Chants of “Send her back,” at a Trump rally this week in North Carolina appear to have struck a nerve within the GOP. Perhaps that is an overstatement; but there do appear to have been wisps of consternation among Republicans in Congress that the man leading their party is actually a racist.
We have seen moments like this before. Republicans raised concerns early in the 2016 nomination fight, when Trump was endorsed by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. When the Access Hollywood tape emerged a few weeks before Election Day, there was a brief stampede for the exit. And then, of course, there was Charlottesville. Each time, national Republians felt that moment of queasiness in the pit of their stomachs. Members of Congress complained to Mike Pence that Trump’s transgression of the moment was a bad look for the GOP; Ivanka advised her father to tone it down; and pundits debated the transitive property: does saying something racist necessarily mean that the President is a racist? But each time, the moment passed, everyone moved on, and support for the President within his party only deepened.
Against that backdrop, Trump’s tweets attacking the four Democrats that have led the charge from the left, and the ensuing chant targeting Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, are just the next iteration of Trump being Trump. He made his bones in New York City politics leveraging racial animus for his own purposes, and thirty years later it landed him in the White House. When he justified his tweets this week by suggesting that “many people agree” with him, he knew what he was talking about. Of course they do, he has trolled the dark side of the American psyche for decades and knows exactly what he is doing.
Trump’s political instincts are cunning. This week, it was more than just the tweets and the chants that rallied the troops; it was the cries of outrage in the media as well. Stoking anger among “the libs” and the media is central to energizing his supporters. But it goes beyond Trump’s base. He also senses that the race card has been devalued over the years from excessive use, and that mainstream Republicans and a fair share of independent voters have grown weary of seeing the epithet of “Racist!” become the Cruciatus Curse of our political debate. Perhaps this week will hurt him in the polls, but he is gambling that cries of racism have less impact than they once did.
Struggles with race and racism have animated American politics and society from the beginning. Racism is codified in our founding documents. It is manifest in the families of the founders. Navigating issues of race, ethnicity and language have been among the greatest challenges of building our multi-racial, multi-ethnic, liberal democracy. It is why the American experiment has been and remains so important to other nations as they struggle with building their own democracies. And it is why a central responsibility of the President has been to seek ways to bring the country together, to bridge those deeply-rooted, partisan divides, even as that President is the head of one political party.
There was a time when Ilhan Omar would have been celebrated by Democrats and Republicans alike. What other nation would take in a child from the streets of Mogadishu, in the midst of Somalia’s terrible civil war — brought to life in the movie Black Hawk Down — and see that child elected to the national parliament? If Ilhan Omar’s life story encapsulates the notion of American Exceptionalism, the treatment of her by Trump and his followers illustrates the other side of the American story. Republicans rallying to pin the blame on Omar’s supposedly anti-Semitic rhetoric seem to be little troubled by the irony of Donald Trump — who emboldened neo-Nazis to rally against Jews in the streets of Charlottesville — becoming the arbiter of anti-Semitic conduct.
While many Democrats continue to struggle to understand the depth of Republican support for Donald Trump, the reason is very simple: he delivers. Back at the Republican National Convention in 2016, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan and Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole spoke confidently about their ability to work with Donald Trump as President. Despite Trump’s history of racist and divisive rhetoric, they believed that at the end of the day, he would deliver on the GOP agenda.
Three years into the Trump Presidency, despite all the stories suggesting that Donald Trump has some how taken over the GOP, one can just as well argue that it is the GOP that has taken over Donald Trump. In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan and Grover Norquist defined the core principles that would animate the GOP for the ensuing decades. It was in the 1980s, well before Trump arrived on the national scene, that the GOP turned away from its “Party of Lincoln” roots. Southern and western conservatism and the Goldwater wing of the party vanquished New England moderates and the Rockefeller wing. Tax cuts, guns and conservative judges became the animating issues; civil rights, the political and moral commitment that defined the Party of Lincoln from the time of its founding through the early 1960s was shunted aside. In 2015, Donald Trump set aside his earlier liberal tendencies — he had at various times voiced his support of gay rights, abortion rights, a wealth tax, and universal healthcare — picked up the Reagan-Norquist playbook and ran with it.
And he has delivered. For economic conservatives — for Paul Ryan and Tom Cole — Trump has delivered tax cuts and deregulation. For social conservatives — for Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham and Tony Perkins — he has delivered the judiciary. In the face of gun shootings that have make lock-downs a regular feature of life in public schools, Trump has stood firm against sweeping gun legislation. And for the Trump “base” of disenfranchised rural and white working class voters — including many who supported Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — he has drawn them to his bosom and channeled their anger and resentments.
For some, it is the Trump rallies — encapsulated in the anti-Omar chants in North Carolina — that suggest that Trump has “taken over” the GOP, but economic and social conservatives would surely argue the opposite. Donald Trump has, in fact, delivered on Reaganism to a greater extent than Reagan or either Bush ever did. Never Trumpers — who are repelled by the incivility that Trump has brought to the GOP and yearn wistfully Ronald Reagan’s embrace of immigrants and the compassionate conservatism of the Georges Bush — are, like Trump, looking to rewrite history. At the direction of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, Reagan and the Bushes each diligently pandered to those widely derided as the Trump base, they just brought them to the party through the kitchen door. The truth is that the GOP of Donald Trump is the GOP, not some bastard spawn. It is the GOP of Reagan, Atwater and Rove, with those base voters now enjoying court-side seats. The racial code and dog whistles are gone, the winks and nods are gone, everything is up-front, in your face, and on Twitter.
Abraham Lincoln, elected during the run-up to the Civil War, understood as well as any President the passions surrounding race that had torn at the Republic since its founding. In his first inaugural address, he closed with his famously optimistic, and cautionary, words:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Faith in the better angels of our nature is where Donald Trump departed from the GOP script. It was central to how Ronald Reagan and the Bushes each presented themselves to the world. They pandered to the dark side of the American story as an election strategy, but were each loath to believe it defined who they were, or who we are as a nation. Faith in the better angels of our nature does nothing for Donald Trump; it is for saps and losers. It is not that Trump has taken over the GOP, it is that he has severed its links to its proud history dating back to its founding as the anti-slavery party, and stripped it of any illusions of its moral core.
In the months ahead, Trump will give Republicans enemies to rally against to keep them engaged. He will claim Ilhan Omar to be the face of Al Qaeda, and Elizabeth Warren the second coming of Hugo Chavez, among myriad other verbal assaults. He will continue to troll the dark side of the nation’s psyche to heighten the sense of urgency for his supporters. Stripped of any illusions, and finally realizing that the Party of Lincoln has been fully transformed into the party of John Wilkes Booth, those Republicans who still believe in the nation’s moral purpose will have a choice to make. They will have to decide whether to endorse the path down which Donald Trump is leading the nation, and which side of the American story they want to have define our future.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.