Over the weekend, George Will asked half-seriously whether Donald Trump was really an operative for the Democratic Party, recruited to make the GOP look bad.
"Ask yourself this thought experiment," Will told Fox viewers. "If Donald Trump were a Democratic mole placed in the Republican Party to disrupt things, how would his behavior be any different?"
I understand that point of view. Trump's candidacy can indeed become an albatross for the party, as his recent comments on the character of Mexican immigrants demonstrate. The remarks have forced Univision, NBC, NASCAR and Macy's to end their business relationships with Trump, and have put Republican politicians on the defensive. As GOP chairman Reince Preibus put it, Trump's statement was "not helpful" for a party that is struggling to present itself as comfortable with diversity.
Yet that statement by Preibus is itself part of the larger problem. You've got a candidate running under the Republican label who condemns millions of Mexican-Americans, both legal and illegal, as drug couriers and rapists, and the strongest criticism that the party chairman can offer is a statement that it's "not helpful"? Really?
Other elements of the conservative movement, including its media and base, have been outright supportive and even celebratory. "I like Donald Trump," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said last week. "I think he's terrific, I think he's brash. I think he speaks the truth."
Wes Pruden, editor emeritus at The Washington Times, defends Trump by saying that he "has been taking a beating for saying accurate but impolitic things that nearly everybody is thinking." At Breitbart, conservatives are being told that "What’s odd about this situation is that objective evidence proves that Trump is correct, and there seems to be a politically correct machine pushing all these politicians to attack the truth."
"Instead of an embarrassment, Donald might just be the great white hope the GOP is looking for," they're writing at RedState.
Given such support for Trump's comments, not to mention polls in which Trump now comes in second in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationwide, it's undeniable that at least some of the GOP's resistance to immigration reform is motivated by racism and nativism. But the situation represents opportunity as well as danger for the party, and some of its would-be leaders seem to grasp that.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Perry, for example, have already condemned Trump's comments. Bush has been particularly forceful, which isn't surprising given that he is married to an immigrant from Mexico. He called Trump's remarks "extraordinarily ugly" and said they were “way out of the (party) mainstream."
"We’re going to win when we’re hopeful and optimistic and big and broad rather than 'errrrr, grrrr,' just angry all the time. This is an exaggerated form of that, and there is no tolerance for it.”
That's exactly right. Trump represents the worst of the Republican Party, and he appeals to the worst in the party. As I've noted before, he takes those elements of the GOP message that are only hinted at and he makes them explicit. And he's going to keep on doing so as long as he gets applause, including in debates that begin next month.
By standing up to Trump publicly, Bush, Rubio and others may alienate the Limbaugh wing of the GOP base. They may lose votes for it. Yet for the party's sake and for their own hopes in the general election, that's a risk that they have no choice but to take. If the party has no tolerance for Trump's remarks, it must show no tolerance. If those remarks are indeed out of the party mainstream, the party mainstream has to repudiate them.
In short, Trump is a danger to the GOP only to the degree that he is allowed to define it.