Republican presidential candidates had a chance to take a stand against Donald Trump’s dangerous demagoguery at Tuesday night’s debate. None of them took it.
At the fifth Republican presidential debate, nine candidates took to the stage for the main event, when eight of them should have objected to sharing a stage with one of them — even if he is the front-runner. Eight of them should have followed the example of fellow Republican Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), who recently said that he will not support Donald Trump if he wins the party’s nomination. “My first oath is to the Constitution of the United States. Donald Trump has taken positions contrary to that document, so I could not support him and uphold my oath,” Ribble told HuffPost Politics.
Even before the debate, GOP candidates could have followed the example of fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who visited a mosque in Arizona to show that not all Republicans are like Trump. Flake, who is a Mormon, had never visited a mosque before, but took his family to visit the Islamic Center of North East Valley in Scottsdale, Arizona. “We don’t all feel the way a few politicians are talking,” Flake told worshippers there, and praised Muslim-Americans contributions to the US.
It might have impressed the majority of Americans who are opposed to Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim’s entering the US, if not the 6 in 10 Republican voters who support it.
Republicans have had plenty of opportunities to denounce Trump. Every Tump rally seems more enthusiastically violent and overtly fascist than the last, and the violence extends beyond the rallies themselves.
- August 18 – Two brothers beat a homeless Latino man with a lead pipe, breaking his nose, and urinating on his face when they finished. Witnesses heard the men laugh as they walked away. After their arrest, one of the men said to police, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported.”
- August 21 – At a Trump rally in Alabama, an audience member yelled “White power!” during Trump’s speech. Another supporter joked with a reporter about shooting and killing undocumented immigrants at the border.
- August 28 – After being ejected from a Trump press conference, Univision anchor (and American citizen) Jorge Ramos was confronted by a Trump supporter who tells Ramos to “get out of my country.”
- September 3 – At a protest in front of Trump Tower, a Trump body guard sucker punched a Latino after snatched my away his sign. The bodyguard is the same one who ejected Ramos from the press conference.
- September 9 – At a Trump-led protest of President Obama’s Iran treaty, Trump supporters shoved and spat on immigration activists, telling them “Go home!”
- October 14 – At a rally in Richmond Virginia, a Trump supporter spat in the face of an immigration protester.
- October 24 – At a Trump rally in Miami, Trump supporters called protesters “savages,” dragged, and physically kicked them out of the event. Trump appeared to endorse their actions.
- November 22 – At a Trump rally in Alabama, a Black Lives Matter protester was shoved, tackled, punched and kicked by Trump supporters. Trump again endorsed the violence, saying “Maybe he should have been roughed up.”
- December 14 – At a Trump rally in Las Vegas, on the eve of the fifth GOP presidential debate, as a Black Lives Matter protester was escorted out, Trump supporters yelled “kick his ass” and “light the motherfucker on fire.” Another was heard to yell a Nazi salute, “Sieg heil!”
In every case Trump either endorsed the actions of his supporters, or made no attempt to condemn, or distance himself from them.
Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, only added fuel to a rash of threats against, and attacks upon, Muslim individuals and institutions.
Instead, on the eve of the debate several of the GOP hopefuls made appearances at a forum hosted by anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney — “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes” according to the Souther Poverty Law Center. Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy (CSP) finally entered the realm of mainline conservatism, when Trump cited a deeply flawed CSP poll to support his ban on Muslims entering the US. Candidates who joined the all-day “Nevada National Security Action Summit” to declare their solidarity with Gaffney included Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), former HP CEO Carly Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
On the debate stage, GOP candidates either stopped short of demanding that the party break with Trump, or offered slightly tamer imitations of Trump’s brand of xenophobia and fear mongering. The discussion of Trump’s Muslim ban in the opening minutes was so relaxed, that the Republican candidates could have been discussion where to have brunch. (Actually, that discussion might have been more passionate.) There were no denunciations of Trump’s plan, and not one of his opponents attacked it.
- Former Florida governor Jeb Bush got in a jab about Trump’s ridiculous posturing on ISIS/Daesh.
- New Jersey governor Chris Christie was so intent on ratcheting up the fear that he claimed the closing of Los Angeles schools “based on a threat” was proof that “America has been betrayed” by “the leadership Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have brought to the this country,” that he forgot to mention that the “threat” to LA schools had already been revealed as a hoax.
- Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) hammered home that ISIS is “the most sophisticated terror group” to ever threaten the US, and “the president has left us unsafe.”
- Asked point-blank about Trump’s Muslim travel ban, both Rubio and Fiorina babbled lamely to run out the clock without answering.
- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tiptoed gingerly around Trump’s Muslim ban, and went for full on panic, linking the hysteria over Syrian refuges to both the San Bernardino terrorist attack, and the 2013 Senate immigration skill, in one go.
- Ben Carson, the only candidate on the stage to have ever been in the business of saving lives, tried to win the “How many children could you kill?” contest, over Trumps plan to defeat ISIS by killing terrorists’ innocent family members — all of them.
- Only Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who didn’t make the cut for the main stage, and had to settle for the undercard debate, went after Trump with any kind of gusto, apologizing “to our of our Muslim friends throughout the world” for Trump, and saying, “He does not represent us.”
When a candidates rallies are a few torches away being lynch mobs, that should be enough for a party to distance itself. But Republicans are already preparing for a potential Trump nomination. That outcome should be unthinkable to Republicans, but it isn’t. It’s a reality that Republicans are apparently willing to accept. If it comes to pass, Graham’s words, “He does not represent us,” will ring even more hollow than they already do.
Right now, Trump represents they party that the GOP has become. Republicans cannot help but Trump is the result of years and years spent stoking the fear and anger of the party’s base. Republicans must decide if saving their party’s soul is worth rejecting Trump, and having the anger they’ve nurtured for years ultimately turned upon them. If Trump comes to represent the future of the GOP, Republicans will have no one but themselves to blame.