The GOP Is Still Afraid to Stand Up to Trump

The party’s response to Trump’s fascism and bigotry continues to be lacking.

trump cruz rubio.
Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz didn’t have the guts to stand up to  Donald Trump at the GOP debate Thursday night in Detroit.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a clear and present danger to the United States. He seeks power through intimidation and revenge. He exploits sectarian divisions for political advantage. He has few scruples and little regard for human rights or the Constitution. And to gain control of this country’s executive branch, including the armed forces, all he has to do is win a presidential election. If he wraps up the Republican nomination, which now seems quite likely, only one person will stand between him and the greatest power on Earth.

I don’t think Trump will win the general election. But in the race for the Republican nomination, I’ve been wrong about him every step of the way. He has won 10 out of 15 primaries and caucuses, has a big lead in the delegate count, has no viable opponent, and is gathering endorsements from Republican governors and members of Congress. These developments should shake our complacency about the United States as a free country. Even if Trump loses, historians will ask how he got this far. And one answer will be the moral cowardice of the Republican Party.

By Thursday night, the Republican race had narrowed to four men: Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Gov. John Kasich. They met on a debate stage in Detroit. Bret Baier of Fox News posed this question to Trump:

Just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. Gen. Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you ask the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises—specifically, targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding—the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders. So what would you do, as commander in chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

Trump answered: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.” He added, “We should go tougher than waterboarding.” Baier repeated his question: “But targeting terrorists’ families?” Trump replied: “I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. … If I say, ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.”

This wasn’t a gaffe. It was a casual promise of dictatorship. For a response, Baier turned to Cruz, the GOP’s self-styled constitutionalist. But Cruz raised no objection. He shrugged that “yelling and cursing at people doesn’t make you a tough guy,” and he assured the audience that he would be tougher than Trump. Rubio faulted Trump, but only for ignorance: “He was asked a question about the issue of commanders not following his lead on killing the family of terrorists. And his answer basically was, ‘If I tell them to do it, they’re going to do it.’ Now, that’s just not true.” Rubio could have said this was a good thing and that Trump’s threat was rash. Instead, the senator’s only complaint was that Trump couldn’t do what he promised.

At the end of the debate, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich pledged to support Trump if he won the nomination. But their moral silence about his answer to Baier was far more damning. Why has Trump gotten this far? Because no one in his party has the guts to stand up to him.

In the past week, some GOP donors and strategists have thrown together a last-ditch campaign to stop Trump. It’s a charade. These people are far more afraid of losing the general election than they are of a Trump presidency.

Nothing illustrates the falsity of the stop-Trump campaign more clearly than its manufactured outrage over Trump’s failure, in a Feb. 28 interview on CNN, to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalist leader David Duke. Trump has disavowed Duke and the Klan many times. So why did Rubio, Mitt Romney, and other last-minute organizers of the stop-Trump movement make such a fuss over the CNN interview? Throughout the campaign, they ignored his ethnic and religious demagoguery. Now that they realize he’s likely to win, they’re grasping at anything they can.

Denouncing the Klan is easy. Every Republican knows you can’t stand with the guys in the white sheets. It’s too crass. Instead, Trump diversifies his target groups and taps into resentments that can be disguised as concerns about crime, morality, or national security. For years, he depicted President Obama as a Muslim and questioned Obama’s birth certificate. In this campaign, Trump has called Mexican immigrants rapists, lumped Latino U.S. citizens together with illegal immigrants, demanded a ban on Muslims entering the United States, warned that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba,” questioned whether Cruz and Rubio were eligible to be president, and hinted that Ben Carson’s church was a cult: “Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about.”

The Republican leadership, such as it is, has shrugged off these slurs. Romney, who now spurns Trump, embraced the birther in chief during his 2012 presidential campaign. Cruz and Rubio have echoed Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. Cruz, casting aside the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, is attacking Trump as a squish because, after deporting undocumented immigrants, Trump would let them apply to re-enter the country legally.

These Republican are willing to call Trump a con man and a liberal. They’re willing to use his CNN interview about the Klan as an argument against his electability. But they’re not willing to call out his bigoted statements about ethnic and religious minorities, because on those matters, too many voters are on his side. In the past month, exit polls in seven Republican primaries have asked whether Muslims who are not U.S. citizens should be barred from entering the United States. On average, more than 70 percent of voters have said yes.

Trump’s threat to the republic isn’t just sectarian. It’s also constitutional and military. Last week, to punish “hit pieces” by the New York Times and Washington Post, he threatened to “open up our libel laws.” “With me, they’re not protected,” Trump told a cheering crowd. Cruz, who pledges in every speech to defend the Second Amendment, had nothing to say about Trump’s assault on the First. Meanwhile, Rubio, who’s running as the candidate of national security, has made Trump’s volatility a punch line in his stump speech: “You have a lunatic in North Korea with access to nuclear weapons. We have a lunatic in America trying to get access to nuclear weapons, too.” Audiences laugh, and Rubio smiles. But if he were serious about protecting the country, Rubio wouldn’t treat Trump’s candidacy as a joke. He would speak up when the Republican front-runner, on the debate stage, threatens to issue illegal military orders.

On Friday afternoon, in a statement to Politico, Trump retracted his threat. “The United States is bound by laws and treaties,” he conceded, “and I will not order our military or other officials to violate those laws.” Maybe Trump had a hand in writing that statement. Maybe he even believes it. But that’s a thin promise to count on when the republic of James Madison is in peril and the party of Abraham Lincoln is dead.

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.