House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Tuesday that Trump's comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel are "the textbook definition of racism" before adding: "Do I believe Hillary Clinton is the answer? I do not."But notice what happens every time a Republican makes a statement like this: The notion that Hillary Clinton is a genuinely awful person gets reinforced. ("Yes, what Donald Trump said is outrageous, but at least he's not -- ick! ptui -- Hillary!") It sends the message that Trump is bad but Hillary is unspeakable.
... Think of the logical inconsistency in Ryan's comments Tuesday. Yes, Trump is engaging in a "textbook" example of racism. No, I will not rescind my support. What conclusion can possibly be drawn from those comments? That, sure, Trump is playing with racism but he's still better than Clinton?
The way Ryan sets up the argument -- if it's not Trump then it's Clinton -- bypasses a third option that the likes of Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Graham have already taken: Choose not to vote in this election because you cannot in good conscience support either of the candidates.
I get that no politician who spends his or her life asking people to vote and emphasizing how important doing so is for democracy wants to publicly choose not to participate in an election. But how is what Ryan is doing right now not worse for himself and the broader Republican brand? Yes, my candidate is a racist, but he's still my candidate because Clinton?
If you're a Republican and you think some voters are persuaded by your words, do you want to tell them you're sitting out the election because both Trump and Clinton are equally unacceptable, which might help persuade some of your audience that the choice is tossup and some of them might as well vote for Clinton? Or do you want to keep saying that nothing Trump has done rises to the level of sheer horror that is Hillary?
For Ryan and the rest of the GOP, I think it's an easy choice.
The flip side of this message is: Really, what's so awful about what Trump is saying? It's bad, but it's not that bad. What Ryan and others are doing is defining deviancy down. Since this is still a majority-white country, that message is certain to find a receptive audience. (I'm not convinced that the Curiel business is even going to hurt Trump or other Republicans in the polls. We really don't know whether white America accepts the notion that respected non-white judges can be trusted to be impartial.)
Cillizza thinks the GOP, and mainstream backers like Ryan in particular, can't continue to stand by Trump without being permanently tainted. I'm going to continue to say what I've been saying -- that the Beltway will decide that all is forgiven as soon as Trump is out of the picture, simply because Trump regularly denounces the GOP establishment and establishment figures (mildly) denounce Trump, which means the establishmentarians weren't really Trumpites. The alternative to accepting Ryan et al. back into the fold would be to reject an entire major party; the Beltway is so deeply invested in the notion of parity between the two parties (both sides do it!) that that's simply unthinkable.
So, yes, Ryan and the rest will continue to say they're troubled by Trump's words, will continue to back him, and will continue to get away with it.
Many people wonder whether Trump is committing political malpractice by focusing on Curiel right now. Here's Byron York:
The problem is, Trump, while busy shooting himself in the foot, is missing opportunity after opportunity to go after Clinton. As a campaign, the Trump team made almost no use of the State Department Clinton email report. The same was true for the terrible jobs report. It didn't respond well to Clinton's much-discussed anti-Trump speech last week.Is it possible that this is a strategy that has some logical basis, whether or not it's actually a smart one? Trump knows that Clinton can throw a punch and, perhaps more important, take one. He knows she's powerful, with powerful allies and a powerful organization behind her. If you rank-ordered everyone in America, Curiel would rank much lower than Clinton. In the never-ending brawl that is life as Donald Trump sees it, Clinton is a ranked heavyweight; Curiel is a palooka.
So maybe Trump is pummeling a palooka to distract us from Hillary Clinton, who might land a few punches if he takes a swing at her. Maybe Trump knows exactly what he's doing. That's not to say it's a good strategy. But it might be a strategy.