Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Julian Zelizer: It's too late for Republicans to realize what's been obvious
Trump has wallowed in sexism and racism for years, Zelizer says
Zelizer: The Trump train wreck is one of the Republicans' own making.
Republicans are acting as if they are in a state of shock about their nominee.
From the moment that the tape of Donald Trump and Billy Bush discussing women in vulgar terms surfaced on Friday, Republicans have been coming out of the woodwork to denounce his words, trying to separate themselves from his campaign. The Republican National Committee sent out an email to vendors saying they should put a “hold on all projects” in a mailing program devoted to electing Trump. Sen. John McCain, who had backed Trump even though he had mocked his having been captured in war, has now withdrawn his support.
A few called on him to step down. Even his wife Melania condemned the comments where Trump explained to Bush that his fame allowed him to “kiss any woman” and “grab them by the p–sy” as being “unacceptable and offensive.”
The backlash has been so severe that Trump even felt the need to issue an apology, something that he has never before agreed to do. The moment feels a little bit like when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona joined a group of senior Republicans in 1974 to tell President Richard Nixon that it was time to step down. That has remained a classic example of when the party establishment took a responsible stand for the good of the nation.
But all of the Republican rhetoric over the past 24 hours seems a bit hypocritical to those who have been following the campaign. This is not the first time that Trump has made statements that are controversial and offensive. This has been a campaign that has seen sexism, nativism and Islamophobia front and center.
He has mocked the physically disabled and played directly into the racial divisions of the nation. It has been a campaign where remarks that were once relegated to the fringes of American politics made it into mainstream. If the party really wants to deal with the Trump problem, they will need to do much more than castigate him for this recent tape. The party will need to look deeper to understand what allowed this kind of candidate to get this far.
Before he ran, Donald Trump started his foray into politics by joining the birther movement, talking on the networks about “credible” sources that claimed President Obama’s birth certificate was a “fraud.” The campaign, targeting the legitimacy of the nation’s first African-American president, played off of the racial tensions of the nation. Even more recently, he called President Obama, as well as Secretary Hillary Clinton, founders of ISIS.
When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump to denounce David Duke, the former KKK leader, who endorsed him, Trump said he didn’t know anything about Duke or white supremacist groups. As Tapper pressed him on denouncing the KKK, he would not desist and refused to condemn a group that he said he didn’t know enough about (he later blamed a bad earpiece).
When he announced his candidacy Trump talked about the need to stop Mexicans from coming into the country with a wall. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. … And some, I assume, are good people.” When asked to explain on CNN what he meant, he added that they were also “killers.” Last summer he said that a federal judge presiding over a class action suit against Trump University was biased because “he’s a Mexican.”
When he stood on stage and physically mocked a reporter with physical disabilities, many were stunned.
Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims and a database with information about every Muslim in the country, even if he later walked back some of the comments. He has called for closing down every Islamic mosque. In July, in response to the horrendous attack at a nightclub in Orlando, he said that, “We cannot continue to allow thousands upon thousands of people to pour into our country, many of whom have the same thought process as this savage killer.”
He even made provocative comments in defense of gun control that many saw as a veiled threat against Clinton. When he said in August that a Clinton presidency would threaten supporters of gun rights and there would be nothing to stop her, he added, “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.” After the Secret Service briefed him about the remarks, Trump would continue. One month later, Trump said, “I think that her bodyguards should drop all weapons” since she doesn’t want other people to have guns. “Take them, let’s see what happens to her.”
And when it comes to women, the comments on the “Access Hollywood” tape are really not so new. His comments in public have always been offensive when it comes to women. In 1991, Trump told Esquire magazine about female reporters that “It doesn’t really matter what (they) write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” In a radio interview in 2004, Howard Stern asked Trump if he could call Ivanka “a piece of ass.” Trump said he didn’t mind.
In 2006 he turned heads again by joking on national television that if Ivanka was not his own daughter he would be dating her. “Arianna Huffington, is unattractive, both inside and out,” he tweeted in 2012. “I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man – he made a good decision.”
In 2013, he tweeted out another offensive thought: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
During the first Republican debate in August, when Megyn Kelly asked about Trump having called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, disgusting animals,” he said with a smile, “Only Rosie O’Donnell.” Complaining about her treatment of him in the debate, Trump later said Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Of Carly Fiorina, he asked, “Look at that face. Would anybody vote for that?”
The comments have not stopped, right through his first debate with Clinton when he doubled down on his statements about O’Donnell. And then there was the controversy over his insulting comments about Alicia Machado. Even as campaign experts warned Trump that he would cost Republicans the women’s vote, his rhetoric didn’t change.
Yet throughout the election, a large portion of the Republican Party decided to stay silent or in many cases to still endorse his candidacy. The reasons for this support will need to be examined if the party is serious that this is not the kind of person or kind of ideas that they stand for.
There are many reasons that the Republican Party allowed the nomination to move this far. The forces of polarization are so strong that many Republicans will support anyone on the top of the their ticket, regardless of who that person is, if they hold out the prospect of defeating Democrats.
There are also elements of the Republican Party that have become increasingly influential that, in a rebellion against what they call political correctness, are open to politicians who employ rhetoric lashing out against different segments of society.
Republicans have been grappling with the “gender gap” since the 1980 election, when their problems in dealing with issues related to women became clear. There is also a conservative media where the echo chamber is so strong that the space for pushback against politicians who go too far within their own ranks has weakened.
It is too late for Republicans like Jeff Sessions or Mike Pence to suddenly express shock.
The person on the “Access Hollywood” tape is very much the candidate that the party chose in 2016. When Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump and refused to join him at a campaign event in Wisconsin, it seemed somewhat odd given that Speaker Ryan had decided to accept the nominee after the long list of statements that he had already made. And even now, “sickened” by Trump did not necessarily mean he would revoke his endorsement of his party’s presidential candidate.
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When some prominent figures like Mitt Romney implored their colleagues to take a different path in the summer, most of the party moved forward with Trump.
The Trump train wreck is one of the Republicans’ own making. Rather than saying they are in a state of shock or disbelief, Republicans who are truly unhappy with this candidate must look much deeper to really understand the state they are in, one that got them to this point just one month before the presidential election.