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Even Republicans agree: Trump failed first leadership test

Leading Republicans in Congress are critical of Donald Trump’s speech following the Orlando mass shootings.
Leading Republicans in Congress are critical of Donald Trump’s speech following the Orlando mass shootings. The Associated Press

Donald Trump responded to the Orlando shooting with a massive display of what he likes to call “strength.” That simply has to work, right? After all, people are frightened, so they’ll gravitate towards whichever candidate more persuasively promises to smash the enemy – both without and within – while ignoring the flouting of American values embedded in the details, right? That’s Trump’s explicit bet.

But Politico reports Tuesday morning that even Republicans think that Trump’s response to the shooting is profoundly problematic. What’s important about this report, though, is that Republicans say that his response was worrisome both in terms of the substance and in terms of the politics.

Republicans tell Politico that Trump failed what is known as the “desk test,” i.e., whether his behavior inspires voters to confidently picture Trump in the Oval Office during a time of crisis. Others worry that Trump’s post-Orlando behavior raises doubts about whether he understands the president’s role. And on the substance, the blowback was even worse:

“The proposed ban on Muslim immigrants had already been rejected by Speaker Paul Ryan and the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress. But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said again he wouldn’t support it, and that he had no interest in seeing it get a vote.

“You don’t ban somebody on race (or) religion,’ McCarthy told Politico. “I don’t see that coming to the floor.”

Hill Republicans expressed concern over everything from the tone of Trump’s remarks to their substantive impact.

“I think you have to be a little careful with the rhetoric,” Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said of Trump’s renewed call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. “You don’t want to inflame or help the recruiting efforts.”

That is striking: The Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee wondered aloud whether the GOP standard bearer’s high-profile response to a major terrorist attack might actually exacerbate terror recruitment. And the No. 2 Republican in the House flatly declared the GOP standard bearer’s main policy proposal on terrorism to be an unacceptable religious test that would never make it to the House floor.

While it’s regularly assumed that terrorism helps Trump, it’s perfectly plausible that his response to this horrific event could end up raising further doubts about his temperamental and substantive fitness for the presidency. It appears that after watching Trump’s speech Monday afternoon, even some Republicans agree with this.

Indeed, Trump’s speech presents Republicans with something of a fork-in-the-road moment. As Brian Beutler points out in New Republic, by ratcheting up the demagoguery and xenophobia, Trump revealed that he fully believes, and fully intends to continue campaigning on, precisely the things that had given Republicans grave doubts about his candidacy. If Republicans previously told themselves that Trump could be managed or moderated by getting him to stick to some kind of softer script, they have been violently disabused of that notion.

Trump’s actual beliefs can no longer be ignored or wished away: In the midst of a crisis moment – the type of general election crisis moment that tends to reveal what presidential candidates are really made of – Trump explicitly confirmed his full intention to carry out a program that these Republicans profess to find deeply alarming.

This isn’t simply about the ways in which Trump represents an affront to American values. It’s also about the ways in which his specific proposals could risk further endangering national security, by the lights of the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. In other words, even some Republicans agree that Trump’s idea of a “strong” response to terrorism could further weaken us.

This has deeper implications, too. As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, by ratcheting up the anti-Muslim xenophobia in wretched and substantively dangerous ways, Trump is guiding the GOP to a place where it has left behind any remnants of whatever idealistic and practical “vision for defeating radical Islam” guided George W. Bush. Left behind is nothing more than a “residue of fear and nationalism, ripe for manipulation by a demagogue.”

The crucial point is that it’s becoming clearer and clearer that many Republican agree with this. Yet they continue to support Trump as their standard bearer, anyway. Trump’s first high-profile response to a major terrorist attack, and the Republican discomfort with it, raise new questions about how much longer this can be sustained.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post. It’s a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant.

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