Like every other worthwhile person, I was horrified by the events in Charlottesville and the brazen airing of despicable views and ideologies that during my lifetime have thankfully been relegated to the fringes of public life. It was shocking, as white supremacist terrorist acts should be, and yet I was unable to feel as surprised or outraged as I knew I should be.
Then the violent scenes gave way to podiums and pundits, and the scandal over President Trump’s statements and ongoing courtship with Neo-Nazis helped clarify why tiki-torch wielding racists parading through a city didn’t feel like a sharp departure from normal. We’ve reached a moment that the right has been hurtling towards for decades, and for me the past week has laid bare the unseemly foundation of modern day conservatism.
There’s Something There That Was Always There Before
Trump has distinguished himself among Republicans for saying the quiet parts loud. Sometimes this was literal, like during his convention speech when he screamed “LAW AND ORDER” into the microphone, doing his best imitation of an Aaron Sorkin villain. But as Trump goes about making subtext text, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that in doing so he’s only breaking tradition with Republican rhetoric, not policy.
When Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, he was doing the 5th grade reading level version of Reagan’s “state’s rights” speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi. When he brought white supremacists like Steve Bannon* and Stephen Miller into the White House, he was paying tribute to the race baiting campaigns of Bush the Elder and Bush the Younger. And even as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney distance themselves from the President – without ever saying his name – by condemning the marching white supremacists, they’ve never used their considerable influence to oust the fellow travelers in their own party, such as:
- The Congressman who said people removing Confederate monuments should be lynched
- The first Republican office holder who called Obama a tar baby
- The second Republican office holder who called Obama a tar baby
- The Congressman who filmed a selfie video in front of Auschwitz
- Congressman Steve King
- Newt Gingrich, who – among other things – called Obama a “food stamp president”
- The myriad state Republican officials responsible for racist emails and facebook posts
- Congressman and Presidential Candidate Ron Paul, who was also the author of explicitly racist newsletters
- The near winner of the recent GOP primary for Virginia Governor, and Neo-Confederate, Corey Stewart
- Republicans from the great state of Arizona, starting with the anti-Civil Rights Act Goldwater, continuing with the anti-MLK Day John McCain, and reaching its crescendo with racism virtuoso Sheriff Joe Arpaio
- And, just for good measure, all of the Republicans who – like Trump – are comfortable with the Charlottesville Nazis
The Republican party didn’t gain the support of white supremacists accidentally. It’s a constituency that they’ve quietly, but intentionally, courted for decades. The issue facing the Republican establishment now is how to tactfully continue the arrangement now that the leader of the party has openly embraced bigots, and signaled to his devoted followers that it is ok to do so.
The Right Needs To Splinter, or Be Seen For What They Are
The Trump presidency has been useful for, if nothing else, revealing the true nature of the Republican party. We’re no longer left wondering, for example, whether their criticisms of the Affordable Care Act were real, or simply rhetorical cover for their plutocratic policy aims. Given the pervasiveness of racial animus among both the Republican elite and base, it no longer makes sense to differentiate between those who rely on white supremacist votes, and those who supply them.
If Republicans want to maintain their independence from self-identified Nazis and Neo-Confederates they should do more than tweet their disapproval of what happened in Charlottesville. They could start by censuring the President. National party leaders could announce their opposition to Trump being the Republican standard bearer in 2020. Congressional committees could use their authority to investigate and better understand the violence in Charlottesville, perhaps most importantly by finding out why the police and National Guard failed to prevent violence from breaking out.
But it will take much more than quarantining Trump to show that the movement is serious about rooting out white supremacy. Republicans across the country need to end their campaign against minority voting rights, and abandon their obsession with the myth of voter fraud. They need to sideline people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and restore their commitment to criminal justice reform. Rejoin the majority of the country in supporting immigration reform and a path to citizenship, and condemn the racist immigration proposals of the Trump wing of the Republican Party.
If the GOP wants to regain the benefit of the doubt, and return to the realm where “reasonable people can disagree,” they’ll need to demonstrate an actual commitment to rooting out the white supremacists in their party. Until then, their message is clear: white supremacists should stay out of the headlines but stay in the voting booth.
* While I wrote this, Steve Bannon was pushed out of the White House days after giving an interview calling ethno-nationalists “losers.” I don’t think this impacts my overall point.
(Photo by Conor Lawless)
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