By now most Republican lawmakers have endorsed Donald Trump. Some of them were slow to pull the trigger, but eventually political expediency won the day. And that means we'll be forced to witness half-serious Republicans contorting themselves as they defend every shameful thing that falls out of Trump's mouth between now and November.
It didn't have to be this way.
Republican leaders had an opportunity to take a stand against Trump, to do what's right for the country. Instead, they chose party loyalty over prudent statecraft. Now they have to own who and what Trump is. As longtime GOP operative Rick Wilson wrote in an open letter to fellow Republicans over the weekend, “You own his politics. You own his policies, even the ones that only last as long as the next contradiction. You own the racial animus that started out as a bug, became a feature and is now the defining characteristic of his campaign.”
This was already a pitiable position for Republicans, but Trump has made it significantly worse in the last few weeks. The presumptive nominee has had a month to profit from the extended race on the Democratic side. This was a period during which he could – and should – have pivoted to a general election campaign. What he's done, though, is double down on his racist campaign by claiming a U.S. District Judge had an “absolute conflict” in presiding over the Trump University case because he's “of Mexican heritage.”
Things got even worse this weekend, as Trump told CBS's John Dickerson that he'd be equally suspicious of a Muslim judge. Dickerson asked: “If it were a Muslim judge, would you also feel like they wouldn't be able to treat you fairly because of that policy of yours [the proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country]?” “It's possible, yes,” Trump replied. “Yeah. That would be possible, absolutely.”
Two days earlier, at a campaign rally in Redding, California, Trump clumsily pointed to a black man in the crowd, yelling “Look at my African-American over here!” No one else in American politics behaves like this. Sure, there are racists serving at every level of government in this country, but common sense and self-preservation obliges them to keep quiet. Not so with Trump; he's content to make it the centerpiece of his campaign.
This is no longer dog-whistling – it's textbook racism. It's also what we've come to expect from a man whose “first act on the political stage was to declare himself the head of the birther movement,” as James Carville recently observed.
Prominent Republicans have been quick to distance themselves from Trump's comments. Newt Gingrich, of all people, said “This [referring to the remarks about Judge Curiel] is one of the worst mistakes Trump has made, and I think it's inexcusable.” “I couldn't disagree more with a statement like that,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who then avoided the obvious conclusion that Trump's statements were racist.
Despite surrendering to Trump just one one week ago, even House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the chorus of critics: “Look, the comment about the judge, just was out of left field for my mind. It's reasoning I don't relate to, I completely disagree with the thinking behind that.”
These condemnations, however welcomed, are meaningless. The time for Republicans to criticize Trump has long past. None of it matters when your official position is that a racist — or an actor pretending to be a racist — ought to be president of the United States. The “party of Lincoln” has already wedded itself to a bigot, in other words. If Trump's latest comments weren't part of a broader pattern of race-baiting, then perhaps the rejections would resonate. But this is who Trump has been since he announced his candidacy. And the Republican Party welcomed him into their “big tent” nevertheless.
Given the nearly universal response, this offense is likely to hurt Trump in a way few others have. It will also damage every Republican who co-signed his campaign knowing what a disgusting spectacle it is. They lost the moral high ground the minute they put their stamp on Trump. His baggage is now their baggage, and the stench of his campaign will follow them for the rest of their political lives.