In conversations with nervous Republicans, what worries them is not just what Donald Trump didn't say about the KKK and white supremacists; it's what he did say. In his interview with Jake Tapper, they saw the Republican front-runner calculating, dodging, playing for time and not giving a straight answer. The politicians in the GOP recognize this because they've all used similar tactics. But there is a big distinction: they duck when the issue is ethanol support or immigration or some other topic on which they want to appear to be on both sides or where they want to build a back door in case they say something that gets them in trouble with a powerful group.
They wouldn't think of deploying the artful dodge in response to any question that includes the letters "KKK" or the words "white supremacist."
For a candidate who gets so much credit for telling it like it is, Donald Trump was extraordinarily careful in answering Tapper's question. He told the CNN host he didn't want to say something bad about groups until he could look at a list of the ones he was being asked about. When he gave that answer, the only thing he knew about those groups were that they had been mentioned in a conversation with the KKK, David Duke and white supremacists. Given how toxic those ideas are, every politician would provide a provisional opinion for fear of any association with such hatred. The bias would be to not show bias.
Donald Trump didn't want to be hasty. It's a laudable general principle, but his entire campaign has been founded around the opposite instinct. He launches opinions with gusto and without restraint. It's what voters cite when you ask them why they like him: he doesn't pause and offer mush. He tells it like it is.
This careful answer is why nervous Republicans are not comforted by the fact that Trump disavowed Duke on Friday or disavows him now. What Republicans saw in his answer was a dangerous instinct. They also saw it on display too when this weekend he said he was receiving unfair treatment in the Trump University case from a judge because the judge was Hispanic.
Senator Ben Sasse calls it "race baiting." Mitt Romney called Trump's response "coddling of repugnant bigotry." That's what makes this episode a bell that cannot be un-rung. It is not a gaffe that can be explained away because it wasn't the specific words but the several turns of the gears -- the thought process-- that was on display in that interview.
Those I've talked to who are even more worried about Trump than they were before this episode base their fears not on the belief that he has a dark heart. The fear is that he is provisional. He can disavow David Duke one minute and then say he doesn't know him a few days later, if he thinks the atmosphere has changed. There is ample evidence in his past of his changes in position that support this argument. This creates considerable uncertainty and politicians do not want their fortunes or their party tied to something so volatile that even the norms against the KKK can't keep it in.
The problem for anti-Trump Republicans however, is that there is no plausible way to stop Trump. Here are the options I've heard (in no particular order of plausibility -- you can rank them yourself at home):
- Someone beats Trump outright;
- Trump is denied the 1,237 delegates needed and a fight at the convention blocks him;
- Trump gets the right number of delegates and is stopped somehow at the convention; or
- a third party candidate is placed in the general election and conservatives and Republicans vote for that person.
Some plans sound so fantastical as they are described to me, they might as well include a Minotaur and a saving throw.
One of the forces at work in this election is that voters are blaming their Washington representatives for being ineffective, as voters see huge malevolent forces changing the world they were promised. Now Republican lawmakers are feeling the effects of that blame first hand.