Trump’s Susana Martinez Problem

susana-martinezDonald Trump was in New Mexico yesterday enjoying himself and creating the sort of havoc that generally only does him good. Anti-Trump protestors smashed a door and threw rocks while attacking his rally at Albuquerque’s convention center. The violence, along with the fact that some of the protesters reportedly waved Mexican flags, created the same sense of America under siege that feeds the anxiety of Trump supporters as well as makes the candidate’s case about the need for tougher immigration policies. Far from hurting him, such scenes help him enormously. Meanwhile, Trump was giving the sort of trademark speech that delights his followers and infuriates foes, in which he mocked Hillary Clinton’s speaking style and called Senator Elizabeth Warren (who has become one of the Democrats’ leading anti-Trump surrogates lately) “Pocahontas.”

It was all typical Trump bluster and anyone who thinks his no-holds-barred style doesn’t help more than it hurts his cause hasn’t been paying attention to events in the last several months. But there was one particular target of his ire that is worthy of special attention: New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez. The governor is one of the holdouts among Republican officeholders who have not yet endorsed their party’s presumptive presidential nominee. But while Trump has toned down his act recently in an attempt to woo some other leading GOP members of the House and Senate that have opposed him just as much as the governor — in particular, House Speaker Paul Ryan — he isn’t playing nice with Martinez. He used his speech to attack her for “not doing the job.” Up until now, Trump’s scorched earth tactics have worked against all his Republican opponents. But now that the nomination is locked up, his decision to try to bully rather than woo Martinez raises questions that speak to his weaknesses heading into the general election, as well as to the future of a GOP that may, win or lose in November, be dominated by Trump.

Trump’s attack on Martinez was a typical Donald misdirection play. Though he tells Republicans he’s a conservative, he often attacks opponents from the left and that’s what happened here. By accusing her of being responsible for the state’s economic problems and an increase in food stamps, he was reading from the Democratic playbook. New Mexico liberals have been frustrated by the two-term governor’s popularity as well as her insistence on governing like a conservative. So for Trump to use these sorts of talking points — as well as blaming her for federal decisions to settle some Syrian refugees in her state — against the chair of the Republican Governors Association and a person who has kept the GOP alive in a state that is increasingly trending blue is an interesting choice.

Of course, since he’s already won the nomination, he didn’t have to attack Martinez at all. But rather than sending an olive branch to the governor or just ignoring her, he gave Martinez the same treatment he previously dished out to competitors like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.

Why did he do it? As we’ve seen in the last several weeks after it became clear that he would be the nominee, Trump has no plans to undergo a personality transplant. Acting presidential is too boring for him, not to mention the fact that his boorish behavior has helped rather than hurt his cause. But creating the party unity that is necessary if he’s going to have a chance of winning the general election requires a degree of diplomacy. Trump is smart enough to know that in order to get unity he can’t bully everyone, and that seems to be his strategy with Ryan. But with Martinez, a Hispanic, and one of the GOP’s most prominent women, he doesn’t seem to think he needs to behave the same way.

The message here is unmistakable and one that seems to be a not-so-subtle signal to his core supporters as well as to opponents. This isn’t so much a dog whistle as it is a neon sign flashing a message that tells both Hispanics and women that the Trump train is more interested in running them over than in getting them to hop on board. Trump’s apologists can talk until they are blue in the face on cable news networks about what a great guy he is and how well he treats Hispanics and women in his employ. But it appears that, when it comes to getting a Republican who is a Hispanic woman to endorse him, he has reverted to his trademark bullying rather than diplomacy.

In Martinez’s case, it’s unlikely to work. An endorsement of Trump in a state where the Hispanic vote is so important isn’t going to help her win a third term in 2018. Perhaps that’s why Trump isn’t bothering even to try to make peace with her. But like a lot of what has worked for Trump in this election cycle, it leads to questions about the impact his tactics might have on the future of the Republican Party.

Trump’s key to victory this year clearly lies in rallying a record number of white males to the polls that haven’t voted before. Whether the millions of angry and fearful white males he needs to materialize in November actually exist or are merely a figment of the imagination of conservatives who wrongly blamed President Obama’s 2012 re-election on the lack of conservative enthusiasm for Mitt Romney has yet to be proven. But the idea that Republicans can write off both the growing Hispanic vote as well as women is a curious formula for electoral success.

Martinez was given a prime speaking spot at the 2012 Republican convention because it was understood she was a model of how they could expand the reach of the party. But in Donald Trump’s GOP, she has become a heretic who must be destroyed.

Given the current polls, one can’t dismiss the possibility that Trump can win even without Hispanic support or while losing the female vote by the sort of margin that would have heretofore be considered a guarantee of defeat. But a Republican Party where a Susana Martinez becomes a persona non-grata is not one that can win elections in the long run. By attacking her in this manner, Trump may get cheers from his core supporters but he is also ensuring a bleak future for the party that he and his backers have hijacked.

Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary.

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