Brennan Linsley / AP

Racial resentment has run like a dark thread through Donald Trump’s presidential campaign literally from its first moments, when he denounced undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals during his announcement speech. But only now, it seems, are Republican leaders fully confronting the risk that Trump will define the GOP as a party of white racial backlash.

The party uproar over Trump’s charge that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is biased against him because he is “Mexican” dwarfs the unease over any previous Trump comment. (Maybe only his coy refusal to immediately denounce Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke comes close.) The condemnation reached a crescendo this week when House Speaker Paul Ryan excoriated Trump’s remarks as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

On both sides, senior party leaders have grumbled about previous primary winners. (Harry Truman was famously skeptical of John F. Kennedy). But it’s difficult to find precedent for this widespread public denunciation of a presumptive nominee. Senator Lindsey Graham still has little company (apart from embattled Illinois Senator Mark Kirk) when he calls for Republicans to rescind their Trump endorsements. Yet all Republican officials this week are undoubtedly recalibrating their posture toward Trump—and few will likely decide the right answer is to embrace him more tightly.

There’s good reason for that concern: Trump’s tribal, racial appeal threatens the GOP in both the near and long term. Yet it’s also understandable that Trump seemed blindsided by the heated Republican reaction to his attacks on the Indiana-born Curiel as a “Mexican” who cannot judge him impartially—and his indication on Face the Nation that he might not get a fair hearing from a Muslim judge either. (It’s reasonable to ask: would a President Trump demand that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recuse herself from all cases involving his administration because of her Hispanic heritage?*)

Trump has reason to be surprised because until now, Republican leaders have mustered no more resistance to his provocations than momentary grumbling, followed by capitulation. Trump personally demeaned Marco Rubio during the campaign as contemptuously as one presidential candidate has ever belittled another; yet Rubio compliantly endorsed him. Ryan criticized Trump over his Duke remarks and his proposal to temporarily ban Muslim immigrants. But then, after briefly withholding his endorsement, he too fell into line (if perhaps only temporarily).

Throughout, even the Republican leaders most uneasy with Trump have recoiled from confronting him partly because he has demonstrated how much of the GOP coalition responds to a racially barbed message of defensive nationalism. Trump’s appeal extends beyond racial backlash: His economic message and identity as an outsider and business executive also powered his victory. But there’s no question he has drawn his greatest support from the GOP voters most uneasy about demographic and cultural change. As Pew Research Center polling shows, Republicans who say the growing number of immigrants threaten traditional American values, and those who believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence, rate Trump far more favorably than those who reject those statements. Likewise, while voters who support deporting all undocumented Mexican immigrants only represented a minority of all GOP primary voters in almost every state with an exit poll, those deportation supporters backed Trump in such overwhelming numbers that they provided a majority of his votes almost everywhere. Meanwhile, polls consistently show broad majority support among Republican voters for Trump’s temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

Republican leaders understandably have thought twice, or more, about confronting so much of their core coalition, particularly the non-college-educated whites who embrace those positions in largest numbers and keyed Trump’s nomination. Yet Trump’s swerve into more unvarnished racial arguments against Curiel has crystallized the risk in allowing him to define the party unchallenged. Polls indicate that most Americans oppose Trump’s signature proposals to ban Muslim immigration or deport 12 million undocumented immigrants. The raw racial tribalism of his attacks on Curiel will likely provoke even greater resistance.

Unease with demographic and cultural change has long rippled through the modern GOP agenda; it helps explain how the party has constructed a “coalition of restoration” revolving around blue-collar, older, religious and non-urban whites. But Trump’s overtly racial arguments against Curiel (barely softened by the candidate’s unapologetic explanatory statement on Tuesday) threaten to explicitly brand the GOP as a party of white racial backlash even as the electorate inexorably grows more diverse—and swells the Democrats’ competing “coalition of transformation.” That’s a formula not only for moral, but political, failure. “Racially divisive politics ramp up the importance of the changing demographics because it makes it harder to perform credibly among non-white voters, and it also makes it harder for Trump to run up the white numbers he needs because of resistance to that sort of appeal among white college graduates and white women,” said the longtime GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

Supporters hope Trump can beat presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by triggering a turnout tsunami among culturally conservative whites. But even if Trump could squeeze out one more victory that way, strategists like Ayres warn he could lastingly scar the GOP’s image in an irreversibly diversifying country. The damage, in fact, could be even greater if Trump wins and attempts to implement his agenda than if he loses. Those Republican leaders who hoped they could mobilize Trump’s supporters without directly confronting the racist signaling infecting his message now face what Ronald Reagan would recognize as “a time for choosing.”


* This article originally misstated the first name of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as Sandra. We regret the
error.

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