On Friday, Donald Trump said two things that should disqualify him from the presidency, if not American public life in general. The second one, you know. The first, you probably didn’t hear. How Republicans have responded to the two statements tells you everything you need to know about how the GOP conjured a creature like Trump.
Hours before we learned of Trump’s boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy,” the Republican nominee affirmed his false belief that the Central Park 5—five teenagers, four of them black and one Latino, convicted on charges of attacking and raping a 28-year-old white woman, all five since exonerated by DNA evidence—were guilty.* “They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
The same Republican leaders who rushed to condemn Trump for his remarks on a hot mic were silent about his continued attacks on these men, which stretch back to the original event in 1989, when he placed an incendiary ad in New York City newspapers against the then-teenagers. “Bring back the death penalty. Bring back our police!” said Trump. “[M]uggers and murderers … should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
Republicans didn’t say anything because Trump wasn’t attacking Republicans. The ground didn’t shift for the GOP nominee until he did. His “grab them by the pussy” comments don’t just threaten his own bid at the White House; they threaten the whole Republican political apparatus. They undermine party enthusiasm. They give millions of Republican-voting women a reason to stay home. And what happens if they do? Suddenly, the House and Senate are at risk. Suddenly, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are leaders of a minority party.
But of course the GOP could tolerate his place at the top of the ticket so long as he restricted his threats to groups outside the party. President Trump, after all, would nominate their judges, sign their tax cuts, and affirm their plans to gut the social safety net. Ryan, the House speaker, said as much in his endorsement. “For me, it’s a question of how to move ahead on the ideas that I—and my House colleagues—have invested so much in through the years,” he wrote in June. “It’s not just a choice of two people, but of two visions for America. And House Republicans are helping shape that Republican vision by offering a bold policy agenda, by offering a better way ahead. Donald Trump can help us make it a reality.” For him and many Republicans, Trump’s frank advocacy of racial repression is a small price to pay for their expansive reversal of liberal social policy. It’s hardly even a price.
In fact, we now have a list of all the things the Republican Party will tolerate solely for the sake of the White House and a continued congressional majority. It’s a long list.
The Republican Party will tolerate racist condemnation of Mexican immigrants and Latino Americans at large. It will tolerate the same racist condemnation of Muslims, even as both attacks feed an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, and violence.
It will tolerate a policy platform that treats these groups—and Syrian refugees to the United States—as a dangerous fifth column. In Trump’s vision of America, Latino immigrants, when they aren’t “stealing jobs,” are the vector for crime and disorder, plunging towns and cities into lawlessness. It’s why Trump wants to root them out with a new “deportation force,” home by home, person by person. And it’s why he wants a wall on the Mexican border—a concrete prophylactic to keep those dark-skinned migrants from reaching our borders.
It will tolerate the same racist policies for Muslim Americans. In Trump’s world, Muslims are a “Trojan horse,” a foreign intrusion that threatens American security. It’s why he wants to ban their entry to the country, why he wants new surveillance of Muslim communities, why he wants to reject refugees, and why he’s accused Muslim Americans of condoning terrorist violence. “They know what’s going on,” Trump said after a shooter killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando. “They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what? They didn’t turn them in. And you know what? We had death, and destruction.”
The Republican Party and its leaders—Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and hundreds of federal and state office-holders—will tolerate attacks on veterans and prisoners of war. It will tolerate blatant racism toward a federal judge and a Gold Star family, whose son died fighting for this country. It will tolerate Trump’s call for war crimes (“take their oil”), his zeal for torture, and his support for renewed nuclear proliferation.
It will tolerate his rhetoric toward black Americans, treating them as helpless brutes leading disordered, degenerate lives. It will even tolerate his drive to make the Republican Party a more comfortable home for white nationalists, a vehicle for ethno-nationalism and herrenvolk democracy. Ryan, praised for his principle and integrity, said nothing when Trump hired Steve Bannon to coordinate his campaign, despite Bannon’s ties to white nationalists through his website, Breitbart. He said nothing when Trump promised to deport American citizens whose parents came to the country illegally, a violation of the 14th Amendment. And even when Ryan condemned Trump—as in the case of Trump’s attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and the Khan family—he still backed him for president of the United States.
For more than a year, Trump has preached state repression of nonwhites. And for more than a year, Republican leaders have tip-toed around him, even praised him. They’ve defended him, rallied behind him, and touted him as the right man to lead the country. “Donald Trump is committed to cut taxes, curb spending, and get our national debt under control,” said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in his video endorsement of Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. “Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump takes seriously the threats from Islamic radicals and is committed to rebuilding our military.” Rubio joined the recent chorus against Trump, even as he continues to back the real estate mogul’s bid for the White House.
There’s a logic here, and it’s not hard to see. When it comes to voting, it doesn’t matter to Republicans that Trump is anathema to nonwhites and religious minorities. Neither black Americans nor Latinos nor Muslim Americans are going to vote for the GOP in significant numbers, and the party as a result is unresponsive to those communities, if not openly contemptuous of their concerns. Few Republicans, for example, want to restore the Voting Rights Act, and even fewer have challenged the drive to restrict and disenfranchise voters. We can see this dynamic in real time.
That’s why they distance and condemn. That’s why they place a wall between themselves and their nominee, hoping no one notices their endorsements and continued support. Anything to protect their congressional majorities from anger and disenchantment. “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests,” Ryan said in a statement. “No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever,” said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus. “As the father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
These are strong statements, but they fall flat. Ryan and Priebus and McConnell all still think Trump should be president. Of Republicans who attacked Trump after the leak, just a handful have withdrawn their endorsements, distancing themselves from their party’s nominee. “I’m out. I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine,” said Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz. His governor, Gary Herbert, had a similar take. “Donald Trump’s statements are beyond offensive & despicable,” he said on Twitter. “While I cannot vote for Hillary Clinton, I will not vote for Trump.”
For all the press they attract, however, their condemnations don’t hide the facts of the matter. Those are still plain to see. For the last year, through Donald Trump, Republicans have shown what they can live with. And what they can live with is a nominee whose chief appeal is his overt, unapologetic racism, and whose plans would remake America into a whites-only country, with suspicion and hostility for those on the other side of the color divide.
Correction, Oct. 8, 2016: This article originally described the Central Park 5 as five black teenagers. Four of them were black, and one was Latino. (Return.)