Donald Trump did his best impersonation of a presidential candidate on Tuesday night. Speaking to a small group of supporters in New York, Trump read from a teleprompter, managed not to call anybody a “loser,” and even talked a little bit about policy.
He was calm and concise -- and frankly a little boring.
The speech looked a lot like an effort to reassure nervous Republicans and get past the controversy over Trump’s attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over lawsuits against Trump University. The controversy began last week, when Trump first suggested that Curiel’s Mexican heritage ought to disqualify the judge from the case. On Tuesday, following a series of interviews in which Trump reiterated his criticism of Curiel, the controversy exploded into a full-blown political crisis.
All day long, Trump was the object of furious criticism, much of it from his own would-be supporters in the GOP. Over and over, Republican officials disavowed Trump’s comments -- saying they were shocked by Trump’s willingness to attack Curiel because of his ethnicity, and warning that Trump had to change his ways fast.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who just last week endorsed Trump, called the comments “the textbook definition of racism.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Trump “to get on message” and “start acting like a serious presidential candidate.” Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee even laid out a time frame. Trump, according to Corker, has “two or three weeks” to “pivot to a place where he becomes a true general election candidate.”
But Republicans have no grounds for expressing shock at Trump’s recent behavior -- and even less reason to think Trump will act differently as the primaries end and the general election campaign begins. The authentic Trump is the one who made racist attacks on a federal judge, not the one trying to sound presidential on Tuesday night.
Remember, this is a candidate who, during the speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency, asserted that the Mexican government was sending criminals and rapists across the border -- and that undocumented immigrants were disproportionately responsible for crime in the U.S.
This is a candidate who, once the political conversation turned to terrorism, called for banning all members of the Muslim faith from entering the U.S. and suggested he was open to creating a registry of Muslims here in the U.S.
This is a candidate who spent most of the last seven years questioning whether Barack Obama, the first African-American president, was actually born in this country.
And this is a candidate whose record of stoking racial fears arguably goes all the way back to the 1980s, when he campaigned loudly for reinstating the death penalty to punish five African-American men convicted (wrongly, as it turned out) of a horrific rape in Central Park.
This history is also why the idea of Trump reinventing himself is so absurd. He can’t “start acting like a serious presidential candidate,” as McConnell suggested, because a serious presidential candidate wouldn’t have said any of these things in the first place.
Similarly, Trump can’t “pivot,” per Corker’s suggestion, because pivoting in a presidential campaign usually means de-emphasizing positions from the presidential primaries and emphasizing different ones in the general election. Trump can say whatever he wants over the next few months. It won’t wipe away what he's said in the past year.
Maybe the best proof that Trump can’t reinvent himself is that he hasn’t yet, despite all the pressure on him. On Tuesday, Trump issued a lengthy statement about the Trump University case in which he said his comments about Curiel “have been misconstrued as a categorical attack against Mexican people.” He also noted that he is “friends with and [employs] thousands of people of Mexican and Hispanic descent.” Conspicuously absent from the statement was an apology -- or any recognition of why his statements offended so many people.
At least some Republicans are starting to realize that. Sen. Mark Kirk, facing an extremely tough re-election in Illinois, formally withdrew his endorsement on Tuesday. Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina, made clear that he would not be endorsing Trump at all -- and suggested some of his colleagues might use the Curiel controversy as “an off-ramp.”
But they are still the exceptions. Most Republicans, including the congressional leaders Ryan and McConnell, have said they are sticking with Trump -- at least for now.
Maybe it’s because, on balance, Republicans like Ryan and McConnell would prefer a racist president largely sympathetic to their agenda to a non-racist who isn’t. Maybe it’s because they worry a divided party will hurt candidates for the House and Senate.
Or maybe it’s because they don’t want to admit that Trump’s outrageous, frequently offensive behavior is precisely what made him so popular with their party’s voters -- that the hateful messages Republican leaders are trying so hard to disavow appeal to a large portion of the Republican base.