We all know that Donald Trump is a performance artist, not a presidential candidate. But in today’s Republican Party, that doesn’t matter. Trump’s hucksterism has a home in the GOP, particularly among grassroots conservatives. In addition to illustrating how unserious the GOP is, Trump’s candidacy has also become something of a measuring stick for Republican politics.
Trump, after all, only exists because Republican voters allow him to, because he says what many of them are thinking and what many of his fellow candidates are unwilling to say publicly. Republican candidates for president know this, too. They’ve contorted themselves in front of cameras for weeks now, trying to distance themselves from Trump without alienating his growing subset of supporters within the party.
Things changed this weekend, however. Appearing over the weekend at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa, Trump attacked Arizona Republican John McCain’s military service. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said, “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” The remarks, which were every bit as stupid as they were odious, finally united his fellow Republicans against him.
“I know @SenJohnMcCain is an American hero. Period. Stop,” wrote Chris Christie on Twitter. “America’s POWs deserve much better than to have their service record questioned by the offensive rantings of Donald Trump,” tweeted Marco Rubio.
Bobby Jindal tweeted: “John McCain is an American hero. I have nothing but respect for his service to our country. After Donald Trump spends six years in a POW camps, he can weigh in on John McCain’s service.” Jeb Bush joined the Twitter chorus as well: “Enough with the slanderous attacks. @SenJohnMcCain and all our veterans – particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration.”
To be clear: Republicans are right to condemn Trump. As a veteran myself, I found them outrageously offensive. But the reactions of Republicans to these particular remarks are telling for a number of reasons. They reflect what is and isn’t acceptable in the Republican Party. Recall the deafening silence of most Republicans after Trump’s disgusting comments about Mexicans last month:
“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some [italics mine], I assume, are good people.”
There’s no point in measuring the offensiveness of one remark against another. What Trump said about McCain is deeply offensive. What he said about Mexicans was stupid and nakedly racist. Most people not running for the Republican nomination would happily concede this. What’s instructive, though, is that GOP candidates felt comfortable critiquing one offense and not the other. And the reason is obvious: racism resonates with a large subset of the Republican base.
Republicans lambasted Trump’s McCain comments because it’s safer, because damn near everyone (even the GOP base) supports veterans and POWs. And damn near everyone objects to bigotry, except, of course, the thousands of Republican primary voters who helped catapult Trump to the top of polls. That Republican candidates danced around Trump’s anti-immigration remarks shows, at the very least, that they’re aware of this influential element at the core of their party. Indeed, an anonymous Republican strategist quoted today in the Washington Post said that candidates should speak out against Trump, “But they have to do that with a certain amount of respect…and not go over the top.” Translation: GOP candidates have to respect the mildly racist sensibilities of committed Trump supporters, lest they upset a vast number of potential voters.
The Trump fallout also throws a little light on the rank hypocrisy of the Republican outrage machine. Jeb Bush, for instance, is rightly indignant about Trump’s anti-military rant, but, as ThinkProgress noted, he was a cheerleader for the vicious “swiftboat” campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 campaign. You may recall the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which poured millions into a smear campaign of John Kerry, a man awarded a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam. Bush, who tweeted yesterday that we must denounce slanderous attacks on all veterans, actually wrote the leaders of the swift boat group to thank them for “their willingness to stand up against John Kerry.” Of course, they didn’t “stand up against John Kerry” so much as mock his medals and military service. But that was fine by Bush, who apparently believes only Republican veterans deserve “our respect and admiration.”
Jeb Bush wasn’t alone, however. The entire Republican Party sat silently in the face of the swiftboating spectacle. Hell, it was a punch line at the Republican convention that year. All of this proves how unprincipled this party and these candidates really are. Their condemnations of Trump, much like their endorsements of McCain, are calculated political acts, about as authentic as a focus-grouped stump speech.