Of all of the softball questions that a political candidate could possibly get, the softest of the softballs has to be this: will you disavow endorsements of a white supremacist and condemn white supremacy groups? The obvious answer is, yes – unequivocally, emphatically, strongly, the candidate will disavow those endorsements and condemn any white supremacist group. Apparently, though, that question proved to be too complex for Donald Trump. His answer was – shall we say, charitably – equivocal. And deeply troubling. He actually needed a mulligan. And still shanked it into the woods.
Some may call it a “gaffe.” I think it was not. Trump knew what he was saying (the “defective earpiece” excuse is preposterous – on the video Trump shows no difficulty with hearing Jake Tapper, and responds in a way that shows that he heard what Tapper talking about). Even Joe Scarborough, who has been embarrassingly deferential to Trump in recent weeks, questioned in today’s WaPo whether Trump has disqualified himself with this particular fail. And Rachel Maddow did an impressive piece recently on the striking comparisons between Trump and George Wallace (not a flattering comparison). One can imagine the Clinton ads that will play on an endless loop throughout the Fall.
At a time when the media has been relentlessly hyper-focused upon the IS of the Donald Trump candidacy and the presidential election – focusing intensely on the observation that Trump IS leading all of the polls, that he IS the front-runner, that he IS the presumptive nominee – this weekend’s latest Trumpian fail reminds us that we still have to consider the OUGHT in this race. Should Trump be the front-runner? Should he be the nominee? Should voters support him? Should Trump be the President?
Maybe this will matter to Republican voters, maybe it won’t. At this point, I’m skeptical. Nothing I have seen so far this cycle leads me to believe that his large core of supporters will be turned off by this latest failure on his part. Of course, Senator Marco Rubio has been throwing everything he has at Trump lately. It is a sad commentary on the state of our political culture that this race has been reduced to trading barbs about sweating, and anatomical measurements, and height. But Trump asked for that, and he shouldn’t complain now that the juvenile insults are being hurled his way. Still, Rubio need not engage on that level, which, though amusing and viscerally satisfying, is no less pathetic than when Trump does it. Rubio is better than that; Trump isn’t. So Rubio’s chief points of attack ought to still be on Trump’s views and his record. There is no real need to attack the spray tan anymore.
For the last few days, Senator Rubio has pushed the credible line that Trump is a Con Man. That is not a mere personal insult. It is based on Trump’s record and professional dealings, which is fair game, particularly when Trump has made his business acumen a central focus of his campaign. Relatedly, Rubio should run the attack that Trump is not the winner he says he is. Trump, and his brand, have suffered significant, high-profile failures: Trump University, Trump Mortgage, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks. Time has a great post on this here from a few years ago. Yahoo Finance has a more recent piece here. Fortune has a piece here. Of course, failure is possible in the life of any businessman, no matter how good he is. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Trump is selling himself as a guy who does nothing but win. If you looked objectively at these lists, would you say that this is the record of a person who is winning all of the time? Is this the track record you would want for the Nation? That, I think, is a potent attack on Trump.
But Senator Rubio can also now push – as he started doing today – this other potent line of attack, based on what we heard this weekend: Republicans cannot make someone their nominee who is perceived to be, and has willfully contributed to the perception that he is, a racist – or at the very least, if not personally a racist, someone who implicitly plays upon the racist instincts of voters in order to secure their votes. Rubio should say unequivocally, “if that is what it takes to become the Republican nominee, I don’t want the nomination. I will not accept, nor will I pursue, any office that requires me to appeal to bigotry and hatred in order to secure a majority of votes.” Rubio should then point out that if that is what Trump believes he must do, then he has badly miscalculated the Republican Party and the Nation.
It has been said, conventionally, that it is fair to criticize a candidate but not his or her voters. I’m not sure about that. When I see a whopping 75% of voters in one State saying that they agree that we should completely ban Muslims from entering the country, it is fair to ask, what else would these voters support? How far would they go, and what kind of candidate appeals to them? Republicans should want to be a Big Tent party, but I imagine this is not what they had in mind. I am troubled to see Republican voters now saying that they believe Trump will win the nomination, and they prefer to go ahead and vote for the person who will win, rather than the person they really prefer. That’s an IS problem. But these voters overlook the lingering significance of the OUGHT.
Who ought to be the President of the United States? That is the only question at hand that ultimately matters. I am certain that it is not Donald Trump. Trump’s statements this weekend, when added to all of his other failures and shortcomings and anti-constitutionalism, ought to persuade people of that. But if, despite this mountain of evidence against Trump’s fitness for the presidency, this many voters remain committed to Trump, then I fear that it may be time for Senator Rubio, Governor Kasich, or some other leader in the Party to strongly consider launching an independent campaign. If there was ever a year in which the right candidate could pull it off, this is the year. If not that, then the remainder of the Republican Party may have to lead their crop of supporters toward a new political organization.