The speech Donald Trump planned to give on Monday—billed essentially as a recitation of everything Republicans hate about Hillary Clinton—was originally intended to rally and calm nervous Republicans. The speech he ultimately gave, a day after a radicalized, homophobic Muslim gunman killed dozens of people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, confronts those same Republicans with a test of their willingness to cut Trump loose.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed his frustration with Trump explicitly as a matter of his undisciplined conduct. Trump, he says, needs to use “prepared texts” and “get on message.”
“I think he’d have a much better chance of winning if he would quit making so many unfortunate public utterances and stick to the script,” McConnell said.
As Greg Sargent has noted, the deeper problem with this line of criticism is its superficiality. McConnell doesn’t necessarily care if Trump recants his positions or abandons unserious lines of thinking, so long as he doesn’t talk about them out loud or couches them in less-offensive terms.
But now McConnell and other GOP leaders know what sticking to the script looks like.
Even by the exceedingly low standards of most Trump speeches, his performance Monday was remarkably demagogic. Trump again promised to ban Muslim travel and in-migration to the U.S. indefinitely and unilaterally, and repeated his doubly false claim that Muslim refugees stream into the United States by the hundreds of thousands (untrue) without any screening (also untrue). He intimated that the New York-born shooter was Afghan by virtue of his Afghan parentage, and claimed that “many” of the imagined hordes of Muslims pouring into our country “have the same thought process as this savage killer.”
Republican leaders who have endorsed Trump’s presidential candidacy (which is to say, all of them) have barely concealed their discomfiture with Trump’s impending nomination precisely because of statements like these. Most, like McConnell, have tried to manage their predicament by expressing their support in terms of the will of the GOP electorate, while disclaiming aspects of his character and agenda that they don’t like.
For them, the key impediment to embracing Trump more unreservedly is his wild unpredictability—which, by no coincidence, is the thing about Trump that makes his candidacy an ongoing liability for other Republican politicians. It is thus a cause for celebration when he manages to get through a whole speech without saying something offensive and incendiary, as he did last Tuesday evening when he read his primary victory speech from a teleprompter.
But Republicans can no longer kid themselves into thinking that teleprompters can rescue Trump from himself, or themselves from him. He read his speech Monday from prepared text as well, and showed he can be just as odious as when he ad-libs. His scripts, it turns out, are sometimes just transcribed versions of the improvised comments McConnell finds so politically damaging.
If McConnell’s support for Trump is equivocal in any way, it’s contingent not on Trump’s views, but on his ability or willingness to express them in politically anodyne ways. After Monday, McConnell and other Republican leaders can either state their support for Trump without hesitation, or rescind their support entirely. But they can’t claim they want to wait and see if Trump can adopt a better message. Tuesday’s speech told the tale: His considered comments are just as obscene and incoherent as his extemporaneous ones.