The Republican elites are used to having their bigotry served with a certain elegance: a nutritious entrée of reactionary policies smothered in a rich rhetorical sauce. However, the Republican base has chosen fast food. Instead of policy positions, Trump serves up empty slogans and preposterous proposals. Instead of carefully crafted, tele-prompted speeches, he offers a hot sauce of off-the-cuff remarks, without any concern for being politically correct. His supporters love that.
For the rest of the party, this poses a problem: the bigotry is left out in plain site, for everybody to see. Republican candidates find themselves continually accosted by reporters asking about the latest Trump gaff: Has it crossed the line? Would you call it “racist”?
Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant, advises, “Get used to it. This is your life for the next five months.”
Though his more recent comments reiterating his hard line against Muslims or calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” are problematic, the Donald’s most overtly racist statements since becoming the presumptive nominee of the party concerned Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over the trial of the bogus Trump University. Trump called the judge a “hater”, and said that the judge should recuse himself because of his ethnic heritage.
“The very definition of racism” declared Paul Ryan, trying desperately to hold on to his personal integrity while still supporting the party’s nominee. Poor Mr. Ryan wants the message to be about Republican ideas, ideas that he knows will have no chance under a Clinton administration. However, his attempt to introduce the world to Republican ideas on fighting poverty got completely buried, as all the press wanted to talk about was Trump’s latest gaff.
In turn, Trump rips into Romney for the remarks on racism, and barely mentions policy. The Donald can’t be bothered with the details. He touts, “My voters don’t care and the public doesn’t care.”
When asked whether or not he considers Trump’s remarks about the judge racist, California Republican State Senator Joel Anderson, a Trump supporter, showed a remarkable skill in avoiding the question in an NPR interview with Renee Montagne. His deflected the question once, but she continued to press him for a direct answer. Then, he responded:
Look, listen, we’ve seen story after story from the beginning of ambush interviews looking for the poison dart to kill Donald Trump. You haven’t found any in the press, and now you’re picking on a senator to try to find something.
He went on for a while, and Montagne ran out of time. This professional politician wants his audience to believe he has was unfairly “ambushed” by a question about what had been headline news for days. I’m sure that many Trump supporters agree with him that the mainstream media is simply out to get Trump.
However, many Republicans aren’t buying it. One senator, Mark Kirk of Illinois, used this as an opportunity to withdraw his support for the Donald, almost grateful for being given an off-ramp to the Trump bandwagon. At the other end of the spectrum, the spineless Rob Portman of Ohio could only muster up the courage to call the remarks “a distraction”.
People like Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich offered a different kind criticism. These professional politicians view the campaign as a kind of game, like chess or poker. To them, Trump has made a blunder. “One of the worst mistakes Trump has made” declared Gingrich, going on to describe it as “inexcusable.” McConnell instructed Trump to “get on message.” Gingrich and McConnell seem to object not to the substance but to the amateurishness of the remarks. They prefer the message be veiled in precisely the kind of politically correct language that Trump has derided his entire campaign.
Trump himself doesn’t see much of a problem. Seeing the fallout, he has tried to defuse the situation by saying his comments were “misconstrued”, but this acknowledgement is as close to an apology as he is likely to get.
In truth, there was nothing new here. Among Trump’s supporters, there was no harm done. Those of us who were offended were not going to vote for Trump anyway.
However, for those who are running on the Republican brand, it poses a real problem. The Republican Party has been covertly appealing to the bigotry in America for a long time. With Trump in the foreground, the pretense is dropped, and the racism is out in the open. Republican candidates will have to decide where they stand. Are they going to bow to pressure to maintain a unified front, regardless of what the front represents, or are they going to stand up for the American ideals of justice and equality for all?