The only conceivable path Donald Trump has to re-election next year is to continue to fire up faithful fans by invoking his dystopian view of a nation threatened by an immigrant horde determined to storm the southern border and wreck havoc on America. It is the one constant theme of his presidency and the overriding theme of his State of the Union speech this week, a speech laced with words like bloodthirsty, sadistic, venomous and chilling.
Trump has perfected the politics of resentment, fear and scapegoating that Republicans have been shoveling ever more aggressively toward their “base” since Barry Goldwater invoked “extremism in defense of liberty” more than fifty years ago.
That the image of the “lawless state of our southern border” is at odds with the facts hardly seemed to bother cheering Republicans in the House chamber Tuesday night. Republicans have largely embraced Trump’s resentment theory of politics, which is exemplified by his demonization of refugees and immigrants, while they have simultaneously tied the party’s future to Trump’s frayed coattails.
The overheated rhetoric about border threats, of course, also clashes with Trump’s claims about the strength of the American economy and his calls for unity, the issue that members of Idaho’s congressional delegation chose to emphasize in their reaction.
By general consensus of fact checkers the biggest whooper in Trump’s speech was his claim that a border wall built during the George W. Bush administration had reduced violent crime in El Paso, Texas. But, the actual statistics show that violent crime in El Paso – one of the safest larger cities in America – had actually plummeted before the barrier was constructed. Such twisting of reality helps explain why those who represent the border, Texas Republican Will Hurd for example, reject Trump’s wall as a waste of money, an ineffective simplistic symbolic fix for a complex problem.
While Trump did attempt the rhetoric of bipartisanship in the face of another looming government shutdown over funding the wall he offered no path out of the political dead end he himself has created. He avoided mention of the declaration of a national emergency, a tactic likely illegal and surely to be immediately challenged, but he left that explosive option on the table.
That Republicans actually tolerate talk of a declaration of national emergency over Trump’s failure to secure a policy objective that he could not accomplished when his party controlled Congress is Exhibit A in how completely the GOP has abandoned common sense, old fashioned conservatism and the Constitution. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham recently actually said Trump “must” invoke emergency powers to construct a border wall “if the White House and Congress fail to reach a deal.”
Idaho Senator Jim Risch also seems resigned to a Trump strategy that will include a national emergency. Risch predicted recently to KBOI radio’s Nate Shelman that the president’s Constitutional overreach was likely to happen, and apparently that is just fine with him.
“I think that the President has figured out that (House Speaker) Nancy (Pelosi) is not going to give the President a dime for the wall,” Risch said. “They hate this president so badly, that they won’t do anything for him, or give him anything that makes it look like a victory, so they are not going to vote for it. They’re happy with the shutdown.”
That is typical of Risch’s constant partisan gaslighting – the super partisan blaming others for partisanship – as well as his acquiescence to all things Trump and it begs the question conservative columnist George Will asked recently about Graham and could have asked about Risch.
“Why do they come to Congress, these people such as Graham,” Will wrote recently. “These people who, affirmatively or by their complicity of silence, trifle with our constitutional architecture, and exhort the president to eclipse the legislative branch, to which they have no loyalty comparable to their party allegiance?”
Once again history provides some perspective if we’re willing to understand what is at stake. In the early 1970s, in a true bipartisan effort, Senators Frank Church of Idaho, a Democrat, and Charles Mathias of Maryland, a Republican, worked for months to craft legislation – the National Emergencies Act – ensuring that Congress and not a president will define and supervise a true national emergency. The two senators co-chaired a Special Committee on the Termination of National Emergencies, determined to unwind generations of presidential emergency declarations dating back to the Great Depression. In their view such open-ended exercise of one-person power created vast opportunities for Constitutional overreach by the kind of president the nation now suffers. Their subsequent legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House and unanimously in the Senate.
Church and Mathias, apropos of the current moment, were, as constitutional scholar Gerald S. Dickinson wrote recently, “acutely aware of and sought to prohibit a future president from taking advantage of the emergency powers for partisan and policy purposes.”
In testimony before a Senate committee in 1976, Church said the president “should not be allowed to invoke emergency authorities or in any way utilize the provision of [the National Emergencies Act] for frivolous or partisan matters, nor for that matter in cases where important but not ‘essential’ problems are at stake.” He might have been talking about “the wall.”
Church, as his biographers note, believed containing a president’s ability to invoke a national emergency was one of the Idahoan’s proudest moments, an affirmation that Congress, armed with the Constitution, can and should stand against the overreach of a would be autocrat.
We shall see where all this is headed, but make no mistake Congress can halt the national emergency nonsense and doing so would be a profoundly “conservative,” not to mention Constitutional thing to do.
As for Risch and others like him in Congress don’t expect them to protect congressional prerogatives or stand up to a demagogue. When he recently became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a position Church once held, he proudly proclaimed that he would be no Frank Church. On that much, at least, his is absolutely correct.
(Note: This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune.)
The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is being seen, as it should be seen, as not merely a senior Cabinet member leaving after losing a policy battle, but rather as a fundamental repudiation of the worldview of an American president.
The resignation has stunned Washington, shaken our allies and, for the first time in the first two years of his chaotic presidency, caused significant numbers of elected Republicans to stir themselves to something approaching opposition.
The push back comes too late however. The damage is done. The work to re-establish American moral and political leadership across the globe will take a generation to repaired, if in fact it can be repaired.
Two things about Mattis’s resignation strike me as historically significant.
First, a principled resignation from public service has rarely, in fact hardly ever, been a feature of our politics. The only resignation in modern times that comes close to what Secretary Mattis did yesterday was the resignation of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages held in Iran. That resignation, quietly made before, but not publicly announced until after the ill-fated rescue mission failed, was mentioned in the first three graphs of every Vance obituary when he died in 2002.
In other words, Vance, like Mattis, told the president of the United States that he was so fundamentally opposed to an administration’s policy that he could no longer serve.
This kind of resignation (as I have noted before) occur with some regularity in other western democracies. Key officials, for example, have been fleeing Theresa May’s government – 19 high profile resignations so far this year – over the British prime minister’s handling the Brexit mess.
French President Emmanuel Macron has recently suffered the resignations of several high ranking officials in his government, one of whom spoke publicly of Macron’s “lack of humanity,” a line that could just as well apply to Trump.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that the Mattis resignation over a serious matter of principle – of course, Donald Trump broadly ignored Mattis’s advice on a range of issues, not just Syrian policy – begins a new phase in American politics where serious people quit rather than work in an environment that debases their judgment and their sense of patriotism.
You only provide the kind of supervision Trump needs (but won’t accept) if you are effective. In the main, the retired Marine Corps general, was not all that effective when it comes to policy. He opposed the decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway. He opposed the senseless and constant Trump criticism of NATO allies. Trump kept it up. He even lost on the question of who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Trump rejected his favored nominee. Even when Trump refused to acknowledge the importance of the late Senator John McCain’s career, Mattis publicly did so, but without offering even a mild rebuke to the president’s petty meanness.
The best outcome of Mattis’s resignation could be that the impact of his action will jar Washington Republicans out of their get-along/go-along Trump stupor and cause, at least some of them, to provide real oversight and substantive checks on the president. Mattis presumably could have stimulated this outcome months ago. Now, at last, he has. Maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned in the reality TV series that the American presidency has become.
The second takeaway for me from this historic moment is simply the head spinning reality that this foreign policy and national security chaos is taking place in a Republican Administration. The laws of politics and the orientation of our political parties has been turned completely upside down. The same Republicans who lamented, often with good reason, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign and defense policy now own the most dysfunctional presidency in modern times.
Republicans were once able to savage Democrats as “weak” on national security and eager to retreat from world responsibilities. That story line is now completely reversed thanks to Donald Trump.
Republicans who once based a good part of their brand on a clear-eyed reality about America’s role in the world have now embraced an ignorant, uninformed foreign policy that has trashed the post-war international order, facilitated the ambitions of China to further dominate the Pacific, emboldened authoritarian dictators, faked its way through North Korean talks about nuclear weapons and made Vladimir Putin the happiest man to occupy the Kremlin in a long, long time.
Historians will write about this Republican collapse of rationality for generations to come, as well as those who aided and abetted it. While I suspect General Mattis will be mostly a footnote to this history, remembered more for his resignation than his accomplishments, one phrase in his resignation letter should be the jumping off point to assess why the GOP has fallen so far so fast. A fundamental reason for this debacle is simply the wholesale abandonment of fact-based competency in favor of the ranting and ignorance of a man totally unfit for the office he holds.
“Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies … Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Associated Press coverage of Trump’s Syrian decision.
The key phrase in Mattis’s letter came as he explained his belief in the importance of international alliances and the need to oppose the evil intent of what he called “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis based his opinion, he said, on insight gained, and this is the key phrase, “over four decades of immersion in these issues.”
In their hearts and minds most elected Republicans know that Donald Trump is an ignorant buffoon totally out of his depth. They must pray every night that he will not have to confront a real international crisis.
To allow Trump to get and keep the job he has many Republicans have suspended belief in the importance of “immersion” in reality. The GOP has traded competency and rationality for power and party. And that train wreck continues to unfold in real time.
Many Republicans have been relying on a guy like Jim Mattis to keep this careening locomotive on the tracks. Now, what do they do?
In the wake of the latest revelations about the president of the United States the extent of the intellectual and moral rot of the modern Republican Party has – again – come into sharp focus. A party that once built a brand around “family values” has decided that Donald Trump’s involvement in a scheme that paid off a porn star and a Playboy model to hide affairs shouldn’t be treated as criminal.
The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, no squishy liberal, says the party – leadership and followers – is guilty of “outsourcing our moral, our political judgment to legalisms.”
The new GOP brand: moral relativism.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, the third ranking Republican in the Senate, dismisses Trump’s involvement in felony campaign finance violations, crimes that Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen will serve jail time for, as essentially a paperwork mistake. “These guys were all new to this at the time,” the senator says and besides what’s a little hush money to quiet a scandal during a presidential campaign. “Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to campaign finance issues,” Thune says.
Or this from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a pillar of propriety on everything but presidential misconduct: “President Trump before he became president that’s another world. Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead … And I think we ought to judge him on that basis other than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”
You can search high and low for any Republican concern that Rex Tillerson, the former Secretary of State and CEO of Exxon, said recently, “So often the president would say, ‘Here’s what I want to do, and here’s how I want to do it’ and I would have to say to him, ‘Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.’”
Few Republicans have bought more heavily into the party’s moral and intellectual rot than the Idaho delegation. After a brief flurry of indignation when Trump was caught on videotape bragging about assaulting women the get-along-go-along Idahoans have been pretty much lock step with Trump and they generally decline to say anything even remotely critical regarding his behavior.
Senator Jim Risch is the worst offender.
Risch, soon to be carrying Trump’s water as the high profile chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, couldn’t even bring himself to condemn the administration’s handling of the brutal murder of a Saudi national who was also a columnist for the Washington Post. The CIA has concluded that the Saudi crown prince ordered the murder, a position Trump refuses to accept presumably because it would cause him to have to do something that might upset oil prices or more likely his own business interests.
In an interview with the editorial board of the Idaho Falls Post Register last week, Risch said that he had reached a conclusion about who was responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but that he couldn’t discuss it without revealing classified information. That is simply an absurd statement. Other senators in both parties have laid the responsibility directly at feet of Mohammed bin Salman, but as the Post Registernoted “on all questions having to do with bin Salman’s direct responsibility, [Risch] deflected,” obviously in deference to Trump.
Meanwhile, as the New York Times has reported, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been counseling his Saudi pal, the crown prince, “about how to weather the storm, urging him to resolve his conflicts around the region and avoid further embarrassments.” Or as one wag put it “the president’s son-in-law is giving the Saudi prince some tips on how to get away with murder.”
Trump deference – or better yet servile submissiveness – is a pattern with Risch. In the face of much evidence that North Korea’s dictator snookered Trump during talks in Singapore in June Risch has helped maintain the fiction that Trump knows what he is doing. Risch has backed administration policy in Yemen where the Saudi’s, with U.S. help, have bombed the country back to the Stone Age. By some estimates 85,000 children may have already died in Yemen, with as many as 12 million more people on the brink of starvation.
Risch, with a seat on the Intelligence Committee, has been almost completely silent on Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, speaking only to dismiss its importance. “Hacking is ubiquitous,” Risch said in 2017 before adding, “Russia is not, in my judgment, the most aggressive actor in this business.”
We now know that at least 14 individuals with direct or close ties to Russia, from the Russian ambassador to the lawyer who set up the infamous Trump Tower meeting during the campaign, made contact with Trump’s closest advisors, his family and friends over an 18-month period and during the campaign. We also know, while Trump’s story continues to shift, that special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted a busload of Russian agents and gained convictions of Trump’s campaign chairman, former national security advisor and many others. The investigation goes on, more indictments loom and Risch seems to care not at all.
When the senator made his Faustian bargain to support Trump after the notorious “Access Hollywood” tape emerged he said he had no choice but to support the con man his party had embraced. “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country,” Risch said. In reality, by ignoring and excusing the inexcusable, he has put party loyalty above both his country and our Constitution.
Paul Waldman in the Washington Post put a fine point on this kind of moral rot when he wrote recently of Trump, “Once he’s no longer president — perhaps in 2021, or perhaps even sooner — everyone who worked for him, supported him, or stood by him is going to be in an extremely uncomfortable position.”
Michael D. Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, made the extraordinary admission in court on Tuesday that Mr. Trump had directed him to arrange payments to two women during the 2016 campaign to keep them from speaking publicly about affairs they said they had with Mr. Trump.
“I participated in this conduct, which on my part took place in Manhattan, for the principal purpose of influencing the election” for president in 2016, Mr. Cohen said.
“We just learned longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was granted immunity in the Michael Cohen probe, becoming the latest figure close to President Trump to cooperate with investigators. Weisselberg follows Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, David Pecker and, of course, Cohen. Pecker, like Weisselberg, had immunity; the others got plea deals.”
I composed most of what follows before we got the news early Saturday that Arizona Republican Senator John McCain had lost his fight with cancer. McCain, a flawed, often cantankerous politician of the old school, was also amazingly self-aware, a pithy, independent SOB who was tough and smart and funny. It seems strangely appropriate, as sad as it is, that John McCain left us just as Donald Trump, a man who has repeatedly disparaged this genuine American hero, has begun his decent into utter disgrace.
This week, to remember Winston Churchill’s famous line, is not the end for Trump, perhaps not even the beginning of the end, but almost certainly the end of the beginning.
One remarkable thing about Donald Trump’s historic debasement of the American presidency, perhaps the most remarkable, is how completely predictable it was. It was all there to see from the very beginning. Now the only question is how much more damage this profoundly corrupt and ignorant man will do before he’s done, because it is increasingly clear that he will be done.
A characteristic of too many people intimately involved in politics is the ability – or the willingness – to suspend belief in the cause of a partisan victory, no matter the cost. That kind of suspension of belief is an absolute hallmark of the Trump Era and what the man has done to the Republican Party. Normally sane, sober, serious Republicans – many of them in the know from the get go – nevertheless made a devil’s bargain, accepting Trump as their leader in exchange for the hope and expectation of political gain.
Now these Republicans, finally coming to grips with the consequences of suspending belief about their leader, are well down the path toward the chaos and defeat that was all too predictable. If there is any political karma many of them will get precisely what they deserve come November.
The warning signs of where Trump would take Republicans and the country are almost too many to recount – the racially charged announcement speech with references to Mexican rapists, the clown car cast of jokers surrounding the campaign – Steve Bannon, Carter Page, Don, Jr., Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen – the mentally touched boasts, over the top superlatives and need for ego gratification (who talks like that?) and the “only I can fix it” policy pronouncements. All this nonsense was devoid of basic common sense and immune to even elemental fact checking, but Republicans from Paul Ryan to local legislators lapped it up.
When Trump promised to release his tax returns and then didn’t his explanation was as much a sham as a diploma from Trump University. The obvious question was simply “what’s he got to hide?” Plenty it would seem. It was well known that American bankers had long refused to do business with Trump and now his long-time lawyer and chief financial officer have flipped, helping, it would appear, to peel back the multiple layers of corruption that will eventually drive Trump and the political party he now owns over a cliff.
Republicans, at least most of them, have long known that he was a conman, a grifter, and as Melania and the rest of us now know he’s a shameless and constant liar about absolutely everything. None of it was a surprise. None.
Some Republicans have taken to saying the president’s growing body of critics suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they have it just backwards. Those who somehow convinced themselves that this profoundly flawed individual would somehow pull off the responsibilities of the most difficult job in the world were the truly deranged ones. His life, his businesses, everything he’s touched amounts to one big con. The derangement was thinking a life-long wise guy, a liar and cheat straight out of central casting fit for an episode of The Sopranos, would change at age 70. No one, of course, really believed the office would change the abhorrent behavior, the boorishness, the cruelty or the racism. Trump is studiously ignorant. That won’t change.
Now, as James Fallows wrote recently in The Atlantic, Republicans “confront a president who has been named in a felony guilty plea as having directed criminal activities. (It didn’t get this far or this crystal-clear with Richard Nixon.) Who is routinely discussed as a potential security risk by his own military and intelligence-agency officials. Who ridicules their former Senate colleague for not bending fully to his will as attorney general. Who is manifestly unable to contain his impulses and resentments, while holding a job whose most important qualification is temperamental control. Who …
“… The list of “who”s could go on, and any one of those 51 senators could complete it. But not a one of them will take a stand against this man, with a vote. Some give speeches. Some write op-eds. Many are “concerned.” Talk is something, but talk is not a vote.”
Devoid of empathy, imbued with a mean temper and an even nastier mean streak Trump was not the least bit prepared for the presidency and virtually every Republican who finally, sometimes reluctantly, but always with full knowledge, embraced him knew it. They knew all that has happened in recent days was not just possible, but likely. They knew even under the best case that a Trump presidency would be a certain kind of crappy show, a roiling cesspool of narcissism and self-interest. Yet, they have gone along settling for a tax cut for the best off and a Supreme Court that will be much more conservative than the country; going along all the way to seeing him implicated by his own lawyer in a felony meant to deceive voters about just what he is. The con man is now the “unindicted co-conspirator.”
Now what do Republicans do? They took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, but they won’t even authorize a subcommittee to investigate porn star hush money that was designed to minimize political damage days before a presidential election.
“It’s getting a little ugly,” Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican and next year’s presumptive GOP whip told Politico in what must be the most understated thing to come out of South Dakota this year. “Most of us need to work with the president where we can to move our agenda … it’s definitely a fairly big sideshow.” Right.
Trouble is “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” – Section 4, Article 2 of the United States Constitution – is a bit more than a sideshow. We knew all this was going to happen. It has. Now what?
What a remarkable contrast between the beginning of last week and the end. The week began with two men close to the president confessing to and convicted of felonies and the man with likely the most intimate knowledge of Trump’s “business empire” began cooperating with prosecutors. Meanwhile, the president verbally assaulted – yet again – his own attorney general (and seems close to firing him) for refusing to interfere with an investigation into Trump’s campaign and personal conduct. Hardly a cricket is heard from elected Republicans.
The week ends with bipartisan tributes to Senator McCain, a crusty, candid, principled Republican who repeatedly stood up to Trump, called out Vladimir Putin and suffered multiple insults from a man who couldn’t carry his briefcase or come close to matching his courage. In the scope of seven days we have all the proof we’ll ever need of the extent of the intellectual and moral rot that has overtaken the Grand Old Party.
Yet, Congressional Republicans know, and their tributes to McCain make clear, what they should be doing. The Arizona senator should be their model. That he is not is a national tragedy.
“We are in a strange place. I mean, it’s almost, it’s becoming a cultish thing, isn’t it? And it’s not a good place for any party to end up with a cult-like situation as it relates to a president that happens to be of — purportedly, of the same party.”
Of all the astounding things that have happened since Donald J. Trump took office – the serial lying, the trade wars, the bizarre North Korean summit, the gruesome separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children at the U.S. border, the Scott Pruitt scandals, the indictments, the embrace of despots and the savaging of allies just to name a few – the most astounding thing is how easily Trump has co-opted an entire political party. There is simply no parallel in American history.
Republicans, most quaking with political fear that crossing Trump or pushing back on his myriad outrages will get them the Jeff Flake treatment have, of course, only themselves to blame. They let an amoral, lying charlatan capture their party and imperil our democracy. Still, amid the craziness, it is an amazing thing to watch the destruction of the Republican Party in real time.
For years most Republicans have chosen to tolerate and then embrace the crazy La-La Land of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart, conspiracy theories and systematic denial of obvious truths. Most of the Republican base finally came to embrace the racist notion that the 44thpresident of the United States is a foreign-born Muslim.
“There is no seeming consequence to the president and lies. And if we accept that as a society, it is going to have incredibly harmful consequences in the way that we operate going forward, based on the construct of the Founding Fathers.”
Steve Schmidt now says he is a non-practicing Republican and he wonders if the party, even after Trump, can ever find its way again. And Charlie Skyes, a conservative with a sense of gallows humor, titled his latest book How the Right Lost its Mind.
The answer to that question is simple: It all began with lying, half-truths, fabrications, blind anger and disdain for the arts of governing.
Rather than offering serious alternatives Republicans chose to demonize Democratic efforts to address the health insurance crisis, turning tail on the very policies one-time GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney embraced as governor of Massachusetts. They spent decades bemoaning spending and debt then passed a massive tax cut for the most well off Americans arguing that their policies won’t balloon the debt and actually help the middle class. The truth is precisely the opposite.
Republicans have doubled down on climate change denial by putting a corrupt grifter in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. They savaged, then abandoned an international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and now hold their breath hoping to get an agreement as tenth as good with North Korea.
The Republican base now thinks better of a murderous North Korean dictator than of Nancy Pelosi. Let that sink in. And Trump’s efforts to destroy generations of foreign policy consensus regarding NATO, the G7, etc., while celebrating dictators from Moscow to Pyongyang will have lasting impact.
A Republican Party of Ronald Reagan that once celebrated world leadership now celebrates a guy who is on his third national security advisor, his second secretary of state and insists on “happy talk” intelligence briefings because he won’t read his homework. One former senior intelligence officer told the Washington Post that “Russia-related intelligence that might draw Trump’s ire is in some cases included only in the written assessment and not raised orally.”
He barely listens, and won’t read.
In the GOP’s La-La Land one-time critics in the Congress are cowed and running scared. Even worse are the true believers, people like Idaho’s Jim Risch who would have levitated over the Capitol had Barack Obama taken a meeting with the North Korean dictator, handed over concessions and gotten nothing at all in return save a photo op.
Risch, who regularly brags of his many conversations with Trump, dismisses any concern about the president as being the product of “tremendous hate and vitriol against President Trump from the other side in this town.” This isn’t your father’s GOP. It is a cult of personality built on lies, unethical misbehavior, craven love of power and – did I mention – lies?
Republicans steadfastly refuse to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act, while putting a white supremacist in charge of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, at the state level the GOP perfected the ancient art of gerrymandering allowing most House Republicans to pick their voters instead of the other way around and in the process making voting much more difficult for millions of Americans.
Needing an issue to enflame the nativist base of the party they now own an immoral, barbaric, un-American policy that separates kids from parents seeking asylum in the land built by immigrants.
Fearing – and likely knowing – that Trump is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg they trash the American justice system and consider the Republican special counsel investigating Russian interference in our politics as some dark “deep state” conspirator.
To repeat for emphasis Robert Mueller is a registered Republican, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and a man of sterling personal qualities and professional ethics. The president of the United States repeatedly labels his work “a witch hunt” and guys like Graham and Risch smile and pray not to get a primary challenge.
Reaping the Whirlwind…
Republicans officeholders have been working on handing the country over to Donald Trump for a generation. They have valued power over principle, polarization over policy. They have been lying to their base for so long that, not surprisingly, people started believing the craziness. Now Trump owns them. They are afraid of losing an election or slipping out of power and they have fully acquiesced to his lies, his personal and moral dishonesty, his dangerous and deranged foreign policy, his racism and, most troubling, his ever more obvious authoritarian ambitions.
Last week Trump told Fox & Friends, the nut job echo chamber that feeds his gargantuan ego, that his new North Korean friend is “the head of a country — and I mean he’s the strong head. He speaks and his people sit up in attention. I want my people to do the same.” Later Trump said it was just a “joke,” but that same “joke” has been used in the past to discount the kind of language that authoritarians regularly use.
The journalist Andrew Sullivan says Trump is “openly living in his own disturbed world” where whatever he says is true and whatever contradicts his truth is “fake news.” And the Republican Party, witness the comment from the party chairwoman, has accepted this new reality.
“Anyone that does not embrace the Donald Trump agenda of making America great again will be making a mistake,” says Ronna McDaniel. By the way, Ms. McDaniel for a long time used her maiden name – Romney – until Trump said he didn’t like it – she’s Mitt Romney’s niece – so she quit and now has a name approved by the Great Leader.
“The party of free trade has gone protectionist,” writes Edward-Isaac Dovere in Politico. “The party of spreading freedom and never negotiating with dictators is now full of praise for chumming it up with Kim Jong-un. The party of fighting deficits has blown a trillion dollar hole in the budget. Family values and moralizing have been replaced by porn stars and Twitter tantrums. Trump goes to war with the G-7, and the sum of the Republican reaction is a statement from John McCain and a few comments on Sunday TV from Maine Sen. Susan Collins.”
Democracy Dies With Lies…
Democracy Dies in Darkness is the new motto of the Washington Post, a newspaper that daily tries to sort out the various strains of wretched weirdness that is the Republican Party, but the newspaper motto gets at only part of our problem. Democracy actually dies when lies dominate the daily political discussion, when ethics get ignored and when principle has no place.
I’m reading a new book on an old story, how the Weimar Republic in Germany collapsed amid the lies and nationalism and racial hatred that ushered in the darkest period in modern history.
Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that a crazed Austrian postcard painter figured out the essential truth of the authoritarian long before we got Donald Trump.
“To sink into the minds of average people,” Hett writes, “a message [or a lie] had to be simple. It had to be emotional – hatred worked well – not intellectual. And it had to be endlessly repeated.”
There is an authoritarian playbook, well worn and often remarkably successful. The would be authoritarian lies about everything to the point that enough people no longer care about the truth. A free press is put to the torch. Convenient enemies – immigrants, Muslims, any opponent of the leader – are daily attacked. The rule of law is subverted. Financial and ethical norms are ignored.
As Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: “Every time Trump extends his ludicrous, ridiculous, and insulting reality show for another season, and every time the Republican Party echoes every delusion within it, there’s a big temptation to give in, give up, or look away. A numbness soon takes over. So many of my friends are turning off and tuning out, their decency reflexes exhausted with the pace of the indecency.”
This is where we are, fellow Americans.
Captured by an unhinged, lying, racist president enabled by a minority of the country thrashing about in a fever swamp of nationalism and rage, while elected members of a political party fearful of their leader, goes along to get along. What’s a little lying compared to a Supreme Court packed for a generation? Personal corruption – no big deal we got the tax cut. A deeply flawed psychopath in the White House, sure but he’s our psychopath
It’s the lies, my friends, it’s the lies. The postcard painter knew the path to power. Lie bigly. Lie always. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie to demonize the other side. Lie to discredit the press. Lie to protect your privilege. Lie often enough, loudly enough and pretty soon no one knows what to believe and the authoritarian has his day. It has happened before. It is happening again.
“We were party to a very big lie…Seemingly overnight, we became willing to roll back the ideas on the global economy that have given America the highest standard of living in history. We became willing to jettison the strategic alliances that have spared us global conflict since World War II. … We gave in to powerful nativist impulses that have arisen in the face of fear and insecurity. … We stopped speaking the language of freedom and started speaking the language of power. … Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior was excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it was actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.
“Rather than fighting the populist wave that threatened to engulf us, rather than defending the enduring principles that were consonant with everything that we knew and had believed in, we pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked. Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense. … It is a testament to just how far we fell in 2016 that to resist the fever and to stand up for conservatism seemed a radical act.”
Arizona Republican Jeff Flake, from his new bookConscience of a Conservative.
Let us now praise Senator Jeff Flake.
Loyal readers know that I have been using this space for months to worry and wonder when an elected Republican would really speak candidly about the abomination occupying the White House and taken over the Republican Party.
Never Trumpers like Michael Gerson, Bill Kristol and Steve Schmidt have had the president’s number for a long time, but the elected Republican willing to speak to “the base” about Donald J. Trump has been as scarce as tenure in the White House communications shop.
Now comes Flake with a new book (written quietly and without, he says, the knowledge of his political advisors) and a scathing piece in the most inside of inside D.C. tip sheets, Politico. Flake has taken the title of his book from Barry Goldwater’s famous 1960 tome – The Conscience of a Conservative.
The book should be widely read and vigorously debated. It may or may not mark a turning point in our long national nightmare, but it is siren call to real conservatives about what they and Donald Trump have done to their party and the country.
“Who could blame the people who felt abandoned and ignored by the major parties for reaching in despair for a candidate who offered oversimplified answers to infinitely complex questions and managed to entertain them in the process,” Flake writes. “With hindsight, it is clear that we all but ensured the rise of Donald Trump.”
The senator’s musings amount to a profoundly damning indictment of the party’s Congressional leadership, particularly Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. These Republicans, Flake says, have made “a Faustian bargain” with a man most of them secretly despise in order to try and gain some short-term policy and political advantage. “There was a time when the leadership of the Congress from both parties felt an institutional loyalty,” Flake says, “that would frequently create bonds across party lines in defense of congressional prerogatives in a unified front against the White House, regardless of the president’s party.” He mentions Republicans like Lugar, Baker and Dole, while condemning current leaders who lost their way “and began to rationalize away our principles in the process.”
In some ways Flake, a very conservative first termer from Snowflake, Arizona, is an unlikely Trump truth teller. He barely won election in 2012, has never been particularly popular at home and faces an almost certain primary challenge from an Arizona Republican who will claim Flake’s consistent criticism of Trump makes him a RINO – a Republican in Name Only. Flake also regularly votes the way the White House would have him vote, a fact that has led some to call him a hypocrite for not using his position to stop the Trump agenda. This is misplaced criticism and is precisely the kind of political nonsense Flake is condemning.
Flake’s easy path would be to do what the vast majority of elected Republicans are doing and go along with Trump in order to get along with his followers. The fact that he isn’t and won’t will likely earn him a place along side the one-time Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith who had the courage in 1950 to call out her party over Joe McCarthy’s antics. Smith called her famous speech A Declaration of Conscience. Flake is hitting similar notes.
In reality Flake has basically been here for a while; at the head of the line, for example, working for bipartisan immigration reform, while Trump wants to build his silly wall. He says Trump is wrong about NAFTA and Flake has blasted “the Muslim ban.” When Trump took after Muslims on Twitter, Flake and his wife, who are Mormon, visited a mosque in Arizona and spoke about the importance of religious freedom.
Criticism of Flake from the left – and even more incoherent yelling from the right – miss what I think is Flake’s essential point. He is not arguing policy. He is saying the Trump lies, the demonization of opponents, the wholesale abandonment of conservative thought and democratic norms is the real issue and Republicans own the mess they have made.
In making his case Flake has done something that few other Republicans have had the guts to do – maybe Ohio Governor John Kasich is in the same company – namely call out the intellectual rot that has hollowed out the soul of the grand old party and paved the way for the grand old demagogue. And Flake’s stinging indictment bears all the more credibility simply because it comes at a time when it could and probably will cost him politically.
New York Times columnist David Brooks correctly says Flake knows the stakes of this moment in American history. “The Trump administration is a moral cancer eating away at conservatism, the Republican Party and what it means to be a public servant,” Brooks wrote recently.
He quotes the Arizonan asking the correct questions about just some of the things Trump has said or done: “Is it conservative to praise dictators as ‘strong leaders,’ to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents …? Is it conservative to demonize and vilify and mischaracterize religious and ethnic minorities …? Is it conservative to be an ethno-nationalist? Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue?”
I’ve wondered for months if any Republican would really risk a political career by calling out the failings of the party and its hijacker. Jeff Flake may well lose his Senate seat because he has told the truth. Trump is already positioning to support a primary opponent. Yet, it seems Flake has decided this is a small price to pay for trying to save the country.
In an insightful piece recently in The Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins wondered if Flake was too nice for the Senate. He related a telling anecdote from a Flake town hall earlier this year. The senator was repeatedly and rudely booed and interrupted through the event, but he soldiered on unlike most of his colleagues who avoided town halls to avoid engaging with their constituents.
Finally, as Coppins wrote, “One constituent—a friendly guy who would later reveal himself to me as an MSNBC connoisseur—leaned in to deliver Flake a parting message. ‘Even if you disagree with us on legislation and everything, when the president says these insane things, if … [you] can just stand up and go, ‘We don’t all believe that’—that’s all we’re asking. Just stand up.’
“Flake nodded affably. ‘I appreciate that,’ he said, smiling. “I’ve tried to do so.”
Congressional Republicans spent seven years – and 60-plus repeal votes in the House of Representatives – promising their most fervent supporters that if they ever got all the political power in Washington, D.C. they would wipe away the hated Obamacare on Day One.
On Day Sixty-four they ran head long into an old political reality – don’t believe your own press releases.
In the end, the collapse of the Republican plan to “repeal and replace” Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment – the Affordable Care Act – was based on a huge miscalculation, a miscalculation that is now the signature reality of the Grand Old Party. The politics of opposition met the realism of substance. Given seven years to come up with a genuine alternative to what virtually everyone concedes is a flawed national health policy, Republicans, particularly the vacuous leader of their party, punted on substance.
Just consider what President-elect Trump told the Washington Post a week before taking office. “We’re going to have insurance for everybody,” Trump said. “There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.” People covered under the law, he said, “can expect to have great health care. It will be in a much simplified form. Much less expensive and much better.”
The Post’s Robert Costa and Amy Goldstein reported in that January interview that Trump – wait for it – declined to discuss specifics. Big surprise. There were no specifics short of a massive tax cut for the most well to do and a butchering of Medicaid.
The intellectual bankruptcy of Donald Trump’s GOP, the total triumph of puffy rhetoric over hard reality, was on full display during the Republican art of the fail. The empty suit in the Oval Office met the empty heads in Congress. Of course, Trump predictably blamed Democrats for failing to undo the legislation that they bled over and that cost the party many seats in Congress. It won’t wash. Democrats actually believe in what they have done, while Republicans now fully embrace the smoke and mirrors that surround Trump and the party he now owns, if cannot control. Not surprisingly the post mortem’s have been, and brutally so, all about Trump’s failure and that of the once and never again policy wonk Paul Ryan.
“It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the Day 64 defeat,” wrote Axios’ Mike Allen, a D.C. access journalist who rarely misses a chance to curry favor with the powerful. “President Trump, who made repeal-and-replace a central theme of his campaign, and House Republicans, who made it the central theme of every campaign since 2010, lost in a publicly humiliating way despite controlling every branch of government and enjoying margins in the House rarely seen in the past century.”
The Miami Herald – Trump won Florida just four months ago you may recall – was just as critical. Republicans “made a huge political miscalculation,” the Herald’s editorial said. “They were vociferous. They were resolute. Ultimately, they were clueless. Well, their constituents, many getting preventive care for the first time, or prenatal care, or cancer treatments clued them in: Obamacare, for all its faults, was working for them.
“Ryan finally — finally — stated the obvious: ‘Doing big things is hard.’ (We’re suppressing a ‘Duh!’) And it’s especially difficult when you leave out preparation and inclusiveness to meet a long-touted promise.
And it hasn’t just been the “opposition” press delivering harsh judgments about the Republican debacle. Right wing websites savaged Congressional Republicans with The Drudge Report featuring a photo of the German airship Hindenburg bursting into flames over the headline: Republican Catastrophe.
Politico’s Tim Alberta relayed this little bit of color from a critical meeting Trump had last Thursday with the self-righteous egotists of the hard right House Freedom Caucus. “Forget about the little shit,” Trump told those who taught the new president his painful lesson about the art of the Washington deal. “Let’s focus on the big picture here,” the Closer-in-Chief opined. Trump’s message, of course, was that substance doesn’t matter. Don’t sweat the details. The art of the flim-flam got him elected, after all. Who would have thought governing could be so hard?
Trump’s constant use of shape shifting lies notwithstanding, Republicans own this colossal mess and for one principle reason: they have abandoned governing, which is to say substance, in favor of once again trotting out the old hackneyed rightwing clichés and policy inconsistency. Trump’s promise of “health care for all” that would lower costs was always nonsense and internally inconsistent, about as intellectually honest as a sales pitch for Trump University.
This defeat was so big and so obvious that perhaps even Donald Trump can’t spin it away. And Congressional Republicans are going to have difficulty escaping the reality that they fumed against Obamacare for seven politically productive years, but when given a real chance to change the law – or repeal it outright – the GOP quarterbacks took a knee.
Stipulate the obvious: Obamacare has problems. Premiums are too high for many working poor, some states have opted out of the Medicaid portion of the program and the whole scheme remains complicated and confusing. Blame Democrats for some of the confusion. They have never been able to articulate a consistent message about the benefits and there have been real benefits, including insurance coverage for millions of Americans who had not been covered before. Also blame Republicans for the confusion because they have repeatedly misrepresented the negatives impacts of a program that impacts less than 10% of the entire health care marketplace.
Still, Obamacare needs work just like the defense budget or Trump’s golf game needs work, but the constant GOP mantra that the Affordable Care Act is imploding or cratering the economy is just as nonsensical as the tweets from the West Wing. But having ridden the “Obamacare is killing America” hobby horse to electoral success Republicans, as the New York Times pointed out, went searching for a solution to a problem they invented. The problem was invented, of course, because of a burning desire to continue to exploit the issue politically rather than actually work to improve health care. The approach clearly worked. What was missing, as the Times noted, was a “coherent idea or shared vision of what [Republicans] want to achieve and what problem they mean to solve.”
As one wag noted Republicans might have had a better chance to push their plan if they could have pointed to any place in the world were their ideas about enhancing “competition” in health care is working. Americans pay more, have worse outcomes and see more of their fellow citizen’s uninsured than any other major industrialized country. And no country does health care the way we do. The Republican approach wasn’t in any way a fix for a still fractured American approach to health care, but instead would have doubled down on the only strategy the GOP has known in the last two decades: cut taxes for the wealthiest and tell the poor to get a job.
Obama, in pushing the legislation in 2009, sought to reduce the number of uninsured and encourage more preventive care. He succeeded and would have succeeded even more broadly had Republicans not spent every day of both his terms attempting to delegitimize his presidency and with it his legislation. When Republicans got their chance to show the country what they value – should I mention they have more control over the government than they have enjoyed since the 1920s – they opted to advance a plan that would have ended coverage for 24 million Americans over the next decade and gutted the Medicaid safety net for many of the same working class Americans who, against their own best interests, put Donald Trump in the White House.
To the moral bankruptcy that has accompanied the Congressional Republican embrace of the very idea of Donald Trump as their leader, now you may add the intellectual bankruptcy of treating actual governance the way Trump treats the presidency – with contempt and arrogance.
The Atlantic’s Russell Berman had one of the best summaries of the Republican health care fiasco and one of the best quotes. “I’ve been in this job eight years,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney of Florida told Berman, “and I’m wracking my brain to think of one thing our party has done that’s been something positive, that’s been something other than stopping something else from happening. We need to start having victories as a party. And if we can’t, then it’s hard to justify why we should be back here.”
Sometime in the late evening of November 8 as it becomes clear that Donald J. Trump has led the Republican Party over an electoral cliff the recriminations will begin. For students of politics, and particularly for those who abhor the charlatan that has held the GOP hostage for the last 18 months, it will be good sport to watch the blood letting, but soon more important issues will become obvious.
Surely there will be a price to pay for those who aided and abetted Trumpism. The elected officials who condemned the man, but managed to twist their logic in such a way that they could still cast a vote for him will wear that scarlet letter for the rest of their days. A cosmetic patch of political Bondo will not easily repair what Republican strategist Steve Schmidt has called “the intellectual rot” at the heart of the Grand Old Party.
Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has asked the right question, a question we will be hearing more and more post-Trump: “What is the Republican Party?”
Dionne wonders “whether Republican congressional leaders have any connection with the seething grass roots whose anger they stoked during the Obama years but always hoped to contain. Mr. Trump is the product of their colossal miscalculations.
“And then there are the ruminations of millions of quiet Republicans — local business people and doctors and lawyers and coaches and teachers. They are looking on as the political institution to which they have long been loyal is refashioned into a house of bizarre horrors so utterly distant from their sober, community-minded and, in the truest sense of the word, conservative approach to life.”
Much time and attention will be lavished on the future fortunes of House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Trump denouncer who nevertheless continues to say he will vote for a man he likely can’t imagine having dinner with. Mr. Speaker will struggle. You heard it here firste.
And what of John McCain, once a truth teller on the budgetary excesses of his own party, a pragmatist about the need for immigration reform and a realist about the impact of money on politics? Facing the very real political dilemma of repudiating Trump – remember Trump early on attacked McCain’s military service – and alienating his core of angry voters or wringing his hands over Trump’s embrace of Putin and disdain of personal character,
McCain has been like horse droppings after a Fourth of July parade – all over the place. He finally and certainly belatedly abandoned Trump after “the tape,” but some how saw fit to stick with Trump through his attacks on a federal judge, the Gold Star family and revelations about Trump’s taxes, charity scams and business failures. Sex and vulgar talk about sex was apparently the deal breaker.
The cynical might dismiss McCain’s election year straddle as merely the pragmatic machinations of a old pol riding to the last roundup, but how to explain a waffle like that of Idaho Senator James Risch who is not on the ballot this year and would have little to lose by standing up to a loser? Risch, an early Marco Rubio supporter then a reluctant Ted Cruz guy, still sticks with Trump despite what the senator call the “the vulgar and indefensible revelations relating to the Republican nominee’s character.”
It all comes down to the Supreme Court, Risch says, “Without any options other than to abandon America to the left or vote for the Republican nominee, as distasteful as that may be, I will not abandon my country. I will cast my vote for the Republican nominee.” The country will be fine, senator, as to abandoning character as a presidential requirement, that is problematic.
By Thanksgiving it will be difficult to find anyone who will admit to having voted for the most unfit presidential candidate in any of our lifetimes, but the political battlefield will be strewn with the remains of the gutless Republicans who stood with him at the edge of the cliff and then beyond. If Trump turns out to inflict as much damage to the Republican Party as seems likely – loss of younger voters, suburban women and minorities for a generation perhaps – supporting the guy who took the party into the gutter will be in the first paragraph of many political obituaries.
As conservative commentators Michael Gerson (George W. Bush’s speechwriter), George Will, David Brooks and Max Boot – all “Never Trump” critics – have said repeatedly, the GOP has faced in this campaign its modern day McCarthy Moment. What do you do in the face of a deeply troubled, dangerous and profoundly unfit political figure? Most elected officials have buckled in the face of the moral challenge that demanded a repudiation of Trump. Those who have not – John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Condoleezza Rice among a few others – will be remembered for putting country before buffoonery.
Those who pulled a McCain or a Risch will be remembered for their profiles in political cowardice. They will continue to try to dress it up as merely sticking with the party, but the recriminations will take care of that fiction.
“Trump’s descent into ideological psychosis is tainting the reputation of all who were foolish enough to associate with him,” Michael Gerson wrote this week. He took particular note of vice presidential candidate Mike Pence, “one of the chief promoters of Christian morality in politics employing the ethical reasoning of 9-year-olds in the schoolyard. Someday Pence (and others) will look back on their shattered standards and ask: For this cause? For this man?”
Joseph McCarthy’s antics – character assassination, wild exaggeration and lying demagoguery – defined the Republican Party in the early 1950s, but a decent and well-intended man, Dwight Eisenhower, keep the GOP from falling completely under McCarthy’s sway. Barry Goldwater, never on his worst day as totally unfit for office as the current nominee, redirected the GOP rightward in the 1960s and eventually passed the reigns to Ronald Reagan, a president who stood for virtually everything Donald Trump fumes against. That history leaves us to ponder who will emerge from the coming wreckage to re-build a party suffering from “intellectual rot” after having sold its soul to a huckster?
So many who might aspire to that job will have to spend the next many months picking through the Trump wreckage, attempting to salvage their own sense of purpose after caving to a craven opportunist. How much better for these Republicans to have pulled a Margaret Chase Smith, the Maine GOP senator who denounced McCarthy early as an act of conscience, rather than continue to try and explain the inexplicable.
After all how do you explain next month, next year or ever why it was you stood for this cause, for this man?
“And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there [in South Korea] watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?’”
Republicans, particularly those from the traditional post-war internationalist wing of the Grand Old Party, have devoted most of their waking hours over the past seven and a half years to assailing Barack Obama’s “fickle” foreign policy.
Obama has been bashed for “leading from behind,” for constantly “apologizing” for the United States, for being unwilling to double down on a purely military response to the violence and political turmoil from Egypt to Syria, from Ukraine to Iran.
In this Republican view Obama is a Kenyan socialist update of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who redefined the word “appeasement” so that it has become the most damning of all foreign policy epithets.
Then the GOP nominated Donald Trump.
I’m going to posit that never before in the history of modern U.S. politics has one party, a party that has for so long held rock solid views on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, so quickly and violently changed direction. The Trumpian “pivot” on foreign policy is now complete and the implications are coming into focus. As usual with Trump there is little doubt or nuance.
The Republican presidential candidate detailed for the New York Times yesterday his belief that as president he would not automatically guarantee 70 years of commitments to European security, would not condemn the massive violations of civil liberties underway in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey and would remove American military and security commitments from far east allies like Japan and Korea.
Imagine Barack Obama making a statement like Trump made yesterday. Reminded by the Times David E. Sanger that since the attempted coup in Turkey Erdogan “put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”
Trump’s reply: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”
Forget the messenger, worry about our own rule of law with such a man in the White House. Worry also about the cognitive dissonance on the new GOP ticket. At the very moment Trump’s interview was posted online Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was saying this: “We cannot have four more years of … abandoning our friends. … Donald Trump will … stand with our allies.” Right. Got it.
The Reagan doctrine of American Exceptionalism has been reduced in the Age of Trump to: “We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.” Apparently fixing “our own mess” will cause Trump to look for inspiration to the dictators he refuses to condemn.
Loyal readers know that I have often voiced my own profound concerns about an American foreign policy based on the constant expansion of U.S. military power or the belief, held by Hillary Clinton among others, that nearly every foreign policy challenge demands a military response, but Trump has gone where no Republican has gone since at least Robert Taft in 1952.
Trump has torn the Republican Party from its post-war moorings, even more so it is now clear than Barry Goldwater did in 1964. His appeal to nativist, know nothingism, his exploitation of fear, his appalling ignorance of our own history and the world’s has gone way beyond anything we have seen since McCarthy in the early 1950’s. This is truly the GOP’s McCarthy Moment and no time, as Edward R. Murrow said of the Republican’s earlier demagogue, for citizens – particularly Republicans – who oppose his nonsense to remain silent.
It is now truly time to contemplate the consequences of turning over the country’s foreign policy – the nuclear codes for crying out loud – to a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the key to the executive washroom. The country has been here before. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 proclaimed that “In your heart you know he is right,” but American voters saw through Goldwater’s bizarre suggestions that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used in Southeast Asia, that a nuclear warhead was “just another weapon” and that North Vietnam could be reduced to a “mud puddle” if only we had the right leadership.
The last time a radical hijacked the GOP, American voters agreed with Democrats who countered Goldwater’s slogan with their own: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”
How did it come to be that the party of Lincoln is about to nominate an openly racist billionaire to be its presidential candidate, a candidate so toxic to the party’s need to broaden its appeal to African-American and Latino voters that those efforts could well be set back by a generation or more?
The answer to that simple question is deeply entwined with the complicated history of the party’s evolution over the last 60 years. The modern Republican Party has made a series of pivotal decisions over those decades – policies, decisions designed to capture short-term political advantage, decisions about candidates, even Supreme Court appointments – that have systematically communicated to its older, white, angrier base voters that racism, or at least racial intolerance, is acceptable.
As America has changed, become more diverse and more tolerant in many ways, one major political party’s base voters cling to attitudes and beliefs that are no more and, in many respects, should never have been. Republican leaders have no one to blame but themselves for catering to a slice of the electorate that warmly embraces a racist as their candidate.
From “Dog Whistles” to Overtly Racist Language…
For decades Republicans leaders from Barry Goldwater to George H.W. Bush have often practiced a dangerous kind of politics where racial “dog whistles” stirred up base voters. Trump has dropped the clever, more “politically correct” symbolism and language of “state’s rights” and Willie Horton ads in favor of what we might call his “candid” form of racism.
The judge handling the Trump University lawsuit is an Indiana-born American of Mexican heritage, but in the simple, straightforward racism of the Republican candidate for president that disqualifies Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel. Donald Trump “is building a wall,” after all, and the judge’s Mexican heritage can’t possible allow him to be fair. As Paul Ryan says it is textbook racism.
How did this happen, the Republican Party dancing with racism? How did they – how did all of us – get stuck with a racist heading one of the country’s two great political parties? The answer begins during the time when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and Barry Goldwater wanted to get there.
In 1964, a badly divided Republican Party turned for its presidential candidate to an outspoken conservative and a vocal opponent of the historic Civil Right Act that Congress passed that same year. Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights legislation put him at the fringe of his own party in 1964. Only six Republicans voted against the Civil Rights Act, while Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader and a very conservative guy on most things, played a pivotal role in pushing the landmark legislation past a Democratic filibuster, a filibuster led by conservative Southern Democrats.
Civil Rights Act of 1964…Crossing a Political Rubicon…
It was a political Rubicon moment. Liberal northern Democrats joined northern Republicans to do what had not been done since the Civil War – pass legislation that finally began to deliver on the reality of full citizenship that African-Americans had been promised in the wake of the Civil War. Goldwater, the GOP candidate for president, stood in opposition and his fierce state’s rights stand hurt him at the polls, as black voters moved in droves to the Democrats.
Still, Democrats were hurt as well, with Lyndon Johnson famously predicting that signing the civil rights bill would hand the South to Republicans for a generation. Goldwater won six states in 1964 – his own Arizona, as well as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Prior to 1964, only two Republicans represented the states of the old Confederacy in the United States Senate. Today no Democrat represents the region.
Anyone who thinks racial politics has played no role in that remarkable transformation doesn’t know American history. Preserving that political advantage, in effect the most dependable Republican region for generations now, is the real aim of the modern GOP.
Goldwater’s loss brought predictions of the end of the Republican Party, which of course did not happen. What did end in 1964 was a growing bipartisan consensus about race in America. After 1964, Democrats increasingly appealed to African-American and other minority voters and Republicans increasingly became the party of older, white, conservatives, particularly in the South.
The GOP “Southern Strategy”…
Richard Nixon, who narrowly lost the White House in 1960 – he got 32% of the black vote against John Kennedy and enjoyed the support of, among others, the baseball legend Jackie Robinson – warned that Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was toxic to the party’s long-term interests. But, Nixon, always the skillful political adapter, parlayed his own brand of racial politics to a narrow win in 1968.
Nixon both benefited from and refined the racial politics of Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace. Wallace, running as the candidate of the American Party, won five deep South states in 1968. Nixon won the rest of the old Confederacy stressing “law and order” and appealing to a “silent majority” of mostly white voters tired of hippies, anti-war demonstrations and various efforts to end racial segregation. The Republican “southern strategy” was born.
Only southern Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 broke up the now solid Republican south, but it was Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 who really built on what Goldwater started. Reagan, astutely or cynically or both, opened his 1980 general election campaign in the small Mississippi town where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in the late spring of 1964. In front of an all-white crowd Reagan pledged his support for state’s rights.
Reagan “was tapping out the code,” New York Timescolumnist Bob Herbert wrote in 2007. “It was understood that when politicians started chirping about ‘states’ rights’ to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.”
Because any past Republican presidential candidate now looks positively stellar next to the current GOP standard bearer, the one term of George H.W. Bush is being remembered these days as a time of civility and political progress. But it was Bush’s 1988 campaign that benefited from the barely concealed racial politics of the infamous Willie Horton ad. The television spot – you can still see it on YouTube – was likely less important than the widespread news coverage it generated and, while Bush’s campaign could disclaim any direct involvement with the ad’s dog whistle message of black crime against whites, Bush never hesitated to mention Horton and his opponent Michael Dukakis in the same breath. It was nasty, it was racial and its was effective.
The real legacy of the first Bush may ultimately turn out to be the man who is still the only African-American justice on the Supreme Court. When civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall retired from the court in 1991, Bush elevated the little known Clarence Thomas to the high court. Where the liberal Marshall had been a celebrated lawyer, civil rights advocate, court of appeals judge and solicitor general, Bush replaced him with one of the most conservative lawyers to ever served on the court. Bush called Thomas the “most qualified” person he could find for the court, as marvelously inaccurate a statement then as it remains today.
Justice Thomas and the GOP Judicial Agenda…
Thomas has been, however, a completely reliable vote on key elements of the Republican judicial strategy for 25 years, consistently voting to expand the opportunities for money to corrode our politics, gut the Voting Rights Act – a key accomplishment of Thurgood Marshall’s generation – and most recently being the lone vote in a remarkable case out of Georgia dealing with a prosecutor’s determined efforts to keep black jurors from participating in a murder trial.
Long-time Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse was stunned by Thomas’ lone objection to overturning the murder conviction of a black man in Georgia, not because, as she wrote, Thomas harbors “some kind of heightened obligation to take up the cause of black defendants,” but because he went so far out of his way to rule in the most prosecutor friendly way. With dogged determination, Thomas also denied what seven other justices acknowledged, that new evidence can call into question an old court decision.
“In an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the Supreme Court overturned a 30-year-old murder conviction,” Greenhouse wrote, “ruling that racial discrimination infected the selection of the all-white Georgia jury that found a black man guilty of a white woman’s murder. The vote was 7 to 1. The dissenter was Justice Thomas. His vote, along with the contorted 15-page opinion that explained it, was one of the most bizarre performances I have witnessed in decades spent observing the Supreme Court.”
The remarkable Justice Thomas has become, as Greenhouse says, “the anti-Thurgood Marshall,” perversely championing the dismantling of Voting Rights Act and increasing obstacles for minority voters.
Making It More Difficult to Vote…
Following a concerted campaign by conservative Republicans, 17 states this year will have restrictions on voting that did not exist in 2012. As the Brennan Center at the New York University Law School notes, “This is part of a broader movement to curtail voting rights, which began after the 2010 election, when state lawmakers nationwide started introducing hundreds of harsh measures making it harder to vote.”
Eight of the states with new voting restrictions are in the solid Republican south. Add in Arizona, where Hispanic voters could amount to more than a quarter of the voting population, and you see a strong pattern of reliably GOP states trying to limit the franchise to non-white voters. And consider this: had the Supreme Court not effectively gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2012, few if any of the state level voting restrictions could have gone into effect without the blessing of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
Arguing that the prudent terms of the nearly 50 year old act, a law repeatedly renewed by Congress, should remain in effect in order to help ensure the voting rights of minorities, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, “First, continuance would facilitate completion of the impressive gains thus far made; and second, continuance would guard against backsliding.”
But, of course, “back-sliding” was the political point of gutting the Act and then having Republican legislatures and governors make it harder for minority Americans to vote. Considering the inevitable demographic tide that will continue to change the color of America, fiddling with how we vote is, to be sure, a temporary means to maintain white, conservative, Republican political power. But, rather than acknowledge the demographic change and try to appeal to vast numbers of new voters – precisely what many Republicans argued after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 – the GOP has doubled down on its old, old strategy that dates back to 1964.
Trump is the perfect messenger to illustrate the corrosive power of racial politics. After all his rise to the GOP nomination began with his habitual feeding of the fiction that Barack Obama was foreign born and clearly “not one of us,” a pervasive myth stoked by social media and the ultra-right echo chamber. His attacks on a Latino federal judge, his pledge to “build a wall” and deport millions of immigrants intersect perfectly with an entirely new generation of conservative white voters who once would have flocked to Barry Goldwater.
Trump: The Perfect Messenger…
Some elected Republicans, Speaker Ryan for one, understand the fire that threatens to burn down the GOP future, but they seem powerless to really distance themselves from the toxic new leader of their party. Do they do the principled thing and once and for all disavow their racist standard bearer or do they try to condemn what he is, while not condemning his angry, white followers?
The ethical call is easy, but Republicans like Ryan face a hell of a political dilemma particularly when you consider that 65% of Republicans in one new poll don’t see Trump’s comments about Judge Curiel as racist. But, how could they? They’ve been conditioned by so many of their leaders to think that way at least since Goldwater’s campaign more than 50 years ago.
Goldwater, it should be remembered, was nominated in 1964 after a bruising fight at the Republican convention – the beginning of the end of the “moderate’ Republican – and only after the full convention refused to acknowledge the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act.
The party has been on this course for a long, long time. Trump is the living proof.