When it comes to Mexicans…

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 23-

This week:

  • Trump train’s first derailment
  • What is he trying to do?
  • How politicians react to situations requiring courage

President 2016

Trump’s erratic behavior: The week before last, Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses came to the forefront as her email scandal took another turn. But this week was all about Donald Trump, and it seems he’s getting the worse end of it.

This of course comes with the caveat that Trump has, in many instances during this campaign, turned what would seem like awful news and bad exposure for any other candidate in to something positive.

Over the course of the week, Trump escalated his disparagement of Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge overseeing his fraud trial over Trump University. It’s not just that he’s Mexican (actually of Mexican descent, born in northwest Indiana), and that he’s unfair, but Trump asserted in a Thursday interview with the Wall Street Journal that is unfair because he is Mexican.

The day after that, he was interviewed about this on CNN.

“He’s a Mexican, Trump said. “We’re building a wall between here and Mexico….I’m trying to keep business out of Mexico.” When CNN’s Jake Tapper objected that the judge is American and “not from Mexico,” Trump doubled down on the idea that his “Mexican heritage” was the reason Curiel had made rulings against him. “I think that’s why he’s doing it,” he said.

Tapper finally put it this way: “If you are saying he cannot do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?”

“No, I don’t think so at all,” Trump said.

Trump’s supporters have offered the excuse that Trump really meant to discuss Judge Curiel’s membership in the Latino Bar Association of California. The legal society happens to share “La Raza” in its official name, but is different from the political activist group that has attacked Trump.

But Trump didn’t dwell on the legal society. He quite literally said, and repeated, that the judge cannot be fair to him because he’s “Mexican” and Trump wants to build a wall on the border of Mexico. There’s really no other way to read it. This is the sort of “dual loyalties” charge that was leveled against Catholics a century ago, and is commonly leveled at Jews who have been in the U.S. for generations.

What is Trump up to with all this? Maybe it’s a mistake to assume he’s up to anything. This sort of thing doesn’t seem very helpful to his legal cause, let alone any political cause.

One interpretation, for which there is ample grounding, is that Trump just shot from the hip when he first said this to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, and is just too plain stubborn to admit when he’s made a mistake. Remember — he said he’s never even asked God for forgiveness. Throughout this entire campaign, Trump expressed regret for his actions only once (for the way he handled the controversy between campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields). And his strategy of never admitting error has unquestionably borne a lot of fruit for him. Backing down is a sign of weakness. No one can shame the shameless man.

Another interpretation is the one that more people seem to subscribe to: that Trump is signaling to the Alt-Right base he has cultivated throughout this campaign. After all, his candidacy really only took off when he asserted that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were “doing the raping,” and then doubled down on the claim. Later, in a television interview, he acted like he’d never heard of David Duke (who had just encouraged his supporters to back and help Trump). Now Trump says that Mexican judges (and Muslims, he added Sunday) will not treat him fairly, implying of course that judges who belong to such demographic groups are inherently unfit to serve.

This could be true, but it might also be overestimating the deliberation that goes into Trump’s decisions generally. Even people who find Trump odious have to ask themselves: Is it really possible that he thought this through to that extent? And what precise benefit does he expect along those lines, given that this crowd is not large and its support was never in doubt?

A third interpretation — not at all incompatible with the above — is that Trump thinks he’s going to lose the fraud case. He is therefore trying to make the judge an issue in advance, so that when the result comes down it will have been conveniently delegitimized.

And here’s another possibility: Trump has a proven (and successful) habit of covering up bad news for his campaign by doing something outrageous that distracts attention from whatever the bad news is. In this case, the bad news comprises the fraud trial itself and the newly public information that has been filed with the court. The playbooks and testimony in the fraud case hint strongly that Trump University, whether it was legal or not, was a very shady enterprise, resembling a hard-sell timeshare operation more than any kind of educational institution. Because of Trump’s denunciations of the judge, the headlines about this have taken a bit of a back seat to the ones

Two problems with this: One, for obvious reasons, federal judges do not step aside when a litigant begins disparaging them this way. (If they did, then it would become a method of judge shopping.)

Second, most voters at every point in the ideological spectrum will not take kindly to this kind of naked appeal to racism — because that’s what it is, even if Trump doesn’t intend it that way. He already has a lot of Republicans holding their noses to vote for him, to say nothing of any potential effort to win Hispanic voters. From both a legal and political perspective, it’s baffling.

A question of courage: From a grand political perspective, the consequences of this sort of thing could become dramatic. The potential political damage is immense, especially for lawmakers (like Speaker Paul Ryan) who chose an especially bad moment to give in and support Trump.

It basically justifies every fear that Republicans had about Trump, that something was off about him, before he’d won the primary.

Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and even Newt Gingrich jumped in with obligatory criticisms, only to have Trump triple down on his statement in a Sunday interview and add that he thought probably a Muslim judge wouldn’t be capable of fairness to him, either.

It’s a reminder that all Republican candidates will be forced to answer for Trump. They can come out against him, they can criticize him, they can defend him, but in every case it’s probably a no-win situation. The next round of polls, likely to come after Clinton has finished the primary season a victor, could bring a rather brutal reminder of how everyone expected a Trump-Clinton race to begin.

Until recently, a lot of courage was required by those who explicitly rejected Trump, refusing to support the party nominee. They faced the wrath of the full establishment. Not to sound cynical, but few people behave courageously, and this is why there are few Republicans who have done so.

But that equation could conceivably change, and quickly. Although we may not be there yet, there does exist a tipping point at which it suddenly requires more courage to remain with Trump in spite of what’s coming out of his mouth, than it does to flip over and disown him. At that point, most politicians can be counted on to bail out — because, again, courage.

There does exist a pain threshold for GOP leaders, and it gets lower as the chances of a Trump victory decrease. At some point, it becomes more expedient for the McConnells and Ryans of the world to rescind their endorsements and bail off the Trump Train, for fear of much larger Republican losses than are currently expected.

Trump-by-proxy? One additional note about Trump: On Tuesday, Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., who backed Trump and now has his endorsement, squares off in a primary against fellow incumbent Rep. George Holding, R-N.C. The matchup was made necessary by a court-ordered round of redistricting.

Recall that in 2014, Ellmers was viewed as a squish on “amnesty” and had to turn back an anti-immigration primary challenger, so that issue seems to have come full circle.

Conservative and pro-life groups are backing Holding, who should be favored to win in what will surely be a low-turnout affair. If he does, it’s a sign that Trump’s voters (much like Obama’s) don’t necessarily make a habit of voting if it isn’t for Trump.

If Ellmers pulls it out, it’s a sign that Trump has gotten a lot deeper into the GOP primary voter’s psyche than anyone seems to think so far.

End of the road? Tuesday marks the end of the presidential primary season, at which point our focus will shift to other races. The Republican race is obviously over. The expectation is that Hillary Clinton will easily win in New Jersey. California could go either way. Despite the fact that he has no chance of overtaking her, Bernie Sanders probably needs a win in California to justify any further Quixotic resistance to Clinton’s nomination.

It’s important for Clinton that she put this one to bed, and if she fails she’s in for another month and a half of minor intraparty annoyances. If Trump somehow emerges from his latest controversy surprisingly unscathed (it’s happened before), she will want to make sure the party begins unifying behind her as soon as possible.