Back in the hallucinatory Republican primary season Donald Trump appeared indestructible. Nothing he said damaged his standing with a mob of angry, ill-informed, anti-institutional voters. He won over some regular folks, too, people who thought it might be a good idea to run the country like a business, or who just liked him on The Apprentice. But it was a small, core group of haters who armored him. He pandered to their nihilism and their prejudices. And they embraced a candidate who eschewed political correctness while giving voice to the racist sentiments that always simmer just below the surface of American public discourse.
Nobody else in the Republican Party had to stand by what he said then, and few, if any, did. Now they do. Except, of course, when they don’t…as is the case with Trump’s hysterical denunciation of a federal judge named Gonzalo P. Curiel, a midwesterner who is overseeing a lawsuit against the shuttered scam that was Trump U. Trump says Curiel is a “Mexican” and therefore biased because Trump plans to “build a wall.” Expanding on this thesis, Trump has also said that he probably could not get a fair trial with a Muslim judge either. Presumably women judges fall into the same category, unless they are unusually attractive and thus exempt from Mr. Trump’s general disdain for women.
Republican office holders and party regulars have rushed to the TV cameras to denounce Trump’s position. Awkward. Even Newt Gingrich, a rumored running mate, has blasted Trump and suggested that he shut up about Curiel. Meanwhile, Republicans have been mum about the fact that they’re blocking President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court so their guy can make the pick after the election. Word from “their guy” is that minorities and women need not apply.
The Curiel fiasco shows how ambivalent Republicans are about their nominee. It also hints at how deeply he might hurt down-ballot Republicans this fall if they stay with his candidacy and it flames out in bigotry and ignorance. They’re hoping he’ll change. He won’t. They’re hoping he’ll “pivot” now that the primary is done. He won’t. They’re hoping he’ll somehow see that running for President is about something more important than his own ego. He won’t. They’re counting on him to surround himself with wise, temperate advisers who will keep him (and the country) on the rails. He hasn’t yet. And, most of all, they’re hoping he’ll stop saying stupid, offensive things.
Good luck with that.
Former Congressman and longtime GOP consultant Vin Weber has invoked the parable of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion delivers a sting after promising not to because it’s “in his nature.” Weber says Trump is what Trump is, period. What we see is what is in his nature. Not a pretty picture.
What surely gives the Republicans the most heartburn over the Curiel flap is that Trump, when cornered in some outrage, invariably responds by launching a new outrage as a way of changing the subject. His candidacy lurches from one controversy to the next. And now each instance will require Republicans who want to cling to office (and maybe to a few shreds of dignity) to disavow what he says.
Well, they can do that. They just can’t do it with straight faces. And they can’t hide the disconnect from voters. How do you “endorse” a candidate you have to distance yourself from every other day? Donald Trump entered the race as a joke. He stands a good chance of going out the same way.