My latest Verdict column, published yesterday, addresses a question that has been bothering me for some time: Why do the self-styled tough guys of the Republican Party (both officeholders and their hyper-wealthy backers) put up with Donald Trump? After all, these are people who think that they alone know how to fight and win in difficult situations, as opposed to the supposed weakness of Obama and his fellow Democrats.
Part of the answer, of course, is that it is easy to look tough when you choose your victims strategically. Voting to take food away from poor children, while talking about "tough spending decisions," is easy to get away with, at least for people who have no conscience. Republican tough-guy heroes like Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie rose to national prominence by yelling at reporters (who pretty much have to take that kind of abuse) and constituents (in town hall environments completely controlled by the bully). Christie's Youtube moment involved screaming at a New Jersey school teacher, but that incident was hardly an isolated one. Bullying is ugly and wrong, but some people love it.
So, in some sense, the Republicans' situation with Trump is a matter of dealing with a bigger, meaner bully. The old line about bullies not being able to deal with a punch on the nose is supposed to encourage non-bullies not to be afraid, and to dare to fight back, whereas Trump-versus-Republican-leaders is just bully against bully. The guys who have happily victimized the weak suddenly feel weak themselves.
Still, why would the Republican leaders -- especially those who are not running for office, and who are used to getting their way -- be so passive? What exactly are they afraid of? After all, we are not talking about actual schoolyard bullying, with bigger guys inflicting physical beatings (or wedgies, swirlies, or Wet Willies) on weaker guys. What do they think will happen to them, if they stand up and argue with Trump?
In my column yesterday, I noted an amazing news article in The New York Times, in which the reporter directly asked why the big power brokers like Paul Singer (a hedge fund billionaire backer of Marco Rubio who, among other things, believes that the government is cooking the books to hide high inflation) or the Koch brothers are not trying to take on Trump.
The best line in the article was this: "Mr. Trump has already mocked Mr. Singer and the Kochs, and officials linked to them said they were reluctant to incur more ferocious counterattacks. ‘You have to deal with Trump berating you every day of the week,’ explained a strategist briefed on the thinking of both groups."
So, the people who are trying to buy the U.S. government are revealed to be living in an episode of "Leave It to Beaver," saying, "Aw, gee Ma, if I say anything, Big Don is really gonna give me the business!" It is an even more bizarre version of what Paul Krugman has frequently described as the "Mom, he's lookin' at me funny!" phenomenon, with these supposed masters of the universe showing that they are amazingly thin-skinned and convinced of their own victimization.
For a brief moment this week, however, it appeared that the tide had turned, and that Trump had finally gone too far with his call to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. Nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates denounced the idea as too extreme, even though it is not categorically different from anything else that Trump has said -- or, for that matter, from what any of those other candidates have said about immigration or anything else. And with a new poll showing that Trump has recently strengthened his support among Republican voters, we shall see whether the rest of the Republicans and their backers skulk back into the shadows rather than stand up and fight. [Note: The poll described in the article linked in the previous was mostly taken before the latest controversy. I have edited that sentence to correct an earlier implication that the poll reflected an increase in support for Trump after his latest outrageous proposal.]
The more interesting question, however, is why the Republicans suddenly decided that Trump's no-Muslims rule was a bridge too far. After all, this is a party that has been more than happy -- not just on the campaign trail, but in Congress and the statehouses that they control -- to foment anti-Muslim panic for political gain. As an editorial in today's Times points out, after all, "Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush want to allow only Christian refugees from Syria to enter the country, and Mr. Cruz has introduced legislation to allow states to opt out of refugee resettlement."
It is true that Cruz has long been known as the guy who is most like Trump, but who lacks the bizarre charisma that drives Trump's campaign. Cruz is essentially counting on picking up the maybe-not-quite-fascist vote that Trump has unearthed, if Trump ever fades. But if ever there were a candidate who was supposed to embody the very ideal of a modern, principled conservative, it is Jeb Bush. He was supposedly the guy who can save the Republicans from their worst excesses. Yet here he is, being as crazy as Trump.
Bush is a terrible campaigner, and (contrary to what we have been told for years) he is not actually very bright. Even though Bush has been exposed as an extraordinarily weak candidate, however, his name recognition and big-money backing make it impossible to say that he could not benefit from some sort of resurgence that the press would happily cover as a "comeback story." Why, then, has Bush's insipid and insidious proposal received so little attention?
This question is even more difficult to answer in light of Bush's attempt to explain how his exclusionary refugee policy would work. A news article describing Bush's non-argument included this: "Asked how he would identify Christian Syrian families to ensure that they receive a special focus, Mr. Bush did not offer a clear answer, but said the onus would be on the refuges [sic] to demonstrate their religion. 'You’re a Christian — I mean, you can prove you’re a Christian,' he said. 'You can’t prove it, then, you know, you err on the side of caution.'"
Right. Stephen Colbert struck just the right note of mockery. "If you want to know if somebody’s a Christian just ask them to complete this sentence: ‘Jesus said I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you….’ And if they don’t say ‘welcomed me in’ then they are either a terrorist or they’re running for president.”
Bush's current irrelevance might explain the lack of scrutiny that his proposal should otherwise have elicited. But even so, why is Trump's proposal more extreme and unacceptable to Republicans? After all, Bush's policy favors the Republicans' most-favored religion, whereas Trump's policy disfavors the Republicans' most disfavored religion. That seems like a wash. It is also true, as the satirist Andy Borowitz has a fictional Trump supporter say, "People need to understand that he’s banning Muslims first because they’re the most obvious religious group you’d want to ban. I’m sure once he’s President he’ll get to all the other ones."
In other words, although Bush's current level of bigotry is actually more extreme and exclusionary, there is no reason to think that Trump would end up being more moderate on this issue. Trump even went after Ben Carson's small Christian denomination, Seventh-Day Adventism, as being too strange, compared to Trump's "down the middle of the road" Presbyterianism. (I am the son of a Presbyterian minister. Even though I am now a secular humanist, I weep for the guilt-by-association that this moment visited upon my former church.)
Is the difference that Bush is only talking about barring entry of refugees, whereas Trump would keep out all Muslims? Again, that still makes Bush at least as evil as Trump, because Bush is saying that Muslims who are being tortured and persecuted in their home countries for being insufficiently pious (or for being the "wrong kind" of Muslim) are to be excluded from the United States. Bush is apparently fine with allowing in the people who need help the least. It is exactly that kind of twisted thinking that has driven many good Christians from supposedly mainstream churches.
In the end, my biggest worry is that Trump will have a similar effect on all policy discussions in this campaign. The content of his policy proposals is generally indistinguishable from his opponents', yet because he is so personally outrageous and blunt, everyone -- even Ted Cruz -- looks reasonable by comparison. If, however, we have reached the point where we are looking for differences between favoring Christians and disfavoring Muslims, then we should admit that something is seriously wrong.