“EMERGENCY,” screamed the subject line on the fundraising email. “Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner, and that’s TERRIFYING.” The League of Conservation Voters, like groups and candidates left and right, was using Trump to raise money.
But here’s the thing. I’m not terrified. I’m not even surprised at the Trump phenomenon, no matter how many hyperbolic all-caps words you throw my way.
What does surprise me is how so many national political reporters and pundits more or less accept the narrative peddled by national Republicans that Trump represents an unprecedented and hostile takeover of the modern Republican Party. The media assists by portraying the New York business mogul as something unrecognizable and bizarre.
"Trump’s candidacy is a natural evolution — and an accurate manifestation — of the modern GOP."
To me, Trump’s candidacy is a natural evolution — and an accurate manifestation — of the modern GOP. It’s just that, in the past, the party deftly disguised its bigotry. Trump does not.
The GOP has been exploiting race by nurturing racism for at least 50 years, since LBJ was said to have prophetically lamented that the Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation as its punishment for passing civil rights legislation.
And for the past 15 years — since the 9/11 attacks — the GOP has similarly contributed to and profited from a simmering xenophobia in the United States. Reasonable discussions on immigration policy, as a result, are unthinkable within the party.
Trump and his resume of hatred is more of the same. It is just that Trump doesn’t bother with nuance, filters or, in what has become a cliché, the “dog whistles” of coded communication employed by Republicans.
What startles me is that so much of the national press, often maligned for liberal bias, seems to buy the master narrative by national Republican leaders that they, the GOP grownups, are aghast at Trump’s bullying and coarseness, and that, somehow, traditional Republicans such as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio have to save the party and country from ruin by wresting the presidential nomination from Trump.
The chutzpah of GOP leaders knows no bounds. Trump has recently been ridiculed for not aggressively distancing himself from the endorsement of a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard named David Duke. House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, part of the party cabal hoping to derail Trump, took him to task.
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games,” Ryan said after a meeting of House Republicans. “They must reject any group or cause that is built on bigotry. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”
That descriptor might work if Abraham Lincoln had led the South during the Civil War.
Ryan’s claim is as preposterous as any by Trump, and that’s a pretty high bar. The Republican Party decided decades ago that if it was going to succeed in its primary mission — protecting the wealthy from interference in the form of taxes, labor unions, and regulations — it needed to distract Americans of more modest means from its preferential treatment of the rich.
So Republicans have long demonized people of color. The affable Ronald Reagan was especially adept at it. In 1980, he symbolically launched his official campaign near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the KKK had once lynched three civil rights volunteers. In the same campaign, he repeatedly talked about a “Chicago welfare queen” with a Cadillac and multiple identities for collecting government benefits, playing to bigoted white delusions about black women living off the hard-working taxpayer. The story was mostly fabricated, but hey, “Dutch” was an engaging storyteller.
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Anyone who recalls 1988 knows the story of how the campaign of George H.W. Bush used a television ad about Willie Horton, a convicted black felon serving a life sentence for murder. Horton escaped and committed a rape while on a weekend-furlough program. Then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, had supported the furlough program, and the racial undertone was unmistakable.
And then there is the unrelenting eight-year Republican campaign to delegitimize our first African-American president. It started with an initial conspiracy to prevent any bipartisan success that might help President Obama pull the country’s fractured politics back together.
Race was later instrumental in the genesis of the tea party and has animated everything since. As a result, this president, an erudite, center-left pragmatist, is assailed by Republicans as a failed, America-hating socialist.
The media seems to largely accept an equal-blame narrative as if the sides are equally credible, an example of false equivalency in the timid he-said, she-said practice of journalism.
After Super Tuesday, the New York Times quoted Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston University professor and author of a new history of the Republican Party, on the split in the GOP. She predicted a rupture that has the party of Trump pitted against the more traditional, moderate party, and she mentioned names such as Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.
Yes, I thought, because Ike, supreme commander of the D-Day invasion and a mature, cautious politician, so resembles Cruz and Rubio, two warmongering, far-right lightweights.
Then, matching the Abe Lincoln reference for audacity, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat actually blamed Obama for the rise of Trump this year.
Trump’s campaign, he argued, is a “kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar.”
After fully developing this Alice-in-Wonderland thesis, Douthat allows: “Bigotry inclined some of these voters against Obama from the start, or encouraged them to think the worst of him eventually.”
While all this was happening, another Wisconsin congressman was apparently not listening to Ryan on racial tolerance. Glenn Grothman was among a handful of House members last week to vote against naming a North Carolina post office in honor of Maya Angelou, the black author, poet and civil rights activist. He cited alleged leftist tendencies and ties to Malcolm X, a minister and human rights activist.
So yes, but for the ugly utterances of Donald Trump, the Republican Party would still be its traditional, tolerant self, the 21st century political home of Abraham Lincoln.