The GOP's incoherent stance on Trump has to end: You can't be for and against a racist

Trump's backers who have acknowledged his race-baiting must explain how they can still support him for president

By Sean Illing

Published June 8, 2016 2:57PM (EDT)

Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell   (AP/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/J. Scott Applewhite)
Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell (AP/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/J. Scott Applewhite)

GOP leaders have been walking a tightrope since Donald Trump hijacked their party. On the one hand, party loyalty dictates compliance: Trump is the nominee and a good party man has to toe the line. On the other hand, there's an obligation to do what's in the best interest of the country – and ultimately for the sake of the party's long-term viability.

Thus far toeing the line has been the default option for Republicans.

I almost sympathize with Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker and others who find themselves in an impossible position. Although they're wrong about nearly everything else, none of them wanted Trump to win the nomination. But the voters got their man. This is Trump's party now. Although Republicans are antecedently responsible for the conditions that produced Trump, no one thought this was possible.

But we are where we are, and eventually enough is enough.

If they had any political courage at all, GOP leaders would've disavowed Trump from the beginning. Instead, they fell into line like good soldiers. In the last five weeks, however, things have changed. The laws of political gravity have finally ensnared Trump. He secured the nomination and rather than pivot to a more conventional general election campaign, he's made one gaffe after another, culminating with the racist attacks on the Mexican-American U.S. District Judge, Gonzalo Curiel.

This was one of those rare offenses about which everyone agrees. Not a single credible person, on either side of the aisle, has defended Trump's statements. That he was willing to make and double down on such racist claims is a reminder that he cannot – and will not – change. And even if he could suddenly shape-shift into a normal (read: respectable) candidate, it would be a fraud.

Trump's antics in the last few weeks should have been the final straw. This was the opportunity Republicans needed to save their party and themselves. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it.” But that hasn't happened. On the contrary, we've heard one GOP leader after another denounce Trump's statements while refusing to rescind their endorsement, which is as incoherent as it is untenable.

Behold the rhetorical gymnastics being performed by GOP leaders.

House Speaker Paul Ryan conceded that Trump's arguments about Judge Curiel are “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” but then insisted that Hillary Clinton is not the answer and that he's therefore supporting Trump. Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, said that Trump's attacks are “wrong and I don't condone it,” but couldn't say whether he thinks Trump is “fit to be president.” Senate Majority Leader McConnell told a local radio host that this election amounts to a “lesser-of-two-evils election” and that Trump's remarks will hurt the party with Latino voters. McConnell also stressed that he “couldn't disagree more” with Trump's behavior. But you guessed it: He still supports the Donald for president. Marco Rubio said Monday that "This is tough decision for a lot of Republicans to make because, on the one hand, you don't want Hillary Clinton to win, and he truly is the only way to stop her. On the other hand, you have something like what you've seen today and over the last few days. So, it puts everybody in a tough spot."

Does it really "put everybody in a tough spot"? You have a presidential candidate who has built his campaign on bigotry - what's the moral quandary here? The solution is rather simple for Republicans: A racist isn't fit to serve as president. Republicans may not be able to wrest the nomination from Trump, but they can absolutely refuse to cast their vote for him, as a few already have. The have-it-both ways approach isn't sustainable. As The Washington Posts's Chris Cillizza wrote, “the time is rapidly approaching to either hop off the Trump train or decide you are riding it all the way to Nov. 8.” In truth, the time has passed, but late is better than never.

Every single Republican who has acknowledged Trump's race-baiting but refused to renounce their endorsement must now explain why they believe a racist ought to be president of the United States. He's a vile, disgusting bigot but he's our vile, disgusting bigot won't do. If Republicans think Trump fit to lead the country, they should endorse him without caveats. He's either a racist or he isn't. Asking him to tone down his racism, as Corker has suggested, is an affront to every person who has listened to Trump spew bigotry since the minute he launched his campaign. We know who he is by now.

And so do the Republicans who continue to support him.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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