Without question, as Republicans like Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker have pointed out, Donald Trump engaged in some seriously self-destructive race-baiting by maligning the ancestry of Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Aside from its essentially disgusting and un-American nature, Trump’s behavior showed he does not understand that the voters who enjoy attacks on “Mexicans” aren’t his principal audience anymore now that the primaries are over.
But there are non-racial aspects to the incident that should trouble even those Republicans who aren’t offended by racism or don’t think it exists anywhere other than on the left.
For one thing, a public attack on a federal judge by a potential president reminds people that Trump isn’t exactly respectful of such basic constitutional concepts as the separation of powers. Someone should remind him that even a revered chief executive named Franklin Delano Roosevelt got into trouble for trying to tamper with the judiciary. Trump is no FDR, and at some point fears that he would use the power of the presidency to intimidate and silence anyone who gets in his way will become a serious political problem and a great boon to Hillary Clinton in mobilizing her coalition.
But beyond that, in going after this particular “Mexican” judge, Trump is doing something even more reckless than alarming people about racism and authoritarianism: He’s drawing massive attention to the case over which Curiel is presiding, which happens to involve an aspect of Trump’s recent past that he should be trying to bury until after the election. Of all the skeletons in the mogul’s many closets, Trump University is the one with the potential to expose him as playing his own fans for suckers and doing the very opposite of “telling it like it is.” That Trump would bring it up himself as part of a personal grudge match is just bizarre, and it shows a lack of self-control that should freak Republicans out as much as anything in particular about the incident.
Trump eventually did get himself (for the moment, at least) under control about Curiel, but as Paul Waldman pointed out today, it sure took a village to convince him he’d screwed up:
At last, Trump was finally persuaded to drop the attacks on Curiel — or as Mitch McConnell put it, “it’s time to quit attacking various people you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message.” But look what it took to persuade him: Condemnations from McConnell and Paul Ryan, the two congressional leaders of his party. A couple of dozen other Republican elected officials blasting him for it, with some even proclaiming they won’t vote for him. Pretty much every conservative pundit expressing their horror and dismay. In other words, it wasn’t until practically the entire Republican Party came out and publicly told Trump that he was digging his own grave that he finally considered that they might have a point.
The severity of the GOP reaction to Trump’s attacks on Curiel was a pretty good indicator that this time Trump may have lost his Teflon and could suffer the kind of repercussions that didn’t happen when he was cutting capers before a partisan Republican audience and rivals largely afraid to take him on consistently and effectively. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next batch of general-election polls show his post-nomination surge ending and perhaps heading south in a hurry. And even if he somehow gets his habit of race-baiting under control, his GOP allies will still have many sleepless nights wondering when this living time bomb will next explode.