For many months, while Donald Trump spewed hatred against one group after another, his fellow Republicans stood by.
He has insulted Latinos, Muslims, people with disabilities, women, journalists and others; he has thrown people out of his rallies, ejected reporters from his press conferences, threatened to punch people in the face and even said he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and still not lose voters.
But despite all of Trump’s rhetoric, it still was not enough for the right wing to call him out.
It was not until this past weekend, when Trump did not immediately and unequivocally denounce the support of white supremacists in general and David Duke and Ku Klux Klan in particular, that the GOP finally had to draw the line — if only publicly.
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, Trump declined to disavow support from Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, claiming he did not know enough about him or the Klan.
On Sunday night, Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse became the first member of Congress to join the #NeverTrump movement, and on Super Tuesday, Republican leaders in Congress, who have rarely spoken out about the presidential campaign, broke their silence specifically to rebuke Trump.
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan. “This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the Party of Lincoln. We believe all people are created equal in the eyes of God and our government. This is fundamental, and if someone wants to be our nominee, they must understand this. I hope this is the last time I need to speak out on this race.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also chastised Trump for his “seeming ambivalence” about Duke and the Klan, saying, “Senate Republicans condemn David Duke, the KKK and his racism, and we condemn his comments in the most forceful way.”
Neither Ryan nor McConnell, however, mentioned Trump by name. Both Ryan and McConnell denounced Trump’s plan late last year to block Muslims from entering the United States but otherwise have refrained from commenting on the campaigns.
In a tweet Tuesday night, political commentator Bill Maher said: “So far Trump is proving something I’ve always maintained about American politics: You throw your lot in with the Klan, you can win the South.”
A meme circulating on social media mocks Trump’s tepid denouncement of the KKK.
But this has become a scary scenario for the GOP — especially after Trump’s commanding win on Super Tuesday further indicates he will become the Republican nominee — because not disavowing the KKK will almost certainly alienate everyone but the most ardent on the right. In order to have any chance of winning a general election, Trump must earn the votes of Republicans, Independents and some Democrats.
“The party is fractured, which isn’t unusual for political parties and they almost always come back together. But this could test the outer limits of that tradition,” said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in an interview on CNN. Pawlenty ran for president in 2012 and now endorses Marco Rubio. “If the Republican Party were an airplane and you’re looking out the window, you’d see some pieces of the surface flying off. And you’d be wondering whether the engine or a wing is next.”
And it is not just the political class that is distancing itself from Trump.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “What Jesus Wouldn’t Do,” Peter Wehner discussed his “thoughts on why Trumpism and biblical Christianity are fundamentally incompatible,” adding, “For evangelical voters like me, backing Trump is a huge mistake.”
Mark DeMoss, a longtime confidant of Jerry Falwell Sr., who served as his chief of staff for many years and who considered the televangelist a second father, said in an interview with the Washington Post this week that it was a mistake for Jerry Falwell Jr. to endorse Trump.
“I think a lot of what we’ve seen from Donald Trump will prove to be difficult to explain by evangelicals who have backed him. Watching last weekend’s escapades about the KKK, I don’t see how an evangelical backer can feel good about that,” he said.
While the right wing is distancing itself from Trump now, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday said the GOP has advanced an “agenda of discrimination” for years.
“While disassociating themselves from Trump, House Republicans voted repeatedly to refuse to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Capitol grounds,” Pelosi said. “While associating themselves with the heroes of Selma, House Republicans refuse to renew the Voting Rights Act. While House Republicans claim to oppose violence against women, they overwhelmingly voted to exclude immigrant, LGBT and Native American women from the protections of the Violence Against Women Act.”