On Tuesday night, Donald Trump had Fusion and Univision anchor Jorge Ramos ejected from a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa. Ramos, who has been seeking an interview with Trump since he first declared his candidacy, stood to ask a question as the Republican presidential candidate gestured toward another journalist. (Obvious disclosure: I also work at Fusion, though I have never met Jorge Ramos.)
"Mr. Trump, I have a question," Ramos said off camera.
"Excuse me, sit down. You weren't called. Sit down. Sit down. Sit down," Trump responded.
Ramos persisted: "You cannot deport 11 million people. You cannot build a 1,900 mile wall. You cannot deny citizenship to children in this country." The question came across as an indictment of the cruelty of Trump's immigration proposal and a practical challenge to its feasibility. As Ramos continued to speak, the candidate motioned to have him escorted out of the room, and security complied. Ramos was eventually allowed back in to ask Trump about his immigration plan, which proposes, in part, revoking birthright citizenship and the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"How are you going to build a 1,900 mile wall?" Ramos asked.
"Easy, I'm a builder," Trump shrugged back.
The exchange went on like this for a few minutes: Ramos pushed, and Trump deflected with his familiar style of grandiose generalities. (The plan is a good plan because of "management" and the "tremendous people" Trump knows who will get the job done.)
It may have looked like theater to some. Ramos's journalistic style can be confrontational, and Trump, for all of the media space he currently occupies, is a reality television personality who, by stoking the resentments of the GOP's majority white base and acting a whole lot like a wrestling villain, is having a bizarre political moment. But what happened last night wasn't empty fodder for the news cycle.
Think what you will about the tone of the exchange, but insisting that candidates get specific about their policies—how to enact them, account for costs, foresee the short- and longterm human consequences—isn't just reasonable, it's essential for even a minimally functioning democracy. It's exactly what journalists are supposed to do.
Because Trump, who is leading other Republican candidates by a double margin but is polling at negative 51% among Latinos, wants to be president. And he is proposing—and a number of other Republican candidates support—revoking birthright citizenship, a move that would disrupt millions of lives, separate families, and punish children who have never known a home outside the U.S. with the loss of their legal status and the threat of deportation.
What kind of infrastructure would that shift entail? What kind of surveillance, what modes of policing, will be used to monitor and detain the people Trump would like to deport? How will Trump address the human rights abuses in detention facilities as he pushes to fill them with still more men, women, and children?
His plan is outlined in only the broadest of strokes. If Trump wants to blow up the lives of 11 million people and their communities, expand our already bloated enforcement structure, and strike an unprecedented blow at the Constitution, he should have to explain himself. And "I'm a builder" is not an explanation.
Trump isn't the only candidate who has been skating on vague responses to wildly important questions about policy. During the first Republican debate, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was able to deflect a question about his support for abortion bans without exceptions for life endangerment by claiming, falsely, that abortion is never a lifesaving procedure.
"Well, I'm pro-life, I've always been pro-life, and I've got a position that I think is consistent with many Americans out there in that… I believe that that is an unborn child that's in need of protection out there, and I've said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother," Walker said. "That's been consistently proven."
Only it hasn't. Abortion is a safe, legal, and common medical procedure. It is also, very literally, lifesaving. When candidates like Walker argue that abortion is never necessary to save the life or health of a woman, they ignore medical reality. In 2012, in response to former Rep. Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican who insisted that abortion is never a lifesaving procedure, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released a statement directly refuting the claim:
[A]bortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event, particularly for many women with chronic medical conditions. Despite all of our medical advances, more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons right here in the US. In fact, many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives.
A total ban on abortion would mean, among many other miseries, the deaths of real women. Walker should have to answer to that. But Megyn Kelly, who had asked the governor, explicitly, if he would really let a woman die rather than have an abortion, dropped the question and the debate moved on.
Similarly, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul, who have both endorsed giving fertilized eggs and fetuses full rights under the 14th Amendment, have never had to account for what that would mean, not just for women's health, but the kinds of criminal enforcement that would result from making fetuses people.
If abortion is considered to be legally identical to murder, a possible consequence of fetal personhood, then will Huckabee and Paul support the arrest and incarceration of doctors? Of women who seek the procedure despite a criminal ban? How would such a law be enforced? Will hospital and clinic staff be compelled to report their patients if they ask about terminating a pregnancy? It's impossible to know because no one is asking them.
On the other side of the aisle, Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley have also been confronted on their lack of specificity regarding policy, specifically on issues of racial justice and their failures to account for their own histories of supporting policies that disproportionately harmed communities of color. Sanders, after attempting to sidestep the criticism with references to his past work with the civil rights movement, eventually responded by rolling out a racial justice platform.
These candidates' assurances that they would be champions for racial justice were empty without policies to back up those claims. So they were pressed to begin articulating a platform and a commitment to correcting their own records. With sustained, sometimes confrontational, pressure from Black Lives Matter, those changes seem to be taking shape. Responsive politics is rarely polite politics, and we saw that again Tuesday night.
And while Trump, Walker, Huckabee, Paul, and others are well within their rights to run on extreme, dangerous platforms, the public is well within theirs to confront them with the human toll they would much rather not talk about.