Gonzalo Curiel. Born and raised in a Midwestern small town. Graduated from the University of Indiana the year before Larry Bird arrived. Practiced law in the Hoosier state for seven years before leaving to fight Mexican drug cartels on behalf of the Department of Justice. Appointed to a state judgeship by Arnold Schwarzenegger and confirmed as a federal judge by a voice vote of the U.S. Senate.
Bore the brunt of a racially charged Donald Trump tirade.
If you’ve been living under a rock, the class action lawsuit against Trump University is being heard before Judge Curiel. He recently ordered records unsealed for public inspection. Trump subsequently erupted.
As he so often does, Trump chose not to attack the merits of Judge Curiel’s ruling, but instead questioned whether he could issue an impartial decision due to his “Mexican heritage.” Trump gave no other reason and didn’t even bother to offer any point of law where the judge may have erred. Because the court ruled against him, Trump lashed out.
Whether Trump is an honest-to-God racist or not has become the dominant topic of conversation for every journalist, political junkie, and basement blogger for the past few weeks. Regardless, it is clear Trump has traded in racist currency since the inception of his campaign. From the language he uses to policy proposals regarding the Mexican border and Muslims, Trump’s campaign is routinely characterized with racial undertones.
Trump obviously believes that fomenting such division will benefit his quest for the White House. Nothing if not an opportunist, Trump happily fed on fear, apprehension, and plain bigotry within the Republican electorate to secure his party’s nomination. And make no mistake, it is a powerful constituency. Many fear the impact immigrants would have on their own jobs, taxes, or religion; a select few feel no hesitation in referring to the President Obama in the most vile language imaginable based solely on his race. Maybe Trump simply recognized that his only path to winning lay in acknowledging and taking advantage of this uncomfortable undercurrent. The more explicitly he acknowledged it, the more he validated those positions and the more votes and ardent supporters he won.
But it appears that Trump hit a wall he hadn’t yet encountered in the form of Judge Curiel. First, Trump attacked a specific individual rather than an amorphous group. Consequently, Judge Curiel’s impeccable personal history undercut Trump’s allegations.
Second, the general election is far different than a primary. In both structure (all states vote on the same day and are winner-take-all) and composition (the self-selected Republican base is much more likely to overlook, if not endorse, his positions than voters as a whole), the general electorate is far more likely to punish Trump for reckless comments.
Finally, Trump attacked a member of the judiciary. Unlike the partisan and political presidential candidates and members of the legislature Trump regularly lambasts, judges maintain a semblance of neutrality and detachment. Consequently, Trump’s heretofore successful tactics aren’t as effective. It is not as easy to cast a judge as “the other side.” While Republicans have long embraced principled opposition to “activist judges,” such a position must be based on the legal merits of a case and the judge’s jurisprudence. Trump referenced neither in his attack and came up short.
The one person we have not heard from is the man at the center of the controversy: Judge Curiel. And that is absolutely proper for a judge to maintain independence from the process. Ironically, his silence makes him look like the first winner against the blowhard presidential candidate.