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It seems in some sense pointless to say anything more against Donald Trump’s venomous personal attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who has the unenviable task of presiding over a law suit that calls into question the moral probity, intellectual rigor, and economic soundness of Trump University. Ironically, for all his talk about Curiel as “hater,” he has yet to ask Curiel to recuse himself from the case, knowing full well that a vicious personal assault is better than a groundless legal motion.
Before Trump began his ugly tirade against Judge Curiel, I was prepared to have an open mind about the merits of a law suit about which I knew, and continue to know, absolutely nothing. But now that Trump has decided to double-down on these scurrilous attacks, the easiest thing to do is to presume that a man who can so badly misbehave in public matters is likely to engage in the same dubious practices in his private business dealings. If Trump thinks that he has found a new way to run a presidential campaign, it speaks poorly to his own personal integrity and political judgment. His behavior against Curiel is the kind of onslaught that makes him unfit to govern. The entire episode is a nonstop travesty and should be condemned as such.
The situation is only worse because Trump, it appears, has decided to double-down on his offensive strategy in the face of huge amounts of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, including key leaders in the Republican Party who have had to eat more than a modest amount of humble pie in order to remain loyal to the party. But his coarse speech that treats the merits of this case as self-evident shows that he has become a caricature of himself, willing to engage in the worst form of pyrotechnics in support of a vain and inglorious cause. He has become unhinged and perhaps delusional.
His sins on this matter go beyond monumentally bad taste for several reasons. The first is that there is absolutely nothing in Curiel’s background that merits this kind of harsh rebuke. Curiel has had extensive experience in private practice and government service. He was both a state and a federal court judge. The one item on his résumé that attracts immediate notice was that in his role as prosecutor, he was first Deputy Chief (1996-1999) and Chief (1999-2002) of the Narcotics Enforcement Division. This position was no sinecure, for as the Wikipedia account of his life notes, “Curiel prosecuted the Arellano Felix cartel in Tijuana, Mexico, and was targeted for assassination by the drug cartel.” It is nothing short of a disgrace to tar any person who took after Mexican cartels as unfit for office because of the “inherent conflict” of being Mexican. If anything, his willingness to stand up to a Mexican cartel is a strong point in his favor.
The institutional implications in this case, however, go far beyond the particulars of this dispute, for if Trump’s warped views on judicial behavior are accepted, it becomes impossible to run a decent system of justice. Trump of course regards himself as a figure above reproach. It would never occur to the ruffian that his own biases do not rest on any inherent, i.e., unavoidable, conflict of interest, but on the openly mean-spirited way in which he speaks of other people. Does he really think that he is fit to appoint people to serve on the federal bench or indeed in any office? Do white people have conflicts so that they cannot deal with litigation in which Mexicans or African Americans or Muslims take place?
Speaking generally, it is an exceedingly important feature of a successful legal system that everyone understands that there are places where identity politics are welcome, and places in which they are utterly alien to the spirit of a particular institution. Donald Trump, as a private citizen, could decide to invite only nativists to his own Fourth of July party. Other groups could decide to celebrate Cinco De Mayo in honor of Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. Others can celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, which this year fell on May 12, 2016. But all those forms of deep personal identification play no role in judicial decision-making.
Even though it is probably impossible for any one of us to put aside our own personal allegiances, as public servants we darn well have to try, because each of us in his or her public role owes it to all citizens to do the best that we can to keep these preferences in check. There is every reason to think that Judge Curiel has honorably hewed to this tradition of adjudication — and all too much public evidence to show that Donald Trump has done everything in his power to tear it down. We cannot run a country in which everyone gets a judge of his own race, gender or political persuasion. Anyone who says the opposite is working nonstop to tear down the fabric of American public institutions. We need desperately to preserve our social capital.
So, what should be done? Right now, the Republican Party should take it upon itself to ask whether it can nominate any candidate that shows such terrible judgment and bigotry in dealing with public matters. If the answer to that question is no, as it may well be, then they should turn themselves as one person against him, by refusing to honor his primary victories. It is better to run an open convention after removing this cancer before it spreads. The gruesome alternative is that, if he becomes President, there is all too great a chance that his impetuous temperament will lead him to perform public acts that will indeed count as high crimes and misdemeanors, worthy of impeachment. In this campaign, if Trump survives, look closely at his vice presidential pick, for sooner than you think that person could well become President after a Trump victory. So, Donald Trump — even you can learn to back off a fight that you cannot, should not, and must not win.