So it is with the Republican Party and Donald Trump.
True, Trump personifies a fear and hatred of “the other” embodied by some of our history’s more frightening and despicable figures: Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace. This has led to some of our most shameful chapters — lynchings, anti-immigrant violence, the internment of Japanese-Americans. Because such tragedies are so searing, we view them as unique.
But they do not arise from nowhere. Nor did Donald Trump. Those who are shocked by his success have given scant notice to the darker forces which stain our society and roil our politics. Or, more likely, they pretended not to notice.
Most deplorably, the Republican Party.
The terrible tragedies of last week have muted, for all too brief a moment, the racial politics which suffuse the Trump campaign. But they are there, and will persist. So there will never be a better time than now to examine how the Trump became the Republican nominee.
From his entry on the political scene, Trump has left no doubt as to how he proposed to rise. He began by fomenting the birther hysteria against Barack Obama, neatly fusing racism — the fear of Blacks; nativism — Obama must be from Kenya; and xenophobia — our president is a closet Muslim. An avid audience awaited him within the white working-class base of the Republican party — fearful of minorities, immigrants and the tide of globalization. Even now, a near-majority of Republicans believe Obama to be a foreign-born Muslim.
Small wonder, then, that Trump secured the Republican nomination by targeting nonwhites — at home or abroad — as the preeminent threats to our way of life.
He labeled undocumented Mexican immigrants criminals, murderers, and rapists. He promised to deport all 11 million, including children who grew up here. He pledged to build a wall on the border and make the Mexican government pay for it. When his rallies grew “a little boring,” he bragged, “I just say, ‘We will build the wall!’ and they just go nuts.”
Among Republican primary voters, his poll numbers shot upwards.
In the wake of terrorist shootings, he started going after Muslims. He suggested registering American Muslims on a national database. He proposed monitoring Muslim neighborhoods and mosques. He promised to bar all Muslims from entering United States — including refugees from the tragic slaughter in Syria. And he began winning primary after primary.
He fomented violence at rallies, once pledging to pay the legal fees of a man who assaulted a black protester. Ever the opportunist, he paid special attention to protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement. He falsely suggested that the greatest concentration of crime occurs in cities which, not so coincidentally, had a substantial African-American population. And, consistently, he used black demonstrators as foils.
In early May, he completely vanquished his last opposition, and became the GOP’s de facto nominee.
To what, one wonders, did the Republican establishment attribute his astonishing coup?
True, he also inveighed against free trade agreements, and promised to impose tariffs on the Mexicans in Chinese. Even this, of course, had its ration of xenophobia. But no sentient Republican could miss that the predominant share of the GOP electorate had embraced Trump’s war on non-white enemies.
Now he is forcing them to live with it — or not.
Though his offenses against tolerance have become notorious, it is worth taking inventory of what he has said and done since securing the nomination — not simply because of his venom and persistence, but because of the underlying meaning for the Republican Party and our society as a whole.
Not only has Trump continued scapegoating Mexican immigrants, but he gratuitously attacked a particular “Mexican” — the Indiana-born Judge, son of immigrants, presiding over a lawsuit against the consumer fraud which is Trump University. Why? Because, in Trumps telling, “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”
Being Hispanic, he means. It is merely an ironic sidelight that this particular judge, as a prosecutor, risked his life going after a murderous Mexican cartel which smuggled millions of dollars in narcotics into United States.
It is difficult to capture how deeply racist and perverse this is. Trump’s argument is that Hispanic-Americans are uniquely biased against “Trump” by virtue of his own bigotry, and therefore incapable of functioning as jurists. By this logic, any member of an ethnic group attacked by Trump must be shunted to the sidelines.
If there is any doubt of that, Trump stated that a Muslim, too, would be disqualified to judge a case to which he is a party. It is, perhaps, not coincidental that the two judges Trump went after in a prior case were an African-American and a woman.
It seems fair to conclude that Trump harbors a deep antagonism toward certain minority groups. One thing is certain: he is running for president by attacking our most precious, and sometimes most fragile, societal commitment: to treat all people with equity and dignity.
So it seems appropriate to offer as America’s answer the response of Judge Leon Higginbotham, one of our first black federal judges. Faced with an argument that blackness made him biased, Higginbotham answered: “I concede that I am black. I do not apologize for that obvious fact... However, that one is black does not mean, ipso facto, that he is anti-white”.
Nor is Trump, ipso facto, a racist and a bigot. In this way, if no other, he’s a self-made man.
But there is nothing like a tragedy to expose the racist underbelly of Trump’s dank soul — Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino and, most starkly, Orlando.
On learning that a homophobic American Muslim had slaughtered 49 LGBT fellow citizens, Trump’s first reaction was to congratulate himself for being “right on radical Islamic terrorism.” He then proceeded to trumpet his proposal for banning Muslim immigrants by — as is his practice — lying about the immigration process.
Conjuring an imaginary horde of Muslim migrants, he asked: “Can you imagine what they’ll do in large groups, which we’re allowing to, here now?” Claiming that,”there’ll be nothing, absolutely nothing left” of America, he warned: “ We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as a savage killer. We’re importing radical Islamic terrorism into the West through a failed immigration system and through an intelligence community held back by our president.”
Nor did he stop there. Of immigrants, he claimed.” We have no idea where they come from, we have no idea who the hell they are. We know they believe in certain things that we don’t want to believe in.” Two weeks later, he once again concocted a fictional invasion of Syrian refugees: “We’re letting tens of thousands of people come in from Syria, and we don’t know who they are, and many of them are from ISIS”.
All of which was demagoguery riddled with lies, racism and xenophobia.
Since 2011, we have admitted under 5,000 Syrian refugees. Immigrants are carefully screened, and the government keeps detailed records on their numbers and origin. The FBI, Homeland Security, the State Department and national intelligence agencies painstakingly check refugees’ data against security databases.
All this takes 18 months to two years. The screening process for Syrian refugees is particularly arduous. And as Peter Beinart points out: “Since September 11, the United States has accepted 784,000 refugees, not a single one of whom has committed a terrorist act in the United States.”
But let’s be fair to Trump — he casts the same careful eye on Americans of a suspect color or religion. American Muslims, he claims, “know what’s going on” regarding terrorism. For these disloyal Americans he has a warning: “They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people they know are bad. They know it. They have to do it, and they have to do it forthwith.”
In case we missed their treachery, he added. “They’re not reporting people. They have to do that.” Given that this particular group of Americans threatens the rest of us, Trump renewed his call for a blanket surveillance of Muslim communities.
But Trump also targeted another strategically placed non-white American — the president of the United States.
Here too, after all, Trump had been prescient — six years before, he had relentlessly questioned Obama’s religion and national origin. So it was completely in character when Trump claimed that Obama “continues to prioritize our enemies over our allies and, for that matter, the American people.” Indeed, he asserted that our own president may well be a double agent: “Look, we’re led by a man who either is not tough, not smart, or he has something else in mind.”
And what might that be? Despite the fact that Obama has taken out Osama bin Laden and numerous leaders of Al Qaeda and ISIS, Trump charged that when it comes to terrorism “he doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”
In other words, our first black president is either incompetent, or aligned with terrorists who want to kill Americans. Here Trump crosses from racism to a deep sickness of mind and spirit.
In this rancid environment, the racial dog whistles routine to his campaign have gone almost unnoticed. They should not, for they are endemic to Trump’s appeal.
Just last week, one day after the Baton Rouge police shooting, a local sheriff serving as a warm-up speaker for Trump again stoked the embers of anti-black feeling. As reported in the Washington Post, “Jones asked the crowd if they would feel safe walking down the sidewalk in Chicago, Baltimore or Washington. Each time, the crowd bellowed: ‘No!’ Jones called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and said that he wishes he could deport some of the ‘homegrown criminals” in his country. He praised Trump as someone who is going to ‘take our country back...’”
From whom, precisely? The answer is all too obvious. To put it mildly, in an age of police shootings and racial violence — tragically underscored in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and Dallas — a presidential campaign which promotes further antagonism is the very opposite of what this country needs. Any decent candidate would disclaim such talk forthwith.
Trump said nothing. Indeed, he said nothing whatsoever about the death of black men in Baton Rouge or St. Paul until the tragedy in Dallas. This was the very culmination of the horrors of race hatred — police monitoring a peaceful protest while protecting the protesters, only to be killed by a lone gunman bent on his own grotesque version of “revenge” against whites.
The murder of five white police officers by a black man spurred Trump, at last, to issue an anodyne statement which noted, without apparent irony, that “racial tensions have gotten worse, not better.” A fair example of why this is so came from Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia and Trump’s state chairman: “Liberal politicians who label police as racists — specifically Hillary Clinton and Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam — are to blame for essentially encouraging the murder of these police officers tonight.”
In any event,Trump’s attempt at grace in the wake of tragedy was predictably short-lived. Speaking as a leader should in such an anguished national moment, Barack Obama called for mutual understanding, suggesting that Americans were not as divided as some suggest. Promptly, Trump reverted to the moral low road of demagoguery and exploitation.
The president, he brayed, is “living in the world of the make-believe.” He then intimated that Obama and Hillary Clinton bore some unspecified responsibility for the tragedies themselves: “Look what is happening to our country under the WEAK leadership of Obama and people like Crooked Hillary Clinton. We are a divided nation!” He said nothing, of course, about his own strenuous efforts to become America’s divider-in-chief.
So what have the leaders of the Republican Party had to say about Donald Trump?
Confronted with Trump’s various bigotries some, like Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey, took to scampering past reporters. John Cornyn invoked a vow of silence until election day. And many of those who spoke became so mired in hypocrisy that it lent scampering and silence a certain grace.
Paul Ryan denounced Trump twice — calling his attack on Judge Curiel “the textbook example of a racist comment,” and objecting to his anti-Muslim rhetoric as contrary to Republican principles. And then continued to support him.
With respect to Curiel, Mitch McConnell said “I couldn’t disagree more.” Newt Gingrich called Trumps’ attack “inexcusable.” Bob Corker said of Trump “he’s going to have to change.” Senator Tim Scott, a leading black Republican, called Trump’s statements “racially toxic.”
All continue to support him.
Their behavior is, to say the least, telling. As William Kristol put it: “Official position of the leadership of the Republican Party: Trump is an inexcusable bigot, and Trump should be our next president.”
But really, is this all that surprising?
It shouldn’t be. For half a century now, beyond doubt or ambiguity, the GOP has trafficked in coded bigotry.
This began after the civil rights legislation of1964, when the party recast itself as the defender of the South’s established racial order. Whether couched in terms of “states rights,” “local control,” or “law and order,” this appeal triggered a mass migration of millions of Southern whites to the GOP.
They had not suddenly discovered, through some blinding and simultaneous stroke of insight, the virtues of a party that they and their ancestors had collectively despised since the Civil War began. Like that war itself, this historic turning point was, preeminently, about race.
It transformed voting patterns - and the Republican Party. The GOP’s “Southern strategy” elected Richard Nixon. So, too, Ronald Reagan, who opened his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi where, barely over a decade before, three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered. This otherwise puzzling choice was hardly inadvertent — once in office, the Reagan administration assiduously cut down on affirmative action and the overall enforcement of civil rights laws.
But racial friction was hardly confined to the south. As George Wallace demonstrated, a toxic brew of prejudice, economic insecurity and fear of crime could spread the politics of racial antagonism nationwide. Historically, the Republican Party had been a strong proponent of civil rights. But over time, and with many honorable exceptions, the party made room for voters, and politicians, who were indifferent or antagonistic — however they couched it — to the concerns of black Americans.
This gave rise to a vicious cycle: the more hostile the party became to African-Americans, the more African-Americans voted against it. And so the GOP mined fear of minorities with ever greater zeal, hoping to gain an ever greater share of the white electorate.
In the 1990s, this trend began incorporating anti-Hispanic sentiment. This started with California Governor Pete Wilson’s crusade for a ballot initiative to deny undocumented immigrants public education, non-emergency healthcare, and other government services. Among white Californians, Wilson’s pyrrhic victory was followed by a popular reaction against Hispanic immigration in general; a second ballot initiative which prohibited public universities from giving preferences to racial and ethnic minorities; and a third initiative which cut back on bilingual education.
The same chain reaction began occurring nationwide. Politicians like Tom Tancredo, Joe Arpaio, Jeff Sessions and Steve King made anti-immigrant rhetoric a centerpiece of their appeal. Over time this permeated the party — since 2006, the GOP has blocked proposals to expand legal avenues to immigration, focusing exclusively on hardening physical barriers on the southern border.
There is, of course, a vast difference between controlling our borders, and trafficking in racial stereotypes which demean a particular group. The latter was epitomized by Congressman King: for every Mexican valedictorian crossing the border, he declared, “there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” And so, too often, the debate over borders became about race.
As more Republican voters became hostile to immigration, both legal and illegal, more Hispanics became hostile to the party. Caught in a demographic death spiral, the GOP became ever more dependent on a shrinking share of the electorate — white voters.
All this was accelerated by the ravages of globalization. America’s financial elite — the Republican donor classes in particular — embraced free trade as a key to prosperity. Whatever the larger truth of this, globalization caused dislocation among the American working class. But instead of trying to ameliorate this through retraining or reeducation for the new economy, many Republican politicians cast minorities and immigrants as a cause of working-class travails — often shrouded in rhetoric about the “takers” who robbed America’s “makers.”
More broadly, the GOP embraced an economic agenda — tax cuts, deregulation, trade agreements, and cutting back entitlement programs — which served its donor class, but not its blue-collar base. And so its various means of appealing to racial fears became essential to the glue which held together constituencies with conflicting economic interests.
By accident or design the Republican Party had morphed into a political sorcerer’s apprentice — it had conjured the demons of race, and now could not break the spell among its aggrieved base voters. Our long and painful grappling with race had come to divide the two parties — not simply because minorities were trending Democratic, but because racial attitudes among party loyalists in general — including among whites — were sharply different.
Increasingly, the GOP became the home of white voters driven by racism, nativism and xenophobia. Hence the party’s fervor for voter suppression laws calculated to keep minorities from voting — as racial animus distorted the party, the party began distorting the law. Too late did Republican professionals, foreseeing doom in presidential races, call for demographic outreach. As a party, the GOP was addicted to racism.
Thus the telling silence of most Republican officeholders when young black men were shot by police under questionable circumstances or, like Trayvon Martin, by self-appointed vigilantes. Decency did not demand that they prejudge the particular case, or reflexively condemn police tasked with a difficult and dangerous job. But it did, at the least, require prominent Republicans to express concern for justice — including a genuine interest in whether the toxins of race might have fueled these incidents, and how we as a society should respond.
The need for such an inquiry has long been painfully obvious. One must start by acknowledging all the good police who risk their lives to protect the rest of us, and by deploring all violence — and threats of violence — directed against police. But any white American who knows a black male likely knows someone who has been stopped by police for no good reason. And if that African-American has a black son, he will have cautioned that child about how to act if confronted by police, warning that a misstep might be fatal.
Any white American who does not know these things has never asked. Let alone asked himself to imagine the divided soul of a black policeman who faces dangers like those which erupted in Dallas, yet must warn his own son against the dangers posed by bad or careless police.
One role of a genuine leader is to ask such questions for all of us, not least in the wake of tragedies like those in Louisiana and Minnesota. But among Republican officeholders, there has been precious little of that. One can but conclude that too many erstwhile leaders chose to tacitly profit from racial polarization by maintaining a timid silence in a political environment where, all too often, complex and painful questions of race are — literally and figuratively — reduced to black and white.
So it is distressing, but unsurprising, that the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas blamed the Dallas shootings not just on the shooter, but on the peaceful protesters the police were protecting, and on Black Lives Matter protesters in general. By doing so, he deepened the tragedy of the murders, and of racial division writ large, by further subtracting from our well of common humanity and understanding.
Donald Trump did not start any of this — far from it. His perverse genius was to see what the Republican Party had become, and to exploit this among the party’s base without ambiguity or shame.
If he had any doubt, it was resolved by the GOP’s response to the blatant nativism and racism of his birther attack on Barack Obama — the muted demurrals, the cringing silence, the odious evasions, the crafty exploitation. Trump simply built on this by stressing attacks on Muslims, proffering another scapegoat to an all too willing audience of Republican primary voters.
This, too, was hardly novel within the GOP. Even before his rise, Republicans in Congress blocked administration efforts to take in more refugees from Syria. And in the wake of Orlando, House Republicans proposed to ban all refugee resettlement absent congressional approval, echoing Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration. A party which had lost its political and moral core was, at last, ripe for a man like Donald Trump.
And so he has summoned the whirlwind. Where before the party spoke of race in whispers, Trump embraced racism with a full throated roar. It is the Republican nominee — not Hispanics or immigrants or Muslims or aggrieved black protesters — who threatens American values.
But among too many Republicans, his offense is against decorum. The GOP had already become the home of bigots and bigotry, all dressed up for a garden party. Only now they are fearful of the help.
It is time for the GOP to face the truth, or face extinction.
Author: Richard North Patterson