In West Virginia, Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of creating jobs for “China people” and getting donations from his “China family.” (McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan.) In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams drives around in a bus he promises to fill with “illegals” who will be deported to Mexico. On the rear is stamped: “Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molestors [sic], and other criminals on board.” In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate (and former Maricopa County sheriff) Joe Arpaio is a proud “birther” with a history of profiling and abusing Hispanic migrants. Vice President Pencerecently called Arpaio “a great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” In Wisconsin, Republican House candidate Paul Nehlen runs as a “pro-white Christian American candidate.”
That’s the opening paragraph of a column by Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and a conservative who is appalled at what has become of his party, and what it is doing to the nation.
Read that paragraph again. Gerson admits, “Yes, these are fringe figures. But they are fringe figures in a political atmosphere they correctly view as favorable. In the Republican Party, cranks and bigots are closer to legitimacy than at any time since William F. Buckley banished the John Birch Society.”
Gerson easily could have provided additional current examples. We are sliding into a dangerous situation as a nation, and although Gerson didn’t take the time to show how this trend has been encouraged by the Republican Party for several decades, he rightly examines Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency as the precipitating factor for the danger we face now:
Whatever else Trumpism may be, it is the systematic organization of resentment against outgroups. Trump’s record is rich in dehumanization. It was evident when he called Mexican migrants “criminals” and “rapists.” When he claimed legal mistreatment from a judge because “he’s a Mexican.” (Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel was born in Indiana.) When he proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” When he attacked Muslim Gold Star parents. When he sidestepped opportunities to criticize former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. When he referred to “very fine people” among the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville. When he expressed a preference for Norwegian immigrants above those from nonwhite “shithole countries.”
This is more than a disturbing pattern; it is an organizing political principle. And it has resulted in a series of radiating consequences.
First, it has given permission for the public expression of shameful sentiments. People such as Blankenship, Williams, Arpaio and Nehlen are part of a relatively (and thankfully) small political group. But the president has set boundaries of political discourse that include them and encourage them. Even when Trump opposes their candidacies, he has enabled the bolder, more confident expression of their bigotry. The Trump era is a renaissance of half-witted intolerance. Trump’s Christian supporters in particular must be so proud.
Second, Trump’s attacks on outgroups have revealed the cowardice of a much broader faction within the GOP — those who know better but say little. Some Republican leaders (see House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin) have been willing to criticize specific instances of Trump’s prejudice. But few — and very few with a political future — have been willing to draw the obvious conclusion that Trump is prejudiced, or to publicly resist the trend toward prejudice among the GOP base.
Third, Trump’s attitudes toward diversity have moved the center of gravity of the whole GOP toward immigration restrictionism. In Republican Senate primaries such as the one in Indiana, candidates have engaged in a competition of who can be the most exclusionary. Mainstream attitudes toward refugees and legal immigration have become more xenophobic. Trump has not only given permission to those on the fringes; he has also changed the Republican mean to be more mean.
Gerson’s solution? Waiting for a Republican leader who will show empathy, concern for the common good, and seek unity.
Yes, we need empathetic leaders who seek the common good. But “waiting” is no solution. We must take responsibility. And we usually have to choose between a god-awful candidate like the ones in the first paragraph and someone who may be a person of better character but who likely has little understanding of the great storm of destruction headed our way. Right now, the Republican Party is dominated by leaders whose denial of science threatens the next hundred generations, and who show a growing tendency to promote racism, xenophobia, and other forms of disgusting bigotry. My response? Vote. Them. All. Out.
Photo: Creative Commons license; credit Susan Melkisethian