Three months ago, David Duke, a white supremacist, declared his support for Donald Trump. Duke—who beat a field of Republicans, and all but one Democrat, in the 1991 race for governor of Louisiana—praised Trump for saying “what I said almost 25 years ago.” When CNN’s Jake Tapper invited Trump to repudiate Duke and the KKK, Trump begged off, saying he needed more information. That prompted a rebuke from House Speaker Paul Ryan. “If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games,” Ryan demanded. “They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices.”
Three months later, Trump has done what Duke did, and more. By tapping popular anger and exploiting fear of Cuban Americans, Mexican Americans, blacks, and Seventh-day Adventists, Trump has beaten a field of Republicans. If he can overcome one last Democratic candidate, he’ll be president of the United States. Rather than turn away from Duke’s politics, Trump has moved closer to them. He has repeatedly accused Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge who is hearing a fraud case against Trump University, of bias and unfitness because Curiel—who was born in Indiana—is “Mexican.” This weekend, Trump added that a Muslim judge might be similarly incapable of treating him fairly. Meanwhile, Trump repeated his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.
In short, Trump is preying on prejudice and building a movement on bigotry. By the standard Ryan laid down in March, Republican leaders should reject Trump. Instead, they’re coming up with evasions and games. Here’s a list of their excuses for supporting the nominee.
1. It’s not racism. This week, as Trump escalated his rhetoric against Curiel, many Republicans were asked whether the attacks were racist. Some refused to answer. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah insisted Trump “doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee stiff-armed the question: “Look, I don't condone the comments. And we can press on to another topic.” Gov. Rick Scott of Florida retreated to generalities: “I can’t say that I would say the same thing any other candidate says.” On MSNBC, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell produced this reptilian exchange:
Q: Are you willing to say that Trump is wrong in attacking this judge because of his ethnicity?
McConnell: Well, what I am willing to say is that Donald Trump is certainly a different kind of candidate. …
Q: Is he wrong in attacking the Mexican background … of this very highly regarded judge who’s won cases against the drug cartel?
McConnell: I’m unfamiliar with this particular judge. But I did say the other day, and I’ll say again today, I thought it was completely unfortunate, unnecessary, for our nominee to attack the governor of New Mexico …
Later, on Meet the Press, McConnell was asked three times whether Trump’s statement that Curiel “cannot be impartial because he’s Hispanic” (a paraphrase) was racist. Three times, McConnell said he disagreed with the statement but refused to call it racist.
2. It’s just a matter of tone. In the midst of Trump’s assault on Curiel, Ryan endorsed Trump. Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who had brokered the endorsement, applauded Ryan for doing “the right thing.” Priebus said he “wouldn’t invoke race,” but he suggested that Trump might have a valid beef against Curiel. “I don’t know anything about this judge,” said Priebus. “When people make comments about judges, it usually depends on their personal knowledge of how a case is being handled.” As for Trump’s Mexican-bashing, Priebus promised that the nominee would clean up his language. “Donald Trump understands that his tone and rhetoric is going to have to evolve in regard to how we’re communicating to Hispanics,” said Priebus. “I think he gets that.”
3. It’s not fundamental. In his statement endorsing Trump, Ryan said he had insisted on clarifying Trump’s commitment to “fundamental principles such as the protection of life.” The next day, Ryan criticized Trump’s attack on Curiel but made clear that it wasn’t a deal-breaker. “We’re going to have disagreements on details,” Ryan conceded. “But on the substance, the principles, the policies, and the direction, that is where I feel that we have a comfortable understanding of each other.” In Ryan’s taxonomy, denouncing judges based on ethnicity meets the “textbook definition” of racism but seems to be more of a detail than a matter of substance or principle.
4. It’s a distraction. Corker dismissed Trump’s comments as a distraction from the national debt. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters, “Iowans are more interested in the economy than they are in this.” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the GOP’s deputy leader in the Senate, said Trump’s attacks were “wrong” but wouldn’t say more. “I’m just not going to talk about Donald Trump,” Cornyn told reporters. “If it’s the only thing you guys ask about, yes, it does affect our ability to talk policy.”
5. It’s none of my business. “I’m running my own campaign, and I just don’t really want to keep talking about Trump,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire offered the same plea: “I’m running my race and focusing on the people of New Hampshire.” Ayotte said Trump’s comments were offensive but added, “I plan to vote for him.” Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania also ducked the question.
6. Who am I to judge? Grassley hesitated to criticize Trump: “I would not have said what he said, but then I don’t know all the facts.” Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Trump’s comments were wrong, but he cautioned: “Who am I to say, ‘Hey, the guy has to change’?” In an interview, Chaffetz was asked—specifically in light of Trump’s slurs against Adventists, Muslims, and Mexican Americans—at what point Republican leaders ought to declare Trump incompatible with their values. “Well, I can only answer [and] be responsible for myself,” Chaffetz shrugged. “I don’t expect any candidate out there to agree with [Trump] 100 percent of the time.”
7. The voters have spoken. “Donald Trump won this thing the good old-fashioned way,” McConnell argued in a Fox News interview on May 31. “He got more votes than anybody else. … And I think we ought to respect the wishes of the Republican voters.” McConnell repeated that argument on MSNBC and a week later on Meet the Press. “The right-of-center world needs to respect the fact that the primary voters have spoken,” said McConnell. In the face of racial populism, the leader of the so-called Republican Party has become a democrat.
8. It’s OK to be racist, as long as you’re for change. Corker waved aside a question about Curiel, recasting Trump’s vitriol as part of his potential “to disrupt the direction that Washington is moving in.” What people “see in Donald Trump is a disrupter,” Corker argued. Sen. David Perdue made the same point. “You guys want to talk about this in one dimension,” he told reporters. “It’s not just about his comment. What we have here is a country in crisis. … And this guy is talking about a different direction.”
9. It’s just Trump being Trump. Chaffetz celebrated Trump’s outbursts: “If you want to see somebody who’s totally scripted all the time, you go and vote for Hillary Clinton. If you want somebody who’s just going to tell it like it is and the way they see it, that’s what I think is endearing about Donald Trump.” When Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina was asked whether Trump’s remarks might cause him to withdraw his endorsement of the nominee, he said no: “If they were inconsistent with things we’ve seen up to this point in the election, I would tell you it might. But I think we’re all sort of used to remarks being made that we don’t expect.”
10. I’m shocked. While Chaffetz and Burr shrugged off Trump’s remarks as predictable, Ryan—apparently unaware of Trump’s yearlong campaign of ethnic and religious slurs, including previous jabs at Curiel—professed total innocence. “The comment about the judge the other day just was out of left field, [to] my mind,” the speaker pleaded.
11. I promised to support him. Sen. Marco Rubio, who correctly called Trump a con man during the primaries, now supports him. “When I chose to run for president, I entered into an agreement,” Rubio explained Monday. “I gave my word that I would support the nominee.” While criticizing Trump’s attack on Curiel, Rubio said it wouldn’t override his pledge. Rubio indicated that he would encourage others to support Trump as well: “I’m not going to be someone that asks people to stay home.”
12. Clinton is worse. Chaffetz said he would stick with Trump due to “the ABC’s of politics: Anybody But Clinton.” Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is on Trump’s shortlist for vice president, repudiated the attack on Curiel but passed it off as “a mistake” due to “sloppiness.” When Gingrich was asked “whether or not you can continue to support this man,” he replied: “Well, compared to Hillary Clinton, I can support Donald Trump all year. … She is a much more flawed person than Donald. I mean, first of all, somebody who will not release her speeches …”
13. Winning is everything. On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd quoted a scathing indictment of Trump by conservative writer Erick Erickson: “To claim someone is unable to objectively and professionally perform his job because of his race is racism. And damn the GOP for its unwillingness to speak up on this. ... [T]he party of Lincoln intends to circle the wagons around a racist.” Todd asked McConnell: “What do you say to Mr. Erickson?” Without a flicker of shame, McConnell replied: “I think the party of Lincoln wants to win the White House.”
14. Don’t divide the right. Four days after Trump attacked Curiel, and two days after Trump’s spokeswoman piled on, McConnell told Fox News: “Anything that divides … the right-of-center world is not helpful.” He added: “I don’t have any trouble at all supporting Donald Trump, and I hope everybody right of center does [support Trump].” On MSNBC, McConnell delivered the same cool answer: “I for one don’t have any trouble supporting him.” Ryan conceded the racism of Trump’s remarks but stood by him anyway, because “if we go into the fall as a divided party, we are doomed to lose.”
When you add up these excuses, what you see is a party full of lawyers and spin doctors defending the indefensible. They’re not rationalizing racism. What they’re rationalizing is holding their party together even if that means supporting a racist. Unlike Duke, Trump knows how to pose with a taco bowl and gush about “the Hispanics” and “my African American.” But what Trump has done, again and again, is play for sympathy and votes by implying that minorities, because they’re minorities, can’t be trusted.
To protect this man, Republicans have discarded every principle. The party of conservatism celebrates disruption. Absolutists who insist that their presidential nominee treat the unborn as equals require no such commitment to Mexican Americans. Moralists who spent the Clinton administration preaching about character treat persistent race baiting as a matter of communications strategy. Some Republicans discount Trump’s slurs as old news while others discount them because he’s a nice man who otherwise never talks that way.
Party leaders agonize over the nominee’s commitment to entitlement cuts but treat racism as a detail. Politicians who brag about saying “radical Islamic terrorist” get cute about the meaning of “racist.” The chairman of the committee investigating Hillary Clinton becomes a permissive subjectivist. A senator who ran for president opposing his own immigration bill develops a deep commitment to his promise to support Trump. The Senate leader who set out to thwart a newly elected president in 2009 suddenly preaches the primacy of the people’s will.
In the end, it’s about power and priorities. In today’s GOP, it’s more important to keep Merrick Garland off the Supreme Court than it is to protect the country from a president who would ban Muslims. It’s better to elect a man who targets federal judges based on ethnicity than to elect a woman who gave paid speeches to Wall Street. It’s better to stand with David Duke’s candidate than to divide “the right-of-center world.” The party of Lincoln has become the party that just wants to win.