In the two weeks since the launch installment of this column, the US Republican presidential field was winnowed by three, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former tech executive Carly Fiorina, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush all dropping out after humiliating drubbings in the early state primaries. Also placing poorly in these contests were retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, neither of whom are considered to be serious contenders for the GOP nomination. That Carson and Kasich remain in the race at this stage confounds observers from both the right and the left.
Let’s take a look at recent developments in the campaigns of the front-runners.
The leading Trump story this week was his unprecedented feud with Pope Francis, who suggested that a true Christian would not advocate for building a wall to keep desperate impoverished people out of the United States. Trump responded by blasting the pope, calling it “disgraceful” that anybody would question his faith. Trump’s reaction, as it so often is, was laughingly hypocritical as he himself has questioned the faith and religious practices of rivals Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Trump followed up the pope fracas with a rally speech in which he told a debunked story about Muslims being executed with bullets soaked in pig blood. This manner of executions, Trump declared, would be useful practice in discouraging future terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. His supporters, which include the leaders of several neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, applauded loudly.
This week Cruz trumpeted endorsements from several viciously anti-LGBT hate groups, promising his supporters that with their help, he will overturn the Supreme Court’s “fundamentally illegitimate” ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Days later a pro-Cruz group robocalled South Carolina voters with the claim that Donald Trump secretly supports gay marriage and that if Trump were to become president, he would “tear down Judeo-Christian values.” (In fact, Trump, who until recently had little to say about gay marriage, has now also promised to work to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling.) Cruz’s speeches often sound more like sermons from demented doomsday preachers and last week we got yet another example of this lunacy when he warned that if given the chance, a liberal Supreme Court appointee would “sandblast crosses off the tombstones of veterans.”
Early last week Rubio picked up a key endorsement from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose backing spurred Rubio to a second-place finish in that state’s primary. Rubio’s strong showing solidified the GOP race into a three-way contest and as the only so-called “establishment” front-runner, many supporters of former establishment candidate Jeb Bush are now expected to swing into the Rubio camp. (So too will the supporters of John Kasich once he realizes the futility of his bid.) Rubio also earned anti-LGBT headlines last week when he announced the formation of an advisory board which will steer his campaign’s rhetoric on repealing same-sex marriage. The advisory board includes figures from major national anti-LGBT hate groups. Rubio’s “faith outreach” team is headed by a Christian activist who also coordinated publicity for the Manhattan Declaration, whose signees vow to disobey any laws which grant civil rights to LGBT Americans.
Despite all of the usual GOP infighting and mudslinging, the one issue that united the GOP presidential field in recent days arose from the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented in every pro-gay ruling. While America’s crackpots and conspiracy theorists floated claims that Scalia had been murdered by President Obama, GOP front-runners and party leaders vowed to block the president from appointing Scalia’s successor. The coming showdown over the appointment, upon which likely hinges the outcome of many key progressive and civil rights causes, will dominate the headlines and the presidential race for many weeks to come.