The astonishing spectacle of a speaker of the House not endorsing a presidential nominee of his own party has been supplanted by the astonishing spectacle of a speaker of the House declaring that the nominee he endorsed said something racist.
Paul Ryan endorsed Donald Trump just in time for the Gonzalo Curiel furor. Ryan unloaded on Trump’s attack on the judge’s heritage — “the textbook definition of a racist comment” — while continuing to back the mogul, in either the most awkward denunciation or the most awkward support ever, or perhaps both.
Naturally enough, Ryan’s slap at Trump came during, and overshadowed, an event rolling out the speaker’s thoughtful and creative anti-poverty agenda. In other words, Trump’s heedlessness stepped all over Ryan’s earnestness. It may be an apt metaphor for how the rest of 2016 will play out. The Curiel flap is a window into what is the worst case for the GOP: Trump as a little bit of Todd Akin every day.
Although this potential downside of a Trump nomination was obvious, the Republican establishment barely lifted a finger to stop him in the primaries, gripped by a faux sophisticated fatalism (even at the beginning, it was allegedly too late to stop him) and by an abiding hatred of Ted Cruz. It has reacted in shock and dismay at Trump’s attacks on the judge hearing the Trump University case, as if it were unaware the party had nominated a man whose calling card has been out-of-bounds, highly charged personal attacks on his opponents.
It must have missed it when he took shots at Ben Carson’s Seventh-day Adventism. It wasn’t watching TV that time when he doubted that Mitt Romney is a Mormon. It put it out of its mind that one of his main arguments against Cruz was that he was a Canadian ineligible for the presidency, and that Trump liked to sneeringly let it drop every now and then that Cruz’s real name is Rafael. And Trump’s birtherism? Hey, who hasn’t harbored suspicions that the president might have been born in Kenya and covered up his secret with a fraudulent birth certificate?
If Trump didn’t call Curiel a Mexican unworthy of hearing his case, you’d almost wonder what had knocked the candidate off his game. But the Republican establishment seems to have believed that it had an implicit pact (unbeknownst to Trump) that he could have the party so long as he didn’t embarrass it too badly.
The breach in this imaginary agreement has occasioned epic ducking and covering. The new equivalent of medieval scholastic philosophers are the Republican senators insisting on heretofore unnoticed distinctions between different levels of support for a presidential candidate.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte is voting for Trump (“at this point”), but she isn’t endorsing him. It would seem that saying she will vote for him constitutes an endorsement, but desperate times call for desperate evasions. Sen. Ron Johnson falls back on a similarly minute distinction: He’s supporting, but not endorsing, Trump. Somewhere there is a Ph.D. candidate in political science mulling a dissertation on when support is or is not an endorsement.
The truth is that Trump is a wedge issue against his own party. Disavowing him means upsetting all those good Republicans who voted for him in the primaries, while supporting him means owning his irresponsible positions and statements. There is no good answer, which is why faith in a Trump “pivot” — to a more disciplined, conventional candidate — runs so deep in the establishment. Sen. Bob Corker, who will be a perfect running mate for Trump if he wants a wingman uncomfortable with much of what he says, is constantly talking about the pivot. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus applauded Trump’s use of a teleprompter the other night as if the candidate’s wooden reading of the text was some sort of fundamental breakthrough.
This is all misplaced. Donald Trump may have many talents. Not being Donald Trump isn’t one of them.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.