Curiel Madness

Cold, cold take: Paul Ryan says Donald Trump’s attack on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge hearing the Trump University lawsuit, is “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Ben Sasse tweeted that “Saying someone can’t do a specific job because of his or her race is the literal definition of racism.”

Literal definition? Isn’t the literal definition of racism claiming that someone is inferior because of their race? That wasn’t what Trump seemed to be saying at all. He was accusing Judge Curiel of something else, namely frailty, a universal human condition.

We all have biases and conflicts. We usually struggle to overcome them. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t. Judges, who are supposed to be “impartial,” have a special mandate to engage in that struggle. Trump’s saying that Curiel, in this lawsuit, has failed to overcome them and is biased against him. (Certainly the media, as Ann Coulter notes, has said it’s practically Curiel’s duty to be biased against Trump.) ** But you could levy a similar charge against Einstein or Gandhi in the right circumstances. We’re not Vulcans. ***

What Trump said might have been false — I don’t know if Judge Curiel’s rulings were biased or not. It was certainly offensive to Curiel personally. Even if true it was probably stupid, as a litigation strategy. (Trump’s not going to get Curiel taken off the case, and it’s usually not a good idea to piss off the trial judge at your trial.) The comments may have been very bad politics. You can even say they were unhinged (Trump did go on for a while). But on their face they weren’t racist.

It’s pretty clear something else is behind the hyperbolic righteousness of the GOP outrage: either a desire of pols like Ryan to posture distance themselves from Trump politically, or to actively undermine him — maybe in the hard-to-kill hope for a last-minute-sneak convention substitution. Or to simply find what Lindsey Graham called an “off ramp” from participating in his campaign. Fine. They’re allowed. But let’s recognize it for what it is.


** — Justice Sotomayor, when wising Latina, seemed to go even further (Coulter and others note) suggesting

“Whether born from experience or inherent physiological [yikes!] or cultural differences, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”

It’s not fair to impute these controversial views — she talks of “basic differences in logic and reasoning” — to Trump. I’m not sure it’s even fair to impute them to Justice Sotomayor, who’s struck a different tone on other occasions.

***– Trump isn’t claiming Curiel’s not qualified to be a judge — that he’s not perfectly capable of, say, handling a complex bit of litigation involving someone who isn’t Donald Trump. And he’s not saying that all judges of Mexican heritage would be biased the way he claims Curiel is. He did (at least according to the Wall Street Journal) argue that Curiel’s ethnicity was an “inherent conflict of interest” (given that “I’m building a wall” on the Mexican border).  If Trump means that all judges of Mexican descent should be disqualified from his case — something he didn’t say — he’s proposing a seemingly impractical prophylactic rule in a multi-ethnic society. There are conflicts that are so great we assume nobody will believe a judge was able to transcend them, however. (If a judge owns substantial stock in a company, for example.) It wouldn’t be racist to think ethnic conflict is one of them.