President Obama gave one of the most unusual Oval Office addresses in my memory Sunday night, but the reaction to his lectern-side chat was both predictable and overdone.
As I watched a bit of the president's address, I kept asking, "Why?" He didn't seem to have anything of any great import to say. He mostly reiterated his past policy statements about terrorism, religion and immigration. So why would he shoot a hole in prime-time programming for a rehash of past statements? He didn't even seem to understand the medium he was using. Most Oval Office addresses were delivered by a president (Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nixon during Watergate, Carter during the energy crisis, Johnson on Vietnam, Reagan during the Cold War) seated at the presidential desk. For some inexplicable reason, Obama chose to stand at a lectern in front of the presidential desk. He was playing ice hockey when the venue called for baseball.
Republicans, especially those running for president, lambasted the speech as a weak and pusillanimous whine about tolerance and love instead of the take-no-prisoners tone they said was needed. Donald Trump chose to make sure his criticism topped the news feeds. He issued a statement the next day urging that the United States ban travel by Muslims (even those who are American citizens and residents) into the U.S. His discriminatory, unconstitutional proposal was greeted with loud applause at some Trump campaign rallies. The rank-and-file loved it, apparently.
Some saner voices spoke up at their own peril. A President Trump would issue an executive order barring Muslims from entering U.S. territory. That is a clear and flagrant violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. Every court in the land would shoot it down.
More worrisome is the reaction of Trump's supporters, who, according to polls, constitute a substantial plurality of Republican primary voters. While they cheered Trump's proposal to ban Muslims on the basis of their religious faith, none of these less-government Republicans seemed to consider that a president with the power to discriminate on the basis of religion (First Amendment be damned) could discriminate on the basis of any religious belief. A presidential order could bar Anglicans, Jews, Catholics, or Free Will Baptists from residing here or from voting or from owning property. Can they not see where Trump's knee-jerk, unfiltered, unexamined reaction could lead?
That's the frightening thing.