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Jeb Bush confirms that Republican opposition to Trump isn't about his racism at all

Republican Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush Holds South Carolina Primary Night Gathering Mark Makela/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

More than a month after exiting the race, Jeb Bush is finally endorsing another contender for the Republican nomination for president: Ted Cruz.

In a statement, Bush made it clear that he mainly supported Cruz as an alternative to Donald Trump, praising him as "a consistent, principled conservative who has demonstrated the ability to appeal to voters and win primary contests," and who can "overcome the divisiveness and vulgarity Donald Trump has brought into the political arena."

At first glance, this sounds like he's objecting to the same things about Trump that the mainstream press and left-of-center voters object to: Trump's racism, his demonization of Muslims and other vulnerable minorities, and his appeal to base white nationalist sentiment.

But the fact that Bush is endorsing Cruz suggests his opposition to Trump isn't about anti-racism at all. Indeed, Cruz is also vocal about his anti-Muslim views. By endorsing Cruz as an acceptable candidate, Bush is revealing a lot about what establishment Republicans do and don't find objectionable about Trump, and confirming that #NeverTrump has very little to do with opposing Trump's underlying racist ideas.

Elite Republican opposition to Trump isn't about racism

Bush's insistence that Cruz is capable of "overcom[ing] the divisiveness and vulgarity Donald Trump has brought into the political arena" comes a day after Cruz endorsed using police to racially profile and harass Muslim Americans:

This plan clearly violates the First Amendment, and would almost certainly backfire and fail to prevent any terrorist attacks. But it's certainly divisive, and personally targets and victimizes a vulnerable ethnoreligious minority group.

Then there's the fact that Cruz takes advice from notorious anti-Muslim bigot Frank Gaffney, who has said that President Obama "not only identifies with Muslims, but actually may still be one himself" and has accused everyone from Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin to Grover Norquist of being part of Muslim Brotherhood schemes to infiltrate the US government. Gaffney is currently spearheading an effort to push Norquist off the National Rifle Association's board of directors because of his role "as an agent of influence for assorted Islamic supremacists."

Another Cruz adviser (who's also involved in the anti-Norquist effort) is retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who first came to fame in 2003 when he said of a Muslim warlord in Somalia, "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol." He also said that Islamists hate America "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and roots are Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy named Satan." Boykin has not exactly moderated with age:

The fact that Republican elites like Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Lindsey Graham are all lining up behind a candidate who wants to harass Muslim Americans on the basis of their religion, and whose advisers are a murderer's row of the worst anti-Muslim bigots in America, tells us something about exactly why Donald Trump has become so anathema to establishment conservatives.

Their endorsements clarify that the Republican #NeverTrump movement has basically nothing to do with sincere concern about Trump's racism. If it did, that would also rule Cruz out of contention. The fact that Cruz is somehow acceptable suggests that the real root of the anti-Trump loathing is something else: perhaps a fear that Trump's style is too dictatorial, or concern over his past comments on abortion, health care, and wealth taxation or over his current apostasies on trade and entitlement reform.

This comes through if you read the more intellectual representatives of #NeverTrumpism. "[Trump] invites the right to succumb to a shallow caricature of itself," Yuval Levin writes at National Review, "and to turn its prospects, and the nation’s, over to someone who shows not the slightest inkling of concern for the Constitution, the limits of government power, the freedom of the individual, or the traditions and principles of the American republic — let alone any prudence, discipline, or vision."

Levin alludes to the violence at Trump's rallies, and to his "demagoguery," but Trump's calls to ban Muslim immigration and his racist fearmongering about Mexican Americans go unmentioned. This isn't to say that Trump's — and Cruz's — bigotry don't bother anti-Trump conservatives. But the issue is not deemed of sufficient importance to rule out Cruz as well.

It might be tempting for left-of-center people horrified by the rise of Trump to find common cause with his conservative detractors, especially as the revolt against Trump among Republicans is genuinely unprecedented in scale. But the thing that concerns Democrats and many independents about Trump is that he is a racist and an Islamophobe who relies on white supremacist sentiment and fear to drive his support.

But Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and the like are also lining up behind a candidate who relies on white supremacist sentiment and fear to drive his support. His name just happens to be Ted Cruz.