If the presumptive Republican nominee would have changed his rhetoric after John Kasich and Ted Cruz dropped out of the GOP primary, he and his supporters may have been able to move past his bygone attacks on women, Muslims, and Hispanics, persuading voters that he’s a politically incorrect panderer, not a bigot. Indeed, many on the right deluded themselves into thinking that the Republican standard-bearer would transform into a different character when competing in the general election, taking advantage of America’s short attention-span en route to victory.
This week, Trump’s Republican endorsers are being forced to confront a different reality.
The electoral incentives have changed. But Trump’s rhetoric is as divisive as ever. He is attacking U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the jurist presiding over the Trump University fraud trial, even though doing so guarantees exponentially more press coverage of the fact that he’s being sued for defrauding working-class Americans.
And Trump’s attacks explicitly invoke and appeal to ethnic prejudice.
He calls Curiel a Mexican, as if being born in that country is a mark against a person, despite the fact the jurist was born in the United States; and he insists that a man of Hispanic origin cannot adjudicate the fraud allegations against him fairly, embodying the reductive identity politics that movement conservatives of principle abhor and which align Trump more closely with white supremacists on the “alt-right.”
If you think that’s an exaggeration, look at how explicitly and unapologetically he invokes the notion that the American born judge is “a Mexican” in his interview with Jake Tapper:
Doesn’t he sound like he means every word more than most he speaks?
Many conservatives correctly believe this defense of prejudice threatens their coalition’s future. For years, the right has claimed that it gets a bad rap—that the GOP isn’t bigoted, its members merely oppose treating race and ethnicity as defining factors.
Now the GOP standard-bearer has gone on television and explicitly defended identity-based prejudice. As if that weren’t bad enough, the course he’s chosen cannot be explained away as a verbal lapse, spoken off the cuff and renounced when its implications were understood. Trump’s campaign staffers tried to reverse course.
Yet according to Bloomberg reporters who are privy to what Donald Trump told his campaign organization during a recent conference call, the candidate overruled his underlings: he ordered his surrogates to attempt to impugn Curiel’s credibility and, bizarrely, to attack journalists covering the controversy as the real racists.
This is calculated, premeditated doubling-down—and urging false accusations of racism, to boot.
Republican Senator Ben Sasse reacted to Trump’s behavior by declaring: “Saying someone can't do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of ‘racism.’”
It isn’t just that Donald Trump supporters have made a tactical mistake, Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox News: “They have to ask themselves morally, is this the man you want to be the leader of your party? And that’s what’s at stake here.”
Many of the candidate’s endorsers are clearly uncomfortable.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and the former speaker Newt Gingrich have all publicly criticized Trump’s comments. Those critiques are to their credit, but merely criticizing Trump is not enough to get them out of the corner into which they’ve foolishly painted themselves.
They’ve now told the American people that the man they all endorsed to be president is irresponsibly launching nakedly prejudiced attacks on a federal judge—but also shown they don’t regard that behavior as reason enough to withdraw their endorsements.
Especially for Ryan, Rubio, and others who’ve invested in changing the perception that the Republican Party is hostile to minorities, this is both a strategic setback and an albatross that political opponents can and will hang around their necks. “Even when confronted with behavior that you yourself believed to be nakedly prejudiced toward Americans of Hispanic heritage,” future critics can truthfully say, “you kept on endorsing the man responsible. Why should anyone trust that you possess the integrity to stand against bigotry or believe you when you say that you’ll represent people of all backgrounds?”
So long as they back Trump they have no persuasive answer.
That critique would echo across their careers even if election day were tomorrow, but it’s early June. Trump will be running his mouth every day for another five months.
Standing by their endorsements the entire time will be painful.
Who knows what he’ll say? Certainly not his endorsers. Oh, they know more bigoted words of some sort are likely to pass his lips, that Hispanics or Muslims or women are likely to recur as his targets. But they must expect to be surprised again by unknown words they won’t want to defend. Still, they remain hitched to his campaign.
There isn’t much precedent in presidential politics for high-profile endorsers to withdraw their support, but the most honorable course, for Ryan, Rubio, Gingrich, Chris Christie, and every other Trump endorser is to admit error and unendorse. Their country and their party would be better off without Trump. They know it, and if they find more wisdom than they’ve so far shown this election cycle, they will realize that they are personally better off with more distance from Trump, too.