Donald Trump’s disparagement of Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and drug-runners raises the question of how much longer the Republican Party’s other 2016 presidential contenders can remain largely silent on the controversy.
WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump disparaged Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and drug-runners during his presidential announcement speech, the slurs were initially dismissed as just another outrageous pronouncement from the blustery billionaire.
But as Latinos reel in anger and celebrities and corporate sponsors drop their associations with Trump, it raises the question of how much longer the Republican Party’s other 2016 presidential contenders can remain largely silent on the controversy in hopes that it goes away.
It’s the latest “Latino problem” for the GOP, which is struggling to expand its base beyond white voters to include more minorities. Superstar Shakira has spoken out about Trump’s comments, along with Macy’s department stores and broadcasters Univision and NBC, all of which are distancing themselves from the real estate tycoon amid a growing backlash from Latinos.
Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said he was surprised that GOP leaders have not come out more strongly against the statement. “Can you imagine if he was talking about Jews? African-Americans?” Sharry said. “Would the GOP stand up? Of course they would. … But the silence of the GOP on this is defining the party.”
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The flare-up could be a foretaste of what the GOP can expect when the party’s presidential debates start next month. With more than a dozen GOP contenders in the race already, Trump may have every incentive to interject something inflammatory as a way to stand out. Other candidates will have to decide whether to engage and allow him to set the agenda, or ignore him and risk appearing to condone what he says.
“Trump is like a trap for us,” said Republican strategist Rick Wilson. Even though Trump’s recent polling figures make it likely he would make the cutoff for any GOP debate, Wilson said allowing the former host of NBC’s “The Apprentice” to take the stage with other candidates would be a “nightmare scenario” that would send voters into the arms of Democrats.
“There’s a segment of people in my party who find this sort of spittle-flecked populism appealing — the bluster of a bellowing, screaming loudmouth — because they think that’s the way to win,” he said. “They’re frustrated about a lot of things in the Republican Party. But this is not a solution to their problem. This is a solution to (Democratic candidate) Hillary Clinton’s problem.”
So far Trump has refused to back down or apologize, telling Fox News this week that his June 16 remarks — that those crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are mostly criminals, drug-runners and rapists — are “totally accurate.” He filed a $500 million lawsuit against Univision for announcing it would drop coverage of the “Miss USA” pageant, which Trump co-owns. And on Wednesday he lashed out at NBC and Macy’s, which announced it was dropping his menswear line. They “totally caved,” he said, adding that their moves show they “support illegal immigration.”
Trump’s comments have ricocheted across Latino communities in the United States and abroad, reminding many of past GOP attitudes — including former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s suggestion that immigrants in the United States illegally should simply “self-deport” and the assertion by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that young people coming to the United States had “calves the size of cantaloupes” from carrying drugs across the border.
Though Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, defended Trump’s statements — calling him “terrific” and saying “he speaks the truth” — most other GOP presidential candidates are trying to steer clear.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, has said little publicly beyond a response he gave in Spanish over the weekend to a reporter’s question after a town-hall meeting in Nevada.
“I do not agree with his remarks,” Bush said, according to a translation provided by the campaign. “They do not represent the values of the Republican Party and they do not represent my values. The man is wrong.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents are from Cuba, has not directly weighed in and appeared to downplay the importance of Trump’s remarks last week weekend, calling Trump “an incredibly entertaining person.”
Republican Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, another potential Republican front-runner, found some truth in Trump’s stance.
“People want to come here because America is a country full of opportunity — good people and bad are coming across our border,” Walker said. “That’s why we’ve got to get control of our borders.”
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee downplayed Trump’s comments as last week’s news. But privately, GOP officials are deeply concerned that the controversy will expose the party’s bitter divisions over what to do about the nation’s immigration problem.