Why such vehemence among Republican leaders in their condemnations of Donald Trump for questioning the objectivity of a federal judge based on his “Mexican heritage”?
This is, in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s words, “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But it is not materially more bigoted than the central premise of Trump’s campaign: that foreigners and outsiders are exploiting, infiltrating and adulterating the real America. How is attacking the impartiality of a judge worse than characterizing undocumented Mexicans as invading predators intent on raping American women?
Is Trump himself a racist? Who cares. There is no difference in public influence between a politician who is a racist and one who appeals to racist sentiments with racist arguments. The harm to the country – measured in division and fear – is the same.
No, Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel was not different in kind. But for Republican leaders, this much was new: Since Trump now owns them, they now own his prejudice. Sure, Trump has gone nativist before, but this time it followed their overall stamp of approval. Republicans have clung to the hope that Trump might find unsuspected resources of leadership; lacking that, to the hope that he might be coopted; and lacking that, to the hope of laying low and avoiding the Trump taint. All delusions.
So what were senior Republicans thinking when they endorsed Trump? I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties involved in opposing one’s own presumptive nominee. There is tremendous political pressure to be loyal to the team.
Republican leaders thought they were in a normal political moment – a time for pragmatism, give-and-take, holding your nose and getting past an unpleasant chore.
But it is not a normal political moment. It is one of those rare times – like the repudiation of Joe McCarthy, or consideration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or the Watergate crisis – when the spotlight of history stops on a single decision, and a whole political career is remembered in a single pose. The test here: Can you support, for pragmatic reasons, a presidential candidate who purposely and consistently appeals to racism?
When the choice came, only a handful of Republicans at the national level answered with a firm “no.” A handful. It was not shocking to me that the plurality of an angry Republican primary electorate might choose a populist who appeals to racial prejudice. It is shocking to me that almost no elected Republicans of national standing would stand up to it.
By this standard, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is the GOP’s moral leader. But given the thinness of his company, many of us will never be able to think about the Republican Party in the same way again. It still carries many of the ideological convictions I share. Collectively, however, it has failed one of the most basic tests of public justice: Don’t support racists – or candidates who appeal to racism – for public office. If this commitment is not a primary, non-negotiable element of Republican identity, then the party of Lincoln is dead.
Without a passion for universal human dignity and worth – the commitment to a common good in which the powerless are valued – politics is a spoils system for the winners. It degenerates into a way for one group to gain advantage over another. And for Trump in particular, politics seems to be a way for white voters to take back social power following the age of Obama.
Gerson was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Email: michaelgerson