How Republicans Trumped Themselves

You can’t complain just because somebody demagogues better than you do.

This week the airwaves were full of Republicans wringing their hands: What can the Party do about the wave of bigotry and hatred that Donald Trump has unleashed on their presidential primary race? How can they avoid a backlash that could wash away their 2016 chances?

That sentiment had been brewing for months, but it came to a head last Monday afternoon, when Trump made his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. So let’s start there: Exactly what did Trump propose?

Keeping Muslims out. His initial announcement wasn’t very specific — Trump’s proposals seldom are — and the first campaign spokesperson who elaborated said that American Muslims who leave the country wouldn’t be able to come back. (“Mr. Trump says ‘everyone’.”) But Trump backed off of that. So fine, Shaq can attend the Rio Olympics if he wants, and Dave Chappelle can do a show in London. They don’t have to quit America for good because of their religion.

But if a businessman from Indonesia wants to come over to negotiate a deal, or his wife wants to shop on Rodeo Drive, or his children want to see Disney World or study engineering at Purdue — no. They can’t come, because they’re Muslims. Now, their passports don’t have MUSLIM stamped on them, so it’s not clear how we’d know to keep them out. (Asking would only keep out the honest Muslims, which kind of misses the point. Maybe the Trump administration could require everybody who goes through customs to spit on a Qu’ran or something.) But let’s not get lost in the details of enforcement. Trump hasn’t thought about them, so why should we?

Trump supporters wave off criticism by pointing out that the ban is supposed to be temporary. But Trump defined the end point as “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. When CNN’s Don Lemon asked what that meant, Trump replied:

Why is there such hatred and such viciousness? Why is somebody willing to fly airplanes into the World Trade Center? … Where does this hatred come from? Why does it come? We need to figure it out.

In other words, lifting the ban is tied to a question from 14 years ago, one that has been answered many times, but with an answer that Trump and his followers don’t like. Why do they hate us? Because for decades we overthrew their attempts at democratic governments and installed brutal dictators who would sell us oil. Because our troops kicked down their doors and dragged their fathers off to hellholes like Abu Ghraib. Because we send our killer drones wherever we want, and deny that most of the people we kill are innocent. In short, many of the people who hate us have very good reasons that Trump and his supporters have no interest in doing anything about, except possibly adding to them.

So basically, Trump’s ban would stay in place until he’s willing to learn things he doesn’t want to know. That doesn’t sound very temporary to me.

This time he’s done it. The immediate talking-head response to Trump’s proposal was that this time he had finally gone too far: The American people would recoil in horror at the thought of turning away refugees and immigrants and students and tourists because we don’t approve of their religion, a religion shared by millions of loyal American citizens, decorated American soldiers, and two members of Congress.

Well, most of the American people, maybe. Whether or not they are horrified, 57% told an NBC/WSJ poll that they disagree with keeping Muslims out of the country, while only 25% agree. (Count CNBC pundit Larry Kudlow among those who disagree, but only because he wants something more sweeping: “I say seal the borders. … We need a wartime footing if we are going to protect the American homeland.” And Laura Ingraham: “I’d do a pause on all immigration.”)

However, this is a primary campaign, not a general election. And Republican respondents were split: 38% for Trump’s proposal and 39% against. So in a multi-candidate field, the Muslim ban seems to be helping him. His lead in the RCP polling average is as big as it has ever been.

Locking up the racist/fascist vote. The anti-Muslim proposal increased the number of people willing to describe Trump as either a racist or a fascist — a term I discussed two weeks ago. But whatever you think of that usage, the undeniable racists and fascists have started welcoming Trump to their ranks. Former KKK leader David Duke has endorsed Trump, saying that he “understands the real sentiment of America”.

Buzzfeed reports:

Visitors to the website for the Council of Conservative Citizens — a white nationalist group cited by Charleston church shooter Dylan Roof — will find a steady stream of pro-Trump articles.

BF quotes the white supremacist website American Renaissance:

If Mr. Trump loses, this could be the last chance whites have to vote for a president who could actually do something useful for them and for their country.

and neo-Nazi Stormfront radio personality Don Advo:

whether or not Trump wins, his campaign is “gonna give people the ability to come openly out of the shadows and really work very hard for something that will have a lasting effect.”

“This anger, this fire, is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s not going to go away at all. And that has not been noticed by the neocons — or perhaps we should them neo-Cohens — in the Republican Party.”

The Establishment still doesn’t understand. Republican establishment types may not grasp the implications of being “neo-Cohens” yet, but they finally do seem to be getting the message that Trump could be nominated, with catastrophic short-and-long-term effects on the Party. A year ago, it seemed possible that Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio might finesse a campaign that appealed to the Republicans’ Southern white base without being so blatantly bigoted as to drive Hispanics and all other non-whites and non-Christians into a coalition against them. But that option has pretty well vanished. (Second place in national polls and first place in Iowa have been taken by Ted Cruz, who is not that different from Trump.)

What Republicans still don’t seem to grasp, though, is that they did this to themselves. William Greider traces the problem back to the deal between Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond that created the modern GOP, the “Southern strategy”. All that time, country-club Republicans and racist working-class whites have had little in common, but

Nixon and his successors hid behind ideology and obscured the contradictions by pursuing a strategy I would call “no-fault bigotry.” Every now and then, especially in election seasons, the Republicans played the race card in dog-whistle fashion to smear Democrats, with savage effect. The GOP never attempted to repeal civil-rights legislation but sought cheap ways to undermine enforcement and remind whites, South and North, that the party was on “their” side.

So what caused the current rebellion in the GOP ranks? It finally dawned on loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers. Their causes always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The GOP made multiple promises and fervent speeches on the social issues, but, for one reason or another, the party establishment always failed to deliver. … the Republican establishment brought this crisis on itself by cynically manipulating its own rank and file.

Paul Krugman echoes the point:

But there is a strong element of bait-and-switch to this strategy. Whatever dog whistles get sent during the campaign, once in power the G.O.P. has made serving the interests of a small, wealthy economic elite, especially through big tax cuts, its main priority — a priority that remains intact, as you can see if you look at the tax plans of the establishment presidential candidates this cycle.

Sooner or later the angry whites who make up a large fraction, maybe even a majority, of the G.O.P. base were bound to rebel … So along comes Donald Trump, saying bluntly the things establishment candidates try to convey in coded, deniable hints, and sounding as if he really means them.

And Timothy Egan writes:

What [Trump has] done is to give marginalized Americans permission to hate. He doesn’t use dog whistles or code. His bigotry is overt. But the table was set by years of dog whistles and code. The very “un-American” sentiment that Republican elders now claim to despise has been a mainstay of conservative media for at least a decade.

When truth stops mattering. One more point is needed to complete the picture: the Republican embrace of post-truth politics. A party that exploits ridiculous conspiracy theories to energize its base — Birtherism, known falsehoods about Benghazi, Obama is a Muslim, the persecution of American Christians, the “war on cops” — has no defense when a better liar comes along.

Republican Congressman Deven Nunes has only been in office since 2002, but he reports a startling change in his communications from constituents.

“I used to spend ninety per cent of my constituent response time on people who call, e-mail, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation,” Nunes said. “Ten per cent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head.” The overwhelming majority of his constituent mail is now about the far-out ideas, and only a small portion is “based on something that is mostly true.” He added, “It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”

This trend may have gotten worse recently, but it isn’t new. David Frum wrote about it in 2011:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

And AutoStraddle‘s Heather Hogan more recently described the effect on a personal level:

Over the last ten years, everyone I know has lost a friend or family member or mentor to Fox News. Like me, they have watched helplessly as people they love have become part of the conservative punditry herd and, over time, traded their compassion for paranoia; their thoughtful opinions for manufactured outrage; and their empathy for hateful rhetoric.

It seems quaint now that, back in 2008, John McCain corrected a questioner who said that she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because he was “an Arab”. He defended Obama as “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues”. (Trump, facing an even more outrageous questioner this September, did nothing of the kind. He later criticized McCain’s response, saying McCain was “harsh” when he “ripped the microphone out of the woman’s hands”. Actually, McCain reached for the microphone while saying, “No, ma’am.”)

But the McCain of 2008 was already a dinosaur in Republican circles. His younger running mate, Sarah Palin, catered to misperceptions of her audience, understanding that anything goes if it whips up your supporters.

Eight years later we have Donald Trump, who doesn’t know or care much about reality, but is really good at whipping up his supporters. Unreality, along with the irrational fears and passions it commands, is a powerful weapon in politics. The problem is that no one can own it. If you use it, you have no safe refuge when someone turns it against you.

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  • wesley  On December 14, 2015 at 10:38 am

    The quote I like to use to describe the situation comes from a well known horror trope – “The call is coming from inside the house.” I think it’s particularly fitting, as the GOP problems are self-inflicted.

  • Josh  On December 14, 2015 at 3:54 pm

    Nunes’s comments are ironic, Tea Party nut that he is.


  • By If | The Weekly Sift on December 14, 2015 at 11:50 am

    […] week’s featured posts are “How Republicans Trumped Themselves” and “The Leadership We […]

  • […] Instead of mapping out policy differences, I found myself describing the difference between hucksters (Trump) and crackpots (Carson). I looked at models of fascism, and discussed how the Trump campaign did or didn’t fit them. I tried to figure out what leadership means to me, and what kind of leader we should be looking for. I traced the history of freedom rhetoric, and why it so often runs counter to rights. And whether it qualifies as fascist or not, how the Trump electorate has been building for years, and is the logical culmination of Republican politics. […]

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