It has become something of a truism that everyone is a little bit racist. If this is true, then a meaningful accusation of racism requires showing that a person has crossed a threshold in regards to her racism. As might be suspected, there is no precise line—to require one to exist would be to fall into the line drawing fallacy. It suffices that clear cases of racism can be recognized and that less-clear cases can be rationally debated.
While Trump has not donned a white hood or burned crosses, it has been claimed that he has a track record of racism. During his run to be the Republican nominee, he routinely said things that certainly appear racist and that would have been career ending for almost any other American politician. In June, 2016 Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased against him because of Curiel’s Mexican ancestry. While this sort of attack is a standard Trump maneuver, the Republican establishment believes they need the Hispanic vote and they are aware that attacking Hispanics for being Hispanic is not a winning strategy. As such, it is not surprising that Paul Ryan criticized Trump, saying that his remark was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Other Republican leaders also condemned the remark. Such overt racism is certainly not approved by the Republican establishment.
While Ryan and others have condemned Trump’s remark, they have also endorsed him for President. Other Republicans have refused to do so and some have even embraced a “never Trump” view. While the opposition to Trump seems quite rational, those who condemn him while still endorsing him present a more interesting situation that is worth some consideration.
On the face of it, two sensible explanations for the simultaneous condemnation and endorsement would be pragmatic politics and party loyalty. Trump is the anointed Republican Presidential candidate and backing him would seem to both the practical choice and the choice of a party loyalist. Condemning him would be a way of maintaining some moral distance; thus this would be a case of wanting to praise the cake and condemn it, too. This can be a risky strategy: if Trump wins, he will certainly remember the condemnations. If Trump loses in a spectacular sinking of his political ship, the endorsements could serve as tethers dragging others down along with the wreck.
Those more cynical than I might venture that those who endorse Trump while disavowing his racist remarks are condemning not his racism, but his overt and clumsy racism. This is a rejection of style and not content. But, suppose that the condemnation is actually of the racism. This would seem to raise a moral concern for those that are endorsing Trump.
If Paul Ryan and others have disavowed Trump because they regard racism as wrong, they face the challenge of morally justifying endorsing someone who engages in immoral behavior. One way this could be done is by arguing that Trump’s relentless racist remarks are a minor flaw relative to his other virtues, thus he can be endorsed in good conscience. Given the revelations about Trump University (which have resulted in an upcoming trial with Curiel as the judge) and other facts about Trump, this seems like a problematic answer.
Another way this could be done is to argue that although Trump is to be morally condemned, he is still morally superior to Hillary. That is, Trump is the lesser of two evils and endorsing him increases the odds that the lesser evil will win. I am not sure how Trump would feel about being cast as a lesser evil—presumably he would want to be the greatest evil. This view would require establishing that Hillary Clinton is morally worse than Trump—something that could certainly be argued.
A third way is to argue that the terrible consequences of electing Hillary (whether she is morally better or worse than Trump) justify backing Trump. That is, backing him would result in a lesser evil in regards to consequences. This is different from voting for someone who is lesser in evil, although the two can obviously be connected. The greater a person’s evil, the greater evil they are likely to try to bring about. But, a person who is less evil might bring about worse consequences than someone who is a worse person.
A final way is to contend that the moral obligation of party loyalty requires a Republican leader to endorse the nominee, even if the nominee engages in behavior that must be condemned on moral grounds. To use the obvious analogy, this is similar to how the obligations of family can require standing up for a morally problematic relative.