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The Trump-Khan saga: Was this Trump’s Joseph Welch moment? — and why it will not hurt him

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Khizr Khan speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, with his wife, Ghazala, at his side.

The story that now emerges out of the Democratic National Convention is how the best speech on Thursday night — if not the entire convention — was the speech by Khizr Khan. It has overshadowed Hillary Clinton’s, and through the weekend the media went apoplectic over how Donald Trump responded first in attacking the Khans and then in declaring, “While I feel deeply for the loss of his son, Mr. Khan who has never met me, has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution (which is false), and say many other inaccurate things.”

Yet again politicians and pundits have declared that this is the controversy that will doom Trump. For those who remember, Khan’s comments are reminiscent of the testimony in 1954 by Joseph Welch, who brought down Joseph McCarthy with his “Have you no sense of decency?” retort.

Some are asking whether Trump just had his Welch moment. I doubt it.

First, there are lots of reasons to condemn what Trump said. It reveals his thin skin, his inability to admit he is wrong, and a quick temper — all of which tell us something about his character and perhaps fitness to hold office. All this is what the Democrats are saying, and the Khan controversy adds to their talking points about Trump not being fit to be president.

Shared contempt for the Constitution

Yet there is something deeper in terms of Trump’s comments that is more significant in terms of a criticism that suggests parallels between him and Joe McCarthy. Specifically, it is the contempt both share(d) for the Constitution. When Trump says that Khan “has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution,” Trump actually proves the point that Khan was seeking to make. Specifically, the Constitution — and more specifically the First Amendment — gives Khan and everyone else, citizen and non-citizen, the right to criticize public figures and officials. What Khan did was engage in core political speech — the most protected form of speech under our First Amendment.

Khizr Khan speaking Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention

To use the language of the law, when Trump said Khan had no right to claim he had not read the Constitution, Trump is more or less estopped in his denial that he never read the Constitution, or at least understands it. But this would not be the first time that Trump has displayed no working knowledge of the Constitution. His comments last year about the Fourteenth Amendment and citizenship for immigrants were one example. Trump saying that he would defend the nonexistent Article XII of the Constitution, and declaring at the RNC that he alone could fix America’s problems (to the apparent disregard of the concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers) all suggest Trump is woefully ignorant when it comes to the Constitution. Were he my Introduction to American Politics student he might well earn an F as a final grade for his lack of knowledge of basic American civics and government.

But none of this might matter – I doubt these latest comments will hurt him much. For starters, all but a few people have already formed their opinions about Trump. For those who support him, these comments will not change their mind. For those who oppose him, the same. The only impact here will be upon a few swing or undecided voters. For these few voters, Trump’s comments either will long be forgotten by Nov. 8 or these voters (and perhaps the public at large) may already be numb to Trump’s comments. He has already insulted so many people so many times that these comments are simply one more, and they may not make a difference.

Dominated the news, again

There is another reason, too, why Trump’s comments may not hurt him: He managed yet again to dominate the news cycle. Little attention was given to Clinton over the weekend. She and Tim Kaine toured Pennsylvania, yet she received minimal coverage. Trump controlled the news cycle again, forcing Democrats again to react to what he said. So long as Trump forces Democrats to react to what he said, he wins, making it more difficult for the Democrats to articulate their views and opinions.

So, yes, Trump got it all wrong constitutionally. His comments again were offensive, and he may be the new Joe McCarthy. Nonetheless, it may not matter.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared.   


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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/01/2016 - 11:47 am.

    A nice reminder

    “…When Trump says that Khan “has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution,” Trump actually proves the point that Khan was seeking to make.”

    Thanks for the reminder, Professor. We don’t need a Bill of Rights for the speech we agree with. It’s for the speech that makes us uncomfortable. In this instance, I’m firmly on the side of Mr. Kahn, but that doesn’t change the validity of the point. Mr. Trump has the right, in his rebuttal to Mr. Kahn, to prove himself ignorant of the Bill of Rights.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/01/2016 - 11:50 am.


    First of all, a shift in a couple of percent of voters can be enough to determine an election.
    Trump’s comments to Gold Star parents is likely to offend many veterans, who are disproportionately white male unemployed/underemployed individuals. This is the demographic that Trump is depending upon; this may cost him.

  3. Submitted by Sean O'Brien on 08/01/2016 - 12:38 pm.


    Does anyone at the Trump campaign even read over his statements before publishing them? Even besides this astonishingly ironic comment regarding Mr. Khan’s rights (which is missing a comma) the rest of his release is plagued with obvious grammatical errors:

    “The real problem here are the radical Islamic terrorists who killed him”

    • Submitted by Brian Scholin on 08/01/2016 - 02:00 pm.


      I suspect Trump’s people DO review his statements, and perhaps write them for him, in exactly this style. I think this is a lot scarier than if all these were really mistakes. I would forgive that before I would forgive this sort of manipulation.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/01/2016 - 12:45 pm.

    I thought I knew where the GOP bottom is.

    Trump has proven they don’t have a bottom they won’t stoop to. Trump’s demeaning of the Muslim Khan family, who lost their son in war fighting for our country and its values, will lose him votes. I have never heard such a heartfelt, honest, on the mark speech as the one that Mr. and Mrs. Khan gave. It took way too long for this speech to happen. The Khan’s asked Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan to repudiate Trump for his total lack of morality and 48 hours later McConnell and Speaker Ryan offered up warmed over statements they have made before, neither even mentioned Trump. Senator McCain did the same. Minority Leader Reid says they are political cowards. Both Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell (both titles misrepresent who they really are) spoke at the RNC convention which implies they endorse Trump even though they have not had the political courage to speak those words.
    The GOP’s gross partisanship overrides any evidence of a moral core the GOP may have. The Khan’s have struck right at the epicenter of the GOP’s heartless party in one simple request to repudiate Trump for his behavior which lacks any morality. Trump is the definition of a weak, totally insecure, person who covers his weakness with bluster, lies, and ineptitude at all levels. It is sad Trump has used his, seemingly balanced offspring, to cover for his insecurities. Mr. Khan said Trump has not sacrificed anything or anyone. Trump responded that he has sacrificed greatly. When asked what he has sacrificed he couldn’t name anything a sane person would consider a sacrifice. As usual it is all about Trump. Mr. Khan is absolutely right when he says a leader must have a moral compass and empathy for others. Trump has neither, Trump has nothing but a black hole for a soul. Trump’s behavior will be imitated by our youngest who are masters of reflecting those around them. Then their parents will wonder why the kids are acting as they do. Simply because they have seen a so called adult get away with it. Despicable!
    Trump’s father probably thought he was doing a good thing for his son by giving him a million dollars to get him started in life. Not a good thing to do when the recipient doesn’t have a moral core and value system.
    The GOP has worked decades to manage themselves into this position of political desperation. They have earned everything they are getting in return for their failed political values and principles. The first week of November the GOP will find the electorate has finally woken up to the GOP’s false promises, lies, and deception. Just as the electorate is waking up so is the Koch group’s big money donors as they are refusing to support Trump. Trump’s lack of knowledge and the lack of a moral compass has made the political pressure too great for the donors to risk being associated with Trump. The GOP leaders, in the broadest sense of the term, can’t stand Trump but they want you to vote for Trump. Nothing in the GOP makes any sense anymore as they remain, into the foreseeable future, leaderless.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 08/01/2016 - 03:55 pm.

      Tiger by the tail

      I’m not sure they have a way out at this point. They’ve nominated him. He’s their candidate. What choice do they have at this point? They’ve kind of gone past the point of no return.

      (Here’s one for Eric Black – has a presidential nominee ever been ousted AFTER receiving the party’s nod for office? If so, what was done in terms of finding a replacement? The VP nominee? The next one down from the primaries? And if so, was that person allowed their own VP pick? And so on . . . . . . )

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/01/2016 - 05:23 pm.

        Candidate Ousted?

        No presidential nominee has ever been dropped after winning nomination. Each party sets the rules for determining who is on the ticket, so either party could, presumably, have procedures in place for giving a nominee the boot and picking a replacement. Of course, you would still have to deal with that candidate’s supporters. Good luck with that.

        Two vice presidential nominees were removed from the ticket, and in both cases, the parties met and authorized a new candidate. James Sherman died shortly before the 1912 election, and there wasn’t time to get his name off the ballots. Thomas Eagleton “voluntarily” took himself off the ticket in 1972 after being on it for only a few days, and the DNC had to meet to ratify replacing him with Sargent Shriver.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/01/2016 - 01:03 pm.

    “Dominating the news cycle” is not necessarily good when the news cycle domination comes through the demonstration of obnoxious thin-skinned reflexive bigotry.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 08/01/2016 - 01:06 pm.

    Republican Leadership

    I have yet to hear the leadership of the Republican party speak on this issue with an official statement. Where is the party apology? He is THEIR candidate for President. The long lasting damage he is doing to the party and the other IRs on the ticket will be interesting to watch as these tirades continue – we have 99 days to go.

    Sen. McCain and Bush’s advisor blasted Trump today for his statements. Are we to assume they speak for the party? The silence of republican leadership is hard to understand. McCain today said Trump does not “represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.” As the Republican’s candidate for President, we are to do what – not listen to him, not take him seriously as he speaks, or disregard these racist rants and bullying behavior as “not representative.”

    With all of the “unfavorables” toward both Presidential candidates I wonder if this is an election that will be driven by local politics rather than trickle down voting during a presidential year. If that is the case the local candidates could even determine the Presidency.

    David, if you are willing, I wish you would comment on that thought. As always, your insight is appreciated.

  7. Submitted by David LaPorte on 08/01/2016 - 01:48 pm.

    Perhaps this time, it’s different

    Insults and feuds are nothing new for Donald Trump. He’s displayed his ability to dish it out but not take it many times. However, his adversaries have generally fallen into two groups:

    Other politicians. The American people have little sympathy for politicians. They are not held in high regard and, as public figures, are generally seen as appropriate targets for attacks, which has become the most common form of political discourse. Trump has gone way over the top many times, but he was berating a group the evokes little empathy.

    Other ethnic groups, races or religions. While many of us find this repugnant, it’s impersonal. People who are likely to support Trump often fear and loath whole groups of people, as long as they’re faceless and impersonal.

    Where hate can falter is when you put a human face on it. People often fear the unknown but most have a harder time fearing individuals once they get to know them.

    Khizr and Ghazala Khan are sympathetic private citizens who’s son is a fallen war hero. They don’t aspire to political office and they are not nameless or faceless. By feuding with the Kahn’s, Trump is attacking likable individuals whose son gave his life for our country.

    Hard core Trump supporters will ignore this feud, but swing voters will not. Trump may even lose some of his less committed supporters. And, having seen him for what he is, they’ll recognize the same traits in his other actions. I would think that the Democrats would also try to bait Trump into feuding with other private citizens.

    Trump, if nothing else, is consistent.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 08/01/2016 - 09:48 pm.

    As long as Trump

    keeps doing what he is doing, the hole will continue to get deeper. Trump needs Independents and moderates in order to win. He is not doing himself any favors in that regard. Sure, he has his die hards, but they alone will not be enough.

    I cannot believe that his advisors would approve these types of reactions/comments if they were included. Like has been said so often previously, he is a ‘loose cannon’.

  9. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/02/2016 - 12:18 am.

    I feel so it will be.

    The good doctor says that the latest controversy won’t hurt Trump. He did not say might but said will not. And how does he know this? He feels this.
    I see a couple arguments why it might not make a difference, but would not? Crystal balls haven’t been working this year. Despite the experts telling us repeatedly that would happen for logical reasons failed to materialize?

    What is the potential outcome of this fatalistic tea leaf reading. People assume that we have a totally corrupt system that won’t change, get disillusioned and don’t vote. Is that what you want, Dr. Political Science? That fear and hate win. Of course it is fun to be the expert, but you lack information to be as certain as you appear to be.

    Take what Trump says seriously. He is an angry vindictive man that lashes out again anyone who opposes, thinking he can violate the Constitution and use our military as a personal death squad, along with his good buddy Putin.

    Trump will drop in the polls if and when writers like you stop talking about the horse race and start talking about the different futures likely depending on who wins this election and what happens in Congress.

  10. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 08/02/2016 - 05:13 pm.

    Maybe this time it matters, David

    As a Democrat I am enjoying the fiasco that is Trump, the candidate.We want a capable candidate for President, but he should also be likable. Remember the “I like Ike” buttons.
    Donald is not only unlikable, he is personally repulsive. Dems might even capture the Congress this time.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/05/2016 - 11:31 am.

    I agree with Schultz

    Where’s Hillary Clinton and that guy she’s running with?

    You can’t have Trump Trump Trump Trump all the time. Clinton needs to break through and have some presence or she’ll appear to be AWOL. If Trump dominates the news cycles like this until November Clinton will be in serious trouble.

    It doesn’t matter that the coverage for Trump is negative, his voters want someone to “shake” things up and the nation in general is not happy with the elite and the status quo so all they’ll see is the media complaining about a guy who’s shaking things up and they’ll have their own ideas about what to expect from Trump.

    I know it’s hard to break the the blizzard of Trump with a awful candidate that has a weak message but democrats better figure this out and stop talking about Trump all the time.

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