Why Are Conservatives Defending Donald Trump?

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Donald Trump in Chicago
Donald Trump, conservative thought leader.Photo: Michael Tercha/2015 MCT

It is not politically significant that Donald Trump would claim to be running for president, that he would say something flamboyantly ignorant, or that he would “surge” to “second place” in polls by using his name recognition to get into double digits in a splintered field. What is significant and genuinely disturbing, not to mention poisonous to the Republican Party’s electoral interests, is the fact that conservative thought leaders feel compelled to defend Trump’s nativist ramblings. And not just bottom-feeding outlets like the Daily Caller and Breitbart, either. National Review editor Rich Lowry writes in Politico that Trump “has a point.”

In his announcement speech, Trump began by denouncing Mexico as an economic competitor, then shifted from protectionism to nativism by portraying Mexican immigrants as criminals:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

Conservatives leaping to Trump’s defense portray him as the teller of unpleasant truths, but he is actually repeating unpleasant lies. Studies show that immigrants have lower rates of violent crime than native-born populations.

The undertaking of cleaning up and legitimizing Trump’s wild smears has been headed up by Trump himself, who appeared on CNN to defend himself. Trump told CNN host Don Lemon that he was merely conveying reporting from Fusion. “If you go to Fusion, you will see a story: About 80 percent of the women coming in, you know who owns Fusion? Univision! Go to Fusion and pick up the stories on rape. It’s unbelievable when you look at what’s going on. So all I’m doing is telling the truth.”

Congratulations to Trump on his new job as Fusion content promoter, but the story to which he is apparently referring in no way supports his point. The article describes the travails of undocumented-immigrant women who are frequently raped by smugglers and gang members on their journey into the United States. It does not describe rapes being committed by immigrants themselves. When Lemon pointed this out to Trump, the mogul barked, “Well, somebody’s doing the raping, Don! I mean somebody’s doing it! Who’s doing the raping? Who’s doing the raping?” The answer: “People who are not crossing the border.”

This demagoguery would be merely comic if it were not being defended by respectable figures like Lowry. The National Review editor hardly offers a full-scale defense, but instead cleverly insists we must acknowledge the nuggets of wisdom in Trump’s ravings:

As for his instantly notorious Mexico comments, they did more to insult than to illuminate, yet there was a kernel in them that hit on an important truth that typical politicians either don’t know or simply fear to speak. “When Mexico sends its people,” Trump said, “they’re not sending their best.”

This is obviously correct.

Lowry’s method here is to ignore the truly inflammatory portions of Trump’s remarks, the portion about Mexican immigrants disproportionately consisting of violent criminals. He merely quotes the line about “not being the best,” and proceeds to interpret this to mean, in Lowry’s words, “we are getting representative Mexicans, who — through no fault of their own, of course — come from a poorly educated country at a time when education is essential to success in an advanced economy.” This is an argumentative method that could be used to identify a kernel of truth in anything whatsoever. The controversy over Trump’s remarks centers on his claim of mass criminality among Mexican immigrants. Pretending he was merely bemoaning their low socioeconomic status is an evasion.

If conservatives feel frustrated that they can’t question immigration levels without being tarred as racist, that is understandable. But when they’re defending the likes of actual racists like Trump, they have only themselves to blame.