When it first dawned on Republican pooh-bahs that their presidential primary was becoming a two-man race between a pseudo-fascist insult comic and the most hated man in the Senate, some reasoned that Donald Trump was the lesser of two weasels. After all, the mogul was a “deal-maker” with no apparent ideological commitments — a political neophyte whose thirst for power would cause him to defer to Establishment operatives once the nomination was secured. Ted Cruz, by contrast, was a zealot who would brook no dissent.
This analysis hasn’t aged well. It’s now apparent that Cruz was always the power-hungry pragmatist, whose gadfly persona was adopted for political expedience — the Harvard Law graduate had tried to play the inside game during the second Bush administration, was rebuffed, then went to where the voters were. Now that he has established a national donor network, the Texas senator has spent his post-campaign trying to mend fences with the “D.C. cartel” he once lived to decry.
Meanwhile, Trump has proven himself to be an intransigent ideologue. While the mogul has few (if any) genuine convictions about policy, his faith in the core tenet of his political philosophy — that Donald J. Trump can never be wrong — is absolute.
The events of the past week have made it impossible for the Republican Party to wish away this reality. After a federal judge ruled that documents from two class-action lawsuits against Trump University should be released to the public, the GOP nominee spent seven days arguing that Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s ruling was informed by his “Mexican heritage.” Specifically, Trump claimed that a “Mexican” judge could not treat him impartially, in light of his plan to make Mexico pay for a border wall.
Curiel was born in Indiana, and Trump has produced no evidence of the judge’s views on immigration policy. But for the Republican nominee, the judge’s ethnic background — combined with his baffling decision to rule against Trump — is dispositive: Mexican-Americans don’t like border walls, even though, as the candidate has repeatedly argued, a border wall is necessary for America “to have a country.” Taken together, these statements amount to an indictment of the patriotism of a demographic Trump’s party desperately needs to make inroads with.
Republican leaders spent the weekend registering their displeasure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Chuck Todd that he “couldn’t disagree more” with Trump’s comments about Curiel. Tennessee senator Bob Corker said that the nominee is “going to have to change.” Even one of the mogul’s earliest supporters — and potential running mate — Newt Gingrich called Trump’s attack on the judge “inexcusable” and the candidate’s “worst mistake.” House Speaker (and recent Trump endorser) Paul Ryan condemned Trump’s remarks in a similar fashion on Friday.
The party’s genuine alarm over the Curiel fiasco was reflected in Trump’s Monday morning interview on Fox & Friends. The Fox News morning crew is not known for its commitment to adversarial journalism. But Brian Kilmeade spent most of the segment hammering Trump with variations on the questions “Why are you saying these things?” and “Will you please stop saying them?”
Kilmeade asked, “How does it benefit Donald Trump becoming president” to talk about Curiel’s ethnicity? He then noted Gingrich’s criticism and asked, “Does anything like that get through to you and make you reform your tactics — when somebody who has been a supporter of yours comes out and says this is a huge mistake?”
And then, “Why would it be in your best interest — [or] your party’s best interest — to focus on a trial that’s not going to come up until after the election?”
And finally, sounding like a (grammar-challenged) principal begging a class clown to heed the advice of the adults in his life, Kilmeade asked, “What did [Trump campaign strategist] Paul Manafort and others say about your emphasizing so much on Trump University?”
The nominee batted away all of these inquiries without offering a hint of self-recrimination. Instead, he scolded Gingrich for his betrayal, calling the former Speaker’s comments surprising and “inappropriate.”
Kilmeade’s question about what the mogul’s own strategists thought of his remarks was no shot in the dark. Opposition to Trump’s handling of Curiel extends to his own inner circle.
According to MSNBC, Trump campaign staff told the mogul to back off his incendiary comments over the weekend — and were rebuffed. Instead, the GOP nominee doubled down on the logic of his Curiel stance Sunday, telling CBS’s John Dickerson that a Muslim judge might also be incapable of treating him impartially.
“Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end?” one Trump campaign source lamented to MSNBC. “Trump does what he wants.”
The GOP nominee validated that testimony Monday afternoon. According to Bloomberg, Trump’s top aides had distributed an email memo to the campaign’s surrogates Sunday night, informing them that "the best possible response" to questions about the Trump University lawsuits was "the case will be tried in the courtroom in front of a jury—not in the media." But in a conference call the following day, Trump told his supporters, "Take that order and throw it the hell out."
The mogul instructed his surrogates — who include former Arizona governor Jan Brewer and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown — to intensify criticism of Judge Curiel and the media.
"The people asking the questions—those are the racists," the Republican standard-bearer explained. "I would go at ‘em."
Trump does what he wants. And among the things Trump apparently wants are to be his own communications team, keep giving that Mexican judge and the real racists hell, forsake the kind of data operation that has become standard in modern campaigns, pick public fights with fellow Republicans, leave the campaign trail to oversee the reopening of his Scottish golf course in mid-June, and spend time and resources campaigning in unwinnable states like California.
Trump’s Establishment backers tend to rationalize their support for a deeply unqualified demagogue by arguing that the next Republican administration will be larger than one man: Trump would, by necessity, defer much of the actual work of governance to the party’s policy wonks and civil servants.
The way the mogul is conducting his campaign calls this assumption into question. But it may also render the point moot: Trump’s dysfunctional, authoritarian style of management doesn’t seem well suited to winning the White House.