun, had dreams too, of being a military lawyer, but he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son 'the best of America'.
“If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities; women; judges; even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls, and ban us from this country.
“Donald Trump, you're asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy,” Khan said, pulling out his own copy, to thunderous applause. “In this document, look for the words 'liberty' and 'equal protection of law'.
“We cannot solve our problems by building walls, sowing division. We are stronger together. And we will keep getting stronger when Hillary Clinton becomes our President.”
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IT WAS a comprehensive response to the persistent Trump anti-Muslim theme, the one that’s been wafting on the campaign’s rhetorical breeze like the scent of a chicken carcass on a hot day’s sidewalk. The one that lets Donald Trump build a poison enemy on the basis of faith. The one that proposes a ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States. Many Republicans responded favorably.
Khan’s convention comments caught the Trump campaign on a back foot; the relative early silence from TwitterTeamTrump suggests a campaign blindsided by Khan’s comments and the Democrats’ organically truthful, politically astute appropriation of the pro-military persona – the same one that Republicans have made a literal stock in trade in elections since the Reagan years.
But it didn’t stop the Trump campaign from mounting a full-court press, going after Khan early and often after the convention. The candidate more or less immediately went into his classic butthurt-sarcastic defensive crouch: “Mr. Khan, who does not know me, viciously attacked me from the stage of the DNC and is now all over T.V. doing the same — Nice!”
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Then Trump went on offense, as only he can. Interviewed by ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, the multimillionaire attention addict managed to disparage Khan’s wife by assumption of facts not in evidence.
“I saw [Khizr Khan],” Trump said. “He was very emotional and probably looked like a nice guy to me. His wife … if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me. But a plenty of people have written that. She was extremely quiet, and it looked like she had nothing to say. A lot of people have said that.”
The New York Times reported August 2: “He told a Virginia television station that he had no regrets about his clash with Khizr and Ghazala Khan ...
“For days, Mr. Trump’s top advisers and allies have urged him to move on from the feud ... and focus instead on the economy and the national security record of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet, facing outcry on the left and right, Mr. Trump has insisted to associates that he has been treated unfairly by Mr. Khan, the news media and some Republicans, said people familiar with the campaign’s deliberations who insisted on anonymity to discuss them.”
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“As the leader of America's largest Muslim civil rights organization, I urge Donald Trump to apologize for his shameful remarks disparaging a Muslim Gold Star family and for his repeated use and promotion of anti-Muslim stereotypes," CAIR National Board Chair Roula Allouch said in a statement.
“Just as Donald Trump must apologize for his un-American remarks, Republican Party leaders must finally repudiate their candidate's divisive rhetoric."
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AND TRUMP has middling hope of the U.S. military he purports to champion riding to his rescue. Support for the candidates has been 50-50, give or take, for months. But not for some. “I’d honestly worry about a third world war. All those poor kids still serving. God forbid we elect Trump,” said Marianne Quast, the Colorado Springs-based mother of an Air Force veteran, to The New York Times. “Clearly Trump has no respect for veterans, no matter what he says.”
It’s a lucid, bitterly clear assessment of the man who would be president. Others have come to more or less the same conclusion. As far as last December, military serving at the Pentagon have expressed misgivings about President Trump, some going so far as to say they’d quit first.
More recently, 50 former national security officials, veterans of Republican administrations from Nixon to W, signed a letter saying that Trump “lacks the character, values, and experience to be President," according to a Tuesday story in Military.com.
"None of us will vote for Donald Trump," wrote the officials, including Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency; John D. Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence and later deputy secretary of state; Eric Edelman, Vice President Cheney’s national security adviser and aide to former defense secretary Robert Gates; and former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, both former Homeland Security secretaries.
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There’s a saying: You go to war with the army you’ve got, not the army you wish for. It doesn’t inspire confidence when leaders of the army you’ve got are set to retire rather than go to war on the say-so of the man who would be commander-in-chief. The generals and security officials understand that. So does Khizr Khan.
So would Capt. Humayun Khan of the United States Army.
If only he could.
Image credits: Khizr Khan: Democratic Convention pool. Trump: Getty Images. CAIR logo: © 2016 Council on American-Islamic Relations. Capt. Khan: @monteiro