It’s easy – or should be – to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But holding to account a president who so relentlessly channels the grievances of violent racists has been, for many top Republicans, a bridge too far.
The story is familiar: Many top GOP officials are, once again, privately troubled by President Donald Trump’s behavior. Others, his braver critics, are tweeting out their concerns. At least one has written a book calling the Republican Party’s embrace of Trump a “Faustian bargain.”
The latter, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, also responded to Trump’s Tuesday press conference, in which the President shed all pretense and openly argued that neo-Nazis and those who oppose them were moral equivalents, via Twitter.
“We can’t accept excuses for white supremacy & acts of domestic terrorism,” Flake said. “We must condemn. Period.”
The operative word here is the last one: “Period.” Since Trump entered the Republican presidential primary two years and two months ago, leading members of the party have repeatedly been called upon to denounce a long series of insulting remarks, debasing revelations or outright, racist or xenophobic behavior. Typically, they do. Usually on social media or through a statement to reporters. The one constant: Nothing materially changes.
If past performance is any indicator, the furor over Trump’s volte-face on Charlottesville will fade. This is the man, after all, who as a candidate weathered the release of the vile “Access Hollywood” tapes and still became President. Sure, he has done some damage to his standing. But the Oval Office is his – emboldening race hate is not, in and of itself, a high crime or misdemeanor – and, so long as it remains that way, his GOP colleagues are unlikely to escalate their attacks. Trump is the one with the power to sign their legislative dreams into reality, and there is still no indication they are willing to sacrifice or endanger that prospect over any moral objection to his behavior.
It emerged on Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican tasked with delivering legislation to Trump’s desk, is upset with Trump’s handling of the aftermath of Charlottesville. This, according to a source close to McConnell.
McConnell spent most of last week as a presidential piñata, Trump criticizing him repeatedly for the Senate GOP’s failure to pass a bill to repeal Obamacare. On Tuesday afternoon, McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao stood by Trump’s side as he made his incendiary remarks. No doubt, the majority leader is in a sticky spot. So it was hardly a surprise when, in an otherwise pointed statement Wednesday, he did not mention the President.
“The white supremacist, KKK, and neo-Nazi groups who brought hatred and violence to Charlottesville are now planning a rally in Lexington. Their messages of hate and bigotry are not welcome in Kentucky and should not be welcome anywhere in America,” McConnell said. “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred. There are no good neo-Nazis, and those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms. We all have a responsibility to stand against hate and violence, wherever it raises its evil head.”
McConnell’s counterpart in the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, has been Trump’s passive enabler par excellence. On Tuesday, he again tweeted scoldingly but not specifically.
“We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for,” he said. “There can be no moral ambiguity.”
And yet, again, “ambiguity” is the name of the game. It has been, for many Republicans, for more than a half-century, since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Afterward, LBJ reportedly told press aide Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Johnson was correct. And Republicans were more than happy to indulge voters’ most base instincts. In Nixon’s time, that meant calls for “law and order.” “States’ rights” became a rallying cry, perhaps the most formidable emblem of the GOP “Southern Strategy.” In the northeast, opposition to busing students across their cities as a means of breaking de facto school segregation became a cause for many on the right. George H.W. Bush, now venerated as a beacon of some better time in American politics, played racial politics during his winning campaign, in 1988, running the infamous “Willie Horton ad.” You can watch it here – and quickly understand why it’s still discussed.
By 2005, at least one powerful Republican saw fit to cop to and offer a mild apology for decades of dog whistling.
“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” then RNC chairman Ken Mehlman said in his remarks that year’s NAACP national convention. “I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
But in many cases, the party has continued down that road. On Wednesday, Bush – along with his son, the former President George W. Bush – released a statement on the most recent incident.
“America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms,” it began. Trump, as has become a theme over the last 48 hours, is not mentioned by name.
Bush the elder is relevant here because Trump himself is a creature of the 1980s. His insistence on referring to broad swaths of urban America, in particular those with large African-American communities, as the “inner city,” is a revived relic of that era. Trump ran on, and continues to preach, a message promising to “Make America Great Again.” In his comments at Trump Tower on Tuesday, the President made clear his unrelenting, often blinkered affection for some imagined past.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” he said of the nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments.
For a viewer of Fox News or anyone who spends too much time on Twitter, the broader gist of his remarks were not especially shocking. Trump suggested it was logical – or even necessary – to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee because, if allowed to fall, similar monuments to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both slave owners, could go next. (The crimes of the Founding Fathers, of course, are not the issue here; the question is whether those who sought to violently destroy the republic they formed, in order to preserve slavery, ought to be memorialized in public spaces.)
The Republican condemnation of Trump almost never touches on these elemental concerns. High profile Senate veterans like Arizona’s John McCain and his dear friend, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, have made public their disappointment and pointed directly at President Trump, but stopped short – once again – of suggesting meaningful action.
“There’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate & bigotry. The President of the United States should say so,” McCain tweeted. Graham, in a Wednesday statement addressed Trump: “Mr. President, I encourage you to try to bring us together as a nation after this horrific event in Charlottesville. Your words are dividing Americans, not healing them.”
A tweak here, a dropped a proper noun there, and the senators’ comments might have come a year ago. Or a year from now.
In a scene captured early Wednesday by Jessie Opoien, a political reporter with The Capital Times in Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson gave some insight into the current state of his party.
“Asked what POTUS should say about white nationalists, @SenRonJohnson says ‘you tell me,’” Opoien relayed in a tweet, “says he wants to move on.”
Johnson, like Trump, should expect precisely that.