Why Khizr Khan Will Haunt Paul Ryan

The father of a fallen U.S. soldier is showing how much more the Republican leadership cares about partisan victory than about repudiating prejudice.

Mike Segar / Reuters

When Khizr Khan took the stage last week at the Democratic National Convention, proudly standing before a portrait of his Muslim American son, who died while fighting in Iraq for the U.S., he removed a pocket Constitution from his jacket, thrust it toward the camera, and demanded to know if Donald Trump, a proponent of laws that violate the document, had ever bothered to read its articles.

The crowd in Philadelphia erupted. So did folks on Twitter and Facebook. The mainstream media fawned too. This all but guaranteed that Trump, who has spent his whole life working to garner more media attention than others, would respond.

But few expected that his initial comments would be an attack on Khizr Khan’s wife, who stood beside her husband for emotional support but did not herself deliver a speech. "If you look at his wife,” Trump said on ABC, as if it had anything to do with the matter at hand, “she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."

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The wife, Ghazala Khan, in fact has much to say. “Donald Trump said that maybe I wasn’t allowed to say anything,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “That is not true. My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not.” Why? She explained that even though 12 years have passed she still feels the loss of her son; that she cries every day when she prays for him; that she cannot bring herself to clean his old closet or to see his photograph without breaking down. “Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could?” she demanded. “Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?”

She also spoke to Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC:

Those who watched the clip can see that Khizr Khan had more to say too: he pleaded with House Majority Leader Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who he called decent, patriotic men, to repudiate Donald Trump because it is the right thing to do. “There is so much at stake, and I appeal to both of these leaders: This is the time,” he said. “There comes a time in the history of a nation where an ethical, moral stand has to be taken regardless of the political costs. The only reason they're not repudiating his behavior, his threat to our democracy, our decency, our foundation, is just because of political consequences.”

He took the same message to CNN:

History will not forgive them. This election will pass, but history will be written. The lack of moral courage with remain a burden on their souls.

He concluded that they have a “moral, ethical obligation to not worry about the votes but repudiate him; withdraw the support. If they do not, I will continue to speak.”

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Paul Ryan is not a bigot. And he has always tried to counter the image of the Republican Party as a coalition driven in large part by racial and ethnic prejudice. Before this cycle, I doubt he could’ve imagined backing an unapologetically prejudiced candidate.

Enter Donald Trump. His transgressions are many. Ryan himself declared Trump’s comments about a Mexican American judge “the textbook definition of racism.”

Now let’s return to Trump’s latest egregious affront against an ethnic minority: trying to discredit the parents of a fallen soldier by prejudging them as a chauvinist husband and a cowed wife who wasn’t allowed to speak; ignorantly spreading that stereotype; and offering no retraction even after knowing it to be false.

If that were the end of the story, it would be bad enough for Paul Ryan. He would be relearning this about himself: that electing a Republican is more important to him than opposing naked racism and prejudice. Few partisans want to think that about themselves.

Yet there’s more than the personal cost of knowing it about himself.

The father of a fallen soldier intends to keep reminding Paul Ryan about this, to keep insisting that it is a moral failure, until Ryan changes his mind. As Josh Barro put it, the Mexican American jurist, Gonzalo Curiel, “is a sitting judge presiding over a Trump case, so he couldn't camp out on TV and keep the story alive. Khizr Khan can.”

That will have consequences.

Before, Republicans could always maintain, with at least some veneer of plausibility, that they would of course repudiate a politician who crossed a certain line.

With Donald Trump as their standard-bearer, that line has been shown to encompass a candidate who, feeling attacked by the father of a fallen soldier, finds that his first instinct is to lash out at the man’s grieving wife, the fallen soldier’s mother, impugning both with ignorant, derogatory speculation rooted in prejudice.

In this way, Trump brings shame to everyone and everything his campaign touches. For Ryan and other informed Republicans who back him, the inescapable conclusion is that neither naked racism nor prejudice are deal-breakers for them in the head of their party or their country. It’s an accusation that they would’ve assailed in the recent past. Today, the proposition’s truth is self-evident. And a man with a knack for TV will keep reminding them of their shame.