Donald Trump is betting that his supporters are xenophobic bigots. Those supporters may not realize as much. But after Monday, the conclusion is hard to escape.
Every election, Americans rediscover their hatred of political hypocrisy. Candidates declare their beliefs. Those beliefs become politically inconvenient. And then they shamelessly abandon them, shapeshifting to appeal to an electoral majority. For Hillary Clinton, that meant years of opposition to same-sex marriage, then a flip-flop at the very moment when supporting gay marriage was clearly in her political interest. Barack Obama insisted that Iraq War supporters had bad foreign policy judgment. But when it was politically convenient to have Iraq War supporters as his vice president and secretary of state, he didn't hesitate to elevate them.
Although his fans don't yet see it, Trump is a shameless flip-flopper, too. His shifting positions suggest that he says whatever he thinks a winning coalition of voters want to hear. "I love the Muslims," he said back in September. "I think they're great people." Would he appoint a Muslim to his cabinet? "Oh, absolutely," he said back then. "No problem with that."
In 2012 he spoke glowingly about Latinos, declaring that Mitt Romney's “crazy policy of self-deportation” cost him the Latino vote. The GOP needs to “take care of this incredible problem that we have with respect to immigration," Trump said back then, "with respect to people wanting to be wonderful productive citizens of this country.”
Now that he's running for president, his rhetoric has changed.
On Monday, he called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, an unprecedented religious test at stark odds with the values held by the Founders and generations of Americans afterward. It was transparent demagoguery. And it was just the most recent instance of Trump’s shameless pandering. He kicked off his campaign by suggesting that the Mexican government is sending rapists north. He recently declared that he would not rule out creating a registry of Muslim Americans. Put another way, since becoming a politician, he has started speaking about these groups more harshly, in substance and tone, than he ever has before. He has started behaving differently than he has in decades of public life.
This suggests two things:
1) Like almost all politicians, Trump’s rhetoric reflects what he thinks people want to hear––for him, his actual beliefs are beside the point. He is a disingenuous panderer.
2) He thinks that a majority of GOP voters want to hear xenophobic bigotry. That is how he panders.
Republicans should be insulted.
Lots of GOP voters get furious when liberals declare or imply that conservatives are racist. They feel that label is wielded cynically as a cudgel for ideological gain.
If an MSNBC host had said three days ago that conservatives secretly want to ban all Muslims from America, right-wing commentators would’ve erupted in outrage.
Well, meet Donald Trump, Republicans.
He isn't implying that you're racist to stigmatize you. Rather, he’s implying that you're xenophobic bigots with no regard for a minority group in order to win you over.
That is what Trump thinks of Republicans. Here's former vice president Dick Cheney, no one's idea of a politically correct liberal, on Trump's call to ban Muslims from America: "I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from. A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans."
His fellow candidates are denouncing him too.
So now it falls to GOP voters to make a decision. Are a majority of them bigots, like Trump believes? Or are the other candidates in the Republican field correct in their bet that voters will reject this pandering as an insult to their intelligence and values?