Earlier this month, Donald Trump claimed that the judge presiding over a civil lawsuit involving Trump University, Gonzalo Curiel, would be biased because he ‘is Mexican’ and because Trump is ‘building a wall with Mexico’. Whether or not this meets the technical definition of racism, it’s clearly un-American.
Some may wonder what impact, if any, this latest furore will have on Trump’s campaign. After all, if the controversies about Trump's comments on Mexican immigrants, John McCain’s war record, Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle, people with disabilities, and banning 1.4 billion people from visiting the US on the basis of their religion has only made Trump more popular, why would an offhand comment about a judge’s heritage be any different?
One of the lessons of this campaign is that politics is not about ideas and values, but power and the means by which it is distributed. Politics is amoral, and in that regard the relationship between ethics and political outcomes is coincidental, not causal.
Viewed in this light, none of Trump’s previous statements were overly problematic, but his comments on Curiel are a disaster. By contrasting this with past examples of controversial Trump comments, it is possible to explain why.
In the cases of Megyn Kelly and Serge Kovaleski (a reporter whose disability Trump allegedly mocked), Trump denied the charges outright, claiming he had not intended the insults ascribed to him. Assertions to the contrary merely fed into Trump’s narrative of a dishonest press out to get him, strengthened by the fact that Kelly and Kovaleski are themselves prominent media figures who had gone after Trump.
There are several reasons why Trump stating that John McCain is a ‘war hero because he was captured...I like people who weren't captured' didn’t hurt Trump's campaign. The first is the context in which the comment was made. Trump was defending 15,000 supporters who attended a rally of his in Phoenix. McCain had labelled them ‘crazies’ (something he later tried to claim was a term of affection). Secondly, those who expressed outrage didn’t actually get around to explaining why Trump was wrong. John McCain is a war hero not because he was captured, but because he refused to be released until his fellow prisoners were freed as well; few communicated this effectively. Finally, Trump’s narrative is about winning, and therefore the shamelessness of the remark ultimately played to his strengths: one doesn’t win wars by being captured.
Trump’s infamous characterisation of some Mexican illegal immigrants as ‘rapists’ enabled him to dominate the press in the immediate wake of Jeb Bush's campaign launch. Trump’s comments were about illegal immigration and border security, mainstays of his campaign, and by retelling stories of violent crimes involving illegal immigrants he reinforced his argument with the public.
Finally, Trump’s temporary ban on Muslims entering the US is an idea that people know cannot be implemented. It’s unconstitutional and totally impractical, and yet an effective rebuff to political correctness. The American electorate is tired of hearing that ‘terrorism has nothing to do with Islam’. There are a range of factors that cause someone to embrace violent jihad, but among them is an interpretation of Islamic teaching. Trump’s Muslim ban is a reaction to leaders who continue to dance around that issue. Trump’s call to ban all Muslims has also been interpreted as the opening bid in a negotiation, not a statement of policy. Trump’s core agenda is to secure the border and to ensure that those entering the US are properly vetted. To that end Trump has walked back the ban over time, first by emphasising its temporary nature, and then by saying it was ‘just a suggestion’. In other words, it’s not a big story because so few ever took it seriously.
Trump’s comments about Curiel’s Mexican heritage, however, violate iron laws of political power. These are the reasons this incident is so toxic:
1. Trump is clearly wrong
In every previous case Trump has either denied the accusation, not been criticised effectively, or offered an untestable opinion that rings true for a lot of people. In this instance the whole world knows that Trump is wrong, and many view it as a reflection of poor character rather than strong leadership.
2. The timing couldn’t have been worse
These comments came a day after House Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed Donald Trump. This was the moment where Trump was supposed to embrace unity within the party, pivot to the general election, and take advantage of the fact that Clinton was still embroiled in a crippling primary campaign. Instead Trump humiliated Ryan, and blew up the GOP.
3. Trump’s message is entirely backward
By claiming that the border wall is the source of Curiel’s alleged bias, the conveyed message is that Trump’s wall is anti-Hispanic. After all, if Trump’s policies will benefit Hispanics, as he claims, why would a judge be biased against him on the basis of their Mexican heritage?
4. Trump University – seriously?
It’s hard to find an issue less relevant to the American people than civil litigation over Trump University. Trump talking about the case at all puts him on losing ground. It fails to promote his strengths in any part of the electorate, while putting a spotlight on his weaknesses. His attack on Curiel has nothing to do with the American people and everything to do with himself.
So far Trump has walked his comments back somewhat, telling Bill O’Reilly that ‘he doesn’t care about [Curiel being] Mexican’, and releasing a statement effectively declaring a ceasefire without admitting culpability. Trump’s thinking appears to be that he can draw a line under the issue now and still pivot to the election in the coming months. While that strategy will work to an extent, the situation within the GOP is still serious.
Today Trump gave a speech where he declared that:
I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle and I will never, ever, let you down…I will make you proud of your party and our movement.
Trump is unlikely to apologise for his statements; however, both the GOP and the public will need to believe that Trump realises his mistake and is taking steps to dramatically correct his course. If Trump does so properly this incident will not be fatal, as some believe. The most well-meaning folly repeated this past year is that one characteristic or other ‘disqualifies’ Trump for the presidency. This is akin to labelling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program ‘unacceptable’, a term used only by the impotent.
In any political system, it is not the person who is most virtuous, or the most fit for office who obtains political power; it’s the person who wins, in this case by obtaining the most votes. This may seem Machiavellian, but there is a reason Niccolo Machiavelli’s work endures 500 years after his death. Trump can certainly still win, but if he suffers any more weeks like this one the fissures in the Republican Party could escalate to a schism. If that happens, then come November the world will see a Clinton victory.
Photo: Getty Images/Spencer Platt