It is finally being widely acknowledged that Donald Trump’s success in GOP primary polls might have something to do with the uncomfortable fact that many GOP voters appear to agree with his sentiments about immigration and Muslims. Which leads to the next question: How can the other GOP candidates distance themselves from Trump’s most controversial positions while avoiding offending those voters or even positioning themselves to inherit them if Trump fades?

Ted Cruz has given a remarkable interview to NPR’s Steve Inskeep that suggests one answer to that question. Since Cruz is considered a likely candidate for inheriting those Trump supporters, the manner in which he is carefully positioning himself embodies an illuminating interpretation of what is really driving those voters.

In the interview, Cruz says he disagrees with Trump’s most incendiary proposal — the plan to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States — but he declines to criticize Trump over it. Cruz justifies this by claiming he has declined to attack other candidates, such as Marco Rubio. That’s questionable — he has repeatedly attacked Rubio as soft on “amnesty.” And in any case, in calling for a Muslim ban, Trump has done something more worthy of criticism than Rubio has. But Cruz won’t criticize him over it. That’s apparently crucial to his effort to win over Trump voters later.

In the interview, Cruz also reiterates his call for restricting the entry into the U.S. of refugees from certain countries — with an exception for those who are victims of genocide, which has been widely seen as an effort to exempt from the ban refugees who are Christian or non-Muslim. Pressed on this by Inskeep, Cruz doesn’t really deny that this might amount, in practical terms, to a “religious test.” Instead he defends his proposal on the grounds that the “religious persecution” those exceptions are suffering is legitimate grounds for exempting them. “What is happening to the Christians by ISIS is qualitatively different,” Cruz says. Even if one accepts that argument, by Cruz’s own implication this would amount in practical terms to a religion-based refugee admission policy, even if it isn’t put in stark Trumpian terms.

Third, Cruz attacks President Obama as an “apologist” for “radical Islamic terrorism,” because the president refuses to use those exact words. Democrats have argued that the term “radical jihadism” is more appropriate, because it speaks to the notion that terrorism is a perversion of Islam and avoids implying that we are “at war with Islam.” Cruz’s answer to this is to insist:

“There are millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. There are millions of peaceful Muslims in America. This is not about the Islamic faith. It is about Islamism, which is a very different thing.”

Yet in the very same interview, Cruz attacks Obama’s recent address to the nation, claiming he acted like a “condescending school marm lecturing the American people against Islamophobia.” But in that address, Obama made precisely the same point — that there are millions of peaceful Muslims and that it is our responsibility to make this clear. Cruz’s argument is that we cannot fight radical terrorism adequately unless we acknowledge that it is rooted in “Islamism.” But whatever you think of this argument — and this difference is a legitimate one for debate — it is an extremely slender reed upon which to rest the twin charges that Obama is hyping Islamophobia and is an apologist for terrorism.

But this idea — that, no, of course we aren’t saying that Muslims are inherently evil and violent, but when Obama says this, he is hyping Islamophobia and apologizing for terrorism — is crucial to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge game that is being played here. (Marco Rubio is also playing a version of this game.) The basic calculation driving this notion — along with the refusal to directly fault Trump’s anti-Muslim demagoguery and the feints towards religious screening for refugees — represent a bet on what is really driving Trump supporters and what will be necessary to capture them later. It’s a clever strategy. And it might work.


* GOP VOTERS MOST WARY OF IMMIGRATION FROM MIDEAST: A new Associated Press poll finds that a majority of Americans, 54 percent, think we take in too many immigrants from the Middle East. Note the views among Republican voters:

Among Republicans, about three-quarters of respondents held that view, compared with about half of independents and more than a third of Democrats….Tea party backers, whites and older Americans — all important voting groups in Republican presidential primaries — were more likely to say immigration from the Middle East is too high. Among evangelical Christians, who wield significant power in the kickoff Iowa caucus, 63 percent of respondents held that view.

This is broadly consistent with other polling that has shown that many Republican voters agree with Donald Trump’s various prescriptions, pronouncements, and sentiments.

Many congressional Republicans have been hesitant to criticize him, cognizant of his appeal to the populist elements of the party….as long as he remains a force in the nomination fight, other Republicans are forced to respond to his rhetoric instead of spending time criticizing the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Yes, it really is inconvenient for the GOP that so many Republican voters actually agree with what Trump is saying, isn’t it?

The New Yorker’s pitch to indefinitely ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. on the grounds that many are radical jihadists or terrorist sympathizers appeared to give Republicans the political cover they needed to unleash on the real estate mogul and reality television star. That’s crucial, GOP strategists say, because broad criticism from the right has been the missing link in attempts to dethrone Trump.

Calling for mass deportations, insulting millions of immigrants, falsely suggesting that thousands of Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, calling for the closing of mosques and floating a Muslim registry weren’t enough to give them the “political cover” to do this, however.

* CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOSTS DON’T CONDEMN TRUMP: Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray runs down the reaction to Trump’s plan from the top talk radio hosts, and sums it up this way:

Conservative talk radio hosts didn’t endorse Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration on Tuesday — but they certainly didn’t condemn him and almost uniformly refrained from criticizing him or his plan. Talk radio heavyweights Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin showed different levels of sympathy for Trump’s idea on Tuesday.

It’s shocking that conservatives won’t bail the GOP establishment out of its Trump jam, isn’t it?

* THE HISTORIC ROOTS OF TRUMP’S MUSLIM BAN: The New York Times has an interesting look at how the U.S.A. has passed legislation in the past banning immigrant groups by nationality, particularly Asians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As one historian puts it:

“We sort of ebb and flow nationally from openness to a surge of anti-immigrant sentiment. We’re in the midst of one of those convulsions.”

It remains to be seen whether we’re seeing a real surge of anti-immigrant sentiment along the lines of previous ones, or whether it’s being exaggerated by media coverage of the GOP primaries. But this bears watching.

* AND TRUMP ISN’T LEAVING THE RACE. GOT IT? Trump, in an interview with the Post:

“I. Will. Never. Leave. This. Race.”

Never? Even after there is a GOP nominee? Careful, Republicans. You’d better not treat Trump unfairly!