That didn’t take long.
Around 9 p.m. Tuesday, following the Indiana GOP primary, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus declared Donald Trump the “presumptive nominee” and called on the party to rally behind Trump.
Twelve hours later, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire announced through a spokeswoman that she intends to do just that.
Ayotte, although a solidly conservative lawmaker by historical standards, occasionally talks like a moderate. She’s also facing a tough re-election fight in a state that voted twice for Barack Obama and where demographics are making the state’s electorate more sympathetic to Democrats, not less. That makes her quasi-endorsement newsworthy, and not just in New Hampshire.
If Ayotte is closing ranks behind Trump, it’s a safe bet that most of the party establishment will do the same. Some conservative intellectuals (such as journalist Philip Klein) seem determined to hold out, to their credit, and a few governors (such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts) have said they will do the same. But already other supposed moderates, like former ambassador and onetime Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, have said the party should stop fighting the real estate mogul.
Maybe the party leaders backing Trump feel that, as loyal Republicans, they have an obligation to fall in line. Maybe they genuinely believe a Hillary Clinton presidency would be apocalyptic. Maybe they are desperate for the campaign funds that Trump will generate, now that he’s said he will raise money for the party.
Or maybe these Republicans are afraid to alienate voters that Trump has rallied. That would be consistent with recent history. GOP leaders didn’t say no when the conservative base questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace, or insisted on shutting down the government, or risked default on the government’s debt. Why should they start defying the base now that the base has decided it wants Trump?
Whatever their motives, Republicans like Ayotte are making a statement when they rally behind Trump. In fact, it’s a series of statements, and it looks something like this:
They are saying they are OK with a candidate who called for a “complete shutdown” of immigration by Muslims, simply because -- in Trump’s eyes -- their faith makes them threats to national security.
They are saying they are OK with a candidate who said repeatedly that the population of undocumented immigrants includes a high proportion of rapists and murderers, because Mexico sent them over the border deliberately.
They are saying they are OK with a candidate who showed sympathy for violent supporters at his rallies, talking over and over again about the “passion” they showed and offering in some cases to pay their legal fees.
They are saying they are OK with a candidate who speculated that a female reporter asked hostile questions because she was supposedly having her period.
They are saying they are OK with a candidate who made fun of another journalist because of his physical disability.
And they are saying they are OK with a candidate who has publicly used “bimbo,” “fat dog” and “pig” to describe women -- and at one point said “women -- you have to treat them like shit.”
In the coming weeks and months, Ayotte and other Republicans may rationalize their support for Trump by saying his statements were part of an act and not representative of how he really feels. They may tell their friends -- and maybe they will tell themselves -- that Trump’s rhetoric appeals to only a tiny fraction of Republican voters way out on the ideological and organizational fringes of the party.
But none of this would be true. Polls have shown repeatedly that most Americans oppose Trump’s proposed halt to Muslim immigration but, among Republican voters, a majority support it. In one Pew survey, nearly half of Republicans said Muslims living in the U.S. should be subject to greater scrutiny for potential terrorism. In yet another major Pew poll, a majority of Republican respondents said they thought the long-term impact of immigration in the U.S. was negative -- a position, again, at odds with what the public as a whole thinks.
Nor is there any reason to think Trump’s behavior is an aberration. Trump was an Obama birther long before he was a serious Republican candidate. Some of those quotes about women are 20 years old. The bullying, the denigration of other people -- these are constants that run throughout his history as a public figure, going back to the 1990s when he was making cameos at "Wrestlemania" and appearing on "The Howard Stern Show."
Ayotte and the other Trump enablers aren’t eager to discuss any of this. This has been the GOP leadership's m.o. for a long time now — to downplay and disavow ugly arguments, even as they exploit the sentiments beneath them. What remains to be seen is whether, come November, they get away with it.