The Cowardice of the Republican Candidates

Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.

Steve Nesius / AP

Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.

In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.

Trump’s other opponents have been equally fainthearted. In September, a New Hampshire man asked whether “we can get rid” of Muslims, and Trump replied, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things.” Asked about Trump’s comments, Ted Cruz—who hopes that by hugging Trump close, he’ll eventually win over Trump’s voters—declared, “The American people are not interested in the food fight that reporters are trying to stir up.”

Then, in November, when Trump said “thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, a claim that has now been completely debunked, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in a moment of uncharacteristic modesty, remarked, “I think if it had happened, I would remember it, but, you know, there could be things I forget, too.” Christie, it’s worth noting, has dubbed his travels through New Hampshire the “tell-it-like-it-is” tour.

But the spinelessness reached new heights this Sunday. On CBS’s Face the Nation, John Dickerson asked Bush about a statement by one of Bush’s advisers that Trump’s plan for registering Muslims is “fascist.” Bush ignored the question. Instead he called Trump “uninformed,” “wrong on Syria,” and “not a serious leader.” The strategy was clear: Avoid defending the rights of Muslim Americans, since there’s little market for that among GOP primary voters. Instead, call Trump a lightweight and insufficiently hawkish, and therefore somehow get to his right.

Dickerson then asked Jeb, “If [Trump] became the nominee, would you still support him?” Bush responded, “I have great doubts about Donald Trump’s ability to be commander in chief,” but “anybody is better than Hillary Clinton.” When Dickerson asked why “specifically” Trump is better than Clinton, Jeb ignored the question, declaring, “The more they hear of [Trump], the less likely it is he’s going to get the Republican nomination.”

On ABC’s This Week, John Kasich was even worse. Martha Raddatz began by asking the Ohio governor about an ad of his that “appears to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Is that the comparison?” Of course it’s the comparison. The ad consists entirely of a paraphrase by Colonel Tom Moe of German Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement that because he did not stand up for Hitler’s initial victims, there was ultimately no one left to stand up for him. Moe just substitutes Trump’s targets for Hitler’s.

Kasich’s answer was astonishing. Asked if he was comparing Trump to Hitler, he began by saying no. Then he distanced himself from his own ad. “This is Colonel Tom Moe,” Kasich explained. “He was a POW for five years in North Vietnam, was beaten and tortured, and came within an inch of losing his own life. And these are his words. He feels very strongly about a man who divides us.”

Perplexed, Raddatz interjected, “But it is your ad.” To which Kasich replied, “But it’s his words.” Evidently candidates are only responsible for the words in their advertisements that they utter themselves.

Raddatz then asked the obvious follow-up: Does the fact that you’re running an ad comparing Trump to Hitler “mean you would not support him if he were the nominee?”

Kasich refused to answer: “Well, he’s not going to be the nominee.”

Raddatz tried again: “But answer that question. You say he won’t get the nomination. But if he does, will you support him?”

Kasich non-answered again: “He’s not going to. So we’re not even going to go there.”

Raddatz tried one last time: “So would you support him, Governor Kasich, if he is the Republican nominee?”

Kasich evaded one last time: “He’s not going to make it ... It’s just not going to happen, Martha. And everybody needs to get over it and take a deep breath.”

So when the would-be leader of your country scapegoats and threatens its most vulnerable groups, the correct response is to “take a deep breath” because such threats will never be carried out? Perhaps Kasich should read Niemoller’s words again.

It’s not hard to understand what’s going on here. Bush, Kasich, and the other GOP candidates won’t clearly repudiate Trump because they’re afraid of angering his voters. They’re also afraid of angering him. After all, if Republican candidates say they won’t endorse Trump if he wins the GOP nomination, that makes it easier for Trump to return the favor—and run as a third-party candidate next fall.

But if there’s one thing that should be clear about Trump by now, it’s that he won’t be hindered by logic or shame. If the billionaire bigot decides it’s in his interest to run as an independent, it won’t matter one whit whether candidates like Bush and Kasich agreed to endorse him. Trump will do whatever keeps him in the camera’s gaze.

There’s an irony here. When it comes to Vladimir Putin, ISIS, and Iran, the GOP candidates love denouncing “appeasement.” Yet when it comes to Trump, appeasement is their core strategy. They’re desperate to stop him. But they won’t call him a demagogue or a bigot or worse than Hillary Clinton, because that entails political risk. So they dissemble and evade and thus remind voters why they hate professional politicians. Which makes Trump stronger still.