The uproar over Donald Trump’s attacks on a Latino federal judge has emphasized an extraordinary aspect of today’s US politics: Many top Republicans don’t seem very interested in helping their party’s presumptive presidential nominee win the White House.
Instead, they are much more focused on riding out a challenging 2016 situation while limiting collateral damage to themselves. In that sense the about-face of Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois is indicative. Senator Kirk, who faces a tough reelection fight, previously said he’d support Mr. Trump in November. On Tuesday he reversed course.
“I find Donald Trump’s belief that an American-born judge of Mexican descent is incapable of fairly presiding over his case is not only dead wrong, it is un-American,” Kirk told CNN.
Kirks’ situation is particularly precarious. He may be the most endangered Republican Senate incumbent. And some members of the Washington GOP have opposed Trump from the beginning, of course. Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska has been particularly outspoken.
But more notable may be the way Trump’s supposed endorsers handled the controversy over District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over a civil trial of whether or not Trump University was a fraud.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump just last week, called Trump’s charge that Judge Curiel could not fairly run the trial due to his Mexican heritage “a textbook definition of a racist comment.” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, another Trump supporter, said it is time for the billionaire “to quit attacking . . . various minority groups.”
Pundits leaped on the apparent contradiction of these words. How could Representative Ryan support someone who makes racist comments? Why would Senator McConnell – whose Taiwanese-born wife did not speak English until age 8 – vote for someone who viciously attacks minority groups?
The New York Daily News went so far as to prep a front page with a photo of Ryan appearing to point at one of Trump, and the headline “I’m With Racist!” (It was later pulled for a Hillary Clinton nomination-clinching alternative.)
But here’s the thing: Ryan and McConnell are very experienced pols. Ryan just called something said by his party’s presumed presidential nominee “racist.” He is fully aware that he has said something highly damaging that may eventually appear in a Democratic attack ad. Racism is a very powerful charge.
Ditto for McConnell. He is desperate to remain majority leader, which won’t happen if Kirk and other endangered Republican senators are dragged down by Trump controversies.
They know exactly what they are saying. And the silence from many other top Republicans has been deafening. Who leaped to defend Trump as the Judge Curiel controversy mounted? Virtually no top elected Republican. No big donors. Few ex-lawmakers or other GOP bigwigs.
They’re hurting Trump’s electoral chances. And they know it. But they may be calculating that unless Trump faces up to his faults and improves as a candidate, he’s going to lose anyway.
So why not just cut ties with Trump? Why continue to support his effort in any way?
Here’s a shocker: Politicians are perfectly capable of doing stuff that on the surface does not seem logically coherent.
And Ryan et al know that right now the party voters are with Trump. Rank-and-file Republicans coalesced around Trump’s candidacy very quickly after Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the GOP race. Just look at the latest polls. Trump gets the support of 86 percent of Republicans in a new Quinnipiac survey (.pdf), for instance. That’s about normal for a candidate at this point in the race.
Perhaps this support will fall in the face of Trump’s comments. More probably, it won’t. Ryan, McConnell, and the rest of the party elite are playing for time to see what develops. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to say they back Trump, if tepidly. In the end that seems to be much more about party loyalty than Trump’s personal characteristics.