Sometimes I’d like to dismiss Donald Trump as a weird freak of political nature. Don’t we all? We’d like to think he merely “gets away with” saying racist and sexist things, not that anyone agrees with him.
In this imaginary place in my mind, voters don’t actually believe that many Mexican immigrants are rapists or that Islam secretly hates us. It’s just that these people are so fed up with the Republican establishment and so yearn for an outsider that they’re willing to accept nastiness to get what they really want.
I imagine Trump voters dismissing those comments as part of the show. That’s just The Apprentice talking, they’d laugh.
But if any of us still held on to hope this is an act, Marco Rubio dashed it during Thursday’s Republican debate.
In one of the more disturbing moments of the GOP debate season — and that’s saying a lot — Rubio claimed Trump can’t be president because he says out loud what Republican voters are really thinking. It wasn’t the racist and xenophobic ideas that were disqualifying. No, you’re just not allowed to say those things in mixed company.
“I know that a lot of people find appeal in the things Donald says,” Rubio began, “cause he says what people wish they could say. The problem is, presidents can't just say anything they want. It has consequences, here and around the world.”
Then the crowd applauded.
You have to wonder why they were cheering. You also have to wonder what else Republicans are saying when they think we’re out of earshot. Everyone in that auditorium seemed to wink and nod, cheering over a shared experience of biting their tongues.
Trump likes to complain that Americans have become too “politically correct.” That’s a code word for Republicans’ panoply of shameful beliefs. It's like pretending you're for "religious liberty" when you're actually cool with segregating society by sexual orientation. It's like when conservatives oppose the Equality Act — which would make antigay and anti-trans firings and evictions illegal — and describe it as "special rights," when in fact they don't believe LGBT people deserve any rights. Even if in Trump’s mind he’s not substituting "political correctness" for racism or homophobia or xenophobia or sexism, a lot of his supporters are. And it’s past time that everyone acknowledged what’s happening.
So many in the media have fed the fantasy that Trump is a misbehaving candidate who entertains his supporters with bad behavior. In truth, he’s being this way because he wants to win. He’s offering ideas that will get him the most votes.
Back at the start of the race, reporters were quick to proclaim the demise of Trump. They were sure, so sure, that Trump’s rising poll numbers would hit a “ceiling.” Proposing a ban on all Muslims entering the country, they said, would be the end. It would also destroy him to retweet white supremacists or to have made up a story about Muslims celebrating in New Jersey as the Twin Towers collapsed.
What all of those moments actually have in common are a rise in the polls. Trump isn’t trying to entertain people. He’s trying to win.
The Republican establishment might only now be waking up to reality that its base is racist and xenophobic, especially in the South, which voted first and which has propelled Trump to victory. They pretend that Trump was never an anti-Obama birther conspiracist. Then they were aghast as Trump feigned ignorance in a CNN interview about who exactly David Duke might be and what exactly a white supremacist might support. Then Trump won Louisiana in a landslide, even though it neighbors Ted Cruz’s home state. He even carried evangelicals, who are supposedly the Cruz strong suit.
Now when Trump says something incredible in its offensiveness, reporters offer it up with the qualifier that it probably won’t hurt Trump in the polls. After all, it hasn’t so far.
But what they don’t do is admit why it won’t hurt Trump in the polls. If we’re going to change this country for the better and fix the injustice and discrimination that still exist, first we need to face the hard reality that Trump isn’t hurt in polls because his supporters agree with him.
Rubio is right in his analysis of the Republican primary, that it has been about what’s unsaid. The most disturbing thing about the debate, though, is that Rubio implies he also agrees and that actually the Republican establishment by proxy might agree too. They just think it unwise politically to say out loud.
LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. Contact him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.