It was supposed to be an open-and-shut case. David Duke used his radio show to encourage listeners to volunteer for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, because they would find “people that have the same mindset…that you have.” The Anti-Defamation League followed up with a demand that Trump “unequivocally” distance himself from the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, but had to admit that Duke did not endorse Trump. CNN host Jake Tapper took the ADL’s press release and asked the New York billionaire if he would reject support from Duke, or any other white supremacist. Trump did not offer the mea culpa Tapper went fishing for, but denied knowing anything about Duke, then refused to comment on any other groups until Tapper would provide a list. Mitt Romney couldn’t wait to pounce. The former Massachusetts governor took to Twitter, calling Trump’s answer “disqualifying and disgusting” before slamming what he called a “coddling of repugnant bigotry.” Really. Trump’s answer is evasive if he’s the fearless candidate media coverage makes him out to be; all the more so when he blamed his clumsy reply on a faulty earpiece. But Romney’s charges are laughable.
Despite protests to the contrary, Trump does know David Duke. Both were associated with Ross Perot’s Reform Party in the late 90’s and Trump was angling to run for president on the Reform ticket in 2000. He backed out before leaving the party to a “fringe element” that included Duke and Pat Buchanan, and singled them out as “not company I wish to keep.” In light of the chattering whirlwind surrounding Duke’s non-endorsement it is important to recall a key point: Trump has not sought out — or accepted — Duke’s support. He specifically rejected it at a press conference with Chris Christie two days before the CNN interview. It hasn’t slowed down the “disavow” bandwagon. Everyone from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to Josh Earnest and Bill de Blasio is talking about an alleged endorsement, and spreading a lie. This is nothing new for Democrats. Ms. Clinton’s assertion that GOP senators are refusing to hold hearings on a potential Obama supreme court nominee out of racial animus is one example. There are others. The former New York senator accused Republicans of speaking in “coded racial language” and appealing to the “ugliest impulses of the paranoid fringe.” The surprise is that Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell are on board.
Republicans wading into this battle are letting an eagerness to take down Trump mingle with contempt for Duke and a fear of being labeled racist lead them into accepting a game of guilt-by-association. There is a parallel: Two of Trump’s rivals are Cuban. If Raul Castro let it slip on MSNBC he thought Marco Rubio would be a good choice for Cubans in the US to volunteer and vote for, then chastised any who won’t as traitors would there be a similar drive to get the Florida senator the renounce Castro’s praise? Only if Rubio reached out to the Cuban president. The greater trouble with this sideshow is its surrender to an unspoken notion Republicans are racists until they prove otherwise. Rubio contributed to it at a campaign stop when he said the GOP “cannot be a party who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.” This fracas is also distracting from an array of other reasons to reconsider support for Trump. National Review devoted an entire issue to them. When he was still a candidate Chris Christie identified a central issue: temperament. The veiled threat Trump made toward Speaker Ryan and Arizona Senator John McCain are just the latest in a long line of examples.
At this point it may be too late to stop Trump, and GOP bosses need only look in the mirror to see who is to blame. They’ve been unwilling to confront Trump, convinced he would self-destruct, that there was a line the one-time Apprentice star could cross that would send his supporters fleeing; that somebody else would do the job for them. Surprise. What is so evident now is that conventional rules will not apply this time. Jeb Bush tried his best to follow them, to gather up support among donors and wait out his rivals — what Mitt Romney did in 2012 — but his $100 million war chest could not help the Bush family heir-apparent break through because money cannot buy love or loyalty. Republican wise-men still don’t get it. The broadside Romney launched from the University of Utah won’t win support, neither will a brokered convention in Cleveland or an anti-Trump super PAC. Every one of these efforts has one flaw in common: they’re designed to win by defaming a common foe, leaving no credible opponent to rally around. Of the three remaining, Ted Cruz is the only one who has been able to defeat Trump. The Associated Press credits the Texas senator with 300 pledged delegates to Trump’s 384. There is a way for the #NeverTrump team to win, and David Duke has nothing to do with it. Like him or not, Ted Cruz does.