It's been a rough two weeks for Donald Trump. Normally, he gets a pass for his race-baiting; it's something we've come to expect from him. He takes fire from the usual suspects – Democrats, the media, progressive pundits – but often fellow Republicans have pirouetted around the racial implications of Trump's statements.
Not this time.
After claiming a Mexican-American judge had a conflict of interest by virtue of his Mexican-American heritage, Republicans pounced. “If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it,” said Lindsey Graham. House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump's comments “the textbook definition” of racism. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he “couldn't disagree more” with Trump's remarks. Republican senator Mark Kirk called Trump's comments “dead wrong” and “un-American,” adding that he can no longer support the presumptive nominee. Ben Sasse, a GOP senator from Nebraska, tweeted: “Public Service Announcement: Saying someone can't do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of 'racism.'” Other Republicans, like Marco Rubio and Bob Corker, joined the chorus of critics as well.
A lot of this moralizing feels contrived. Why all the outrage now? Trump has been insulting Mexicans and Muslims and a half dozen other demographics since he launched his campaign. As bad as his latest comments were, are they appreciably worse than, say, suggesting we ought to kill the family members of suspected terrorists? In any case, it's nice to see Republicans taking a bold stand against racism.
But it's unlikely to change the tone of the campaign.
If you thought all the criticism would induce introspection from Trump, you're wrong – and probably haven't paid close attention to this election. Trump is a petulant child with one gear. He's also humorless and incapable of admitting error. A lifetime spent in the company of sycophants has produced a false confidence in him. When he makes a mistake, he reflexively doubles down, no matter how egregious the misstep.
No surprise, then, that Trump has a very simple message for the GOP leaders criticizing his attacks on Judge Curiel: Relax. Or, as The New York Times' Carl Hulse put it, “Man up.” In an interview on Tuesday, Trump insisted all the criticisms aimed at him were misguided. “Politicians are so politically correct,” he said, “they can't breathe...The people are tired of this political correctness when things are said that are totally fine. It is out of control. It is gridlock with their mouths.”
Notice the equivalence between racist and politically incorrect. This is the first play in Trump's playbook: attribute the response to every spurious or stupid or hateful remark he makes to political incorrectness. It's a kind of escape hatch for him. He says things no sane or decent politician would say and then fancies himself “authentic.” That “may make me less popular with politicians,” he told The New York Times, “But I have to be honest. I didn't get here by doing it the way a lot of people do it.”
Trump has made “political correctness” a catch-all term for hate speech. This is why he's such a hit with white nationalists, who've yearned to hear a prominent politician say what they've been thinking all along. However much Trump tries to tone it down, he'll always circle back to his default status. Decorum doesn't suit a man who has nothing substantive to say. For Trump, it's about projecting an image, which is grounded in this straight talk mystique. I'm not sure what Trump believes, but he has to speak and act this way to satisfy the nativist constituency he's cultivated.
This is who he has to be in order to be at all. The Republicans better get used to it.