Republicans Have A Choice: Embrace Trump And The Alt-Right, Or Save Themselves
Republicans now face a stark choice.
USA Today reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was none too happy about the President’s response to the Charlottesville violence, but it’s unclear what that will mean for the Senate GOP’s future relationship with their party’s de facto leader:
WASHINGTON – There was a reason why it took Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell an entire night to respond to President Trump’s chaotic news conference equating counter protesters with the Nazis they came to resist.
He was livid.
Two sources close to the senator, speaking under condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said the pro-civil rights Republican who lived through the 1960s in Kentucky closely deliberated on the best way forward.
He spoke to a number of aides and confidantes, reflecting on his long career in public service that began working as an aide to former Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky senator who was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and – specifically – how hard it was being a pro-civil rights Republican at the time.
McConnell’s anger – and the difficulty he felt responding to the leader of his party – highlights the quandary facing many Republicans in the aftermath of Trump’s comments blaming “both sides” for violence that ended in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
In the end, McConnell sent out a statement challenging Trump’s position that not everyone who came to the white nationalist rally had hateful beliefs – saying there “are no good neo-Nazis” – without mentioning the president by name.
It was McConnell’s attempt to strike a middle ground. The potential cost of Trump’s incendiary remarks is real. And perhaps few understand how far the nation and his party have come than McConnell, who was also present both for Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature of the Voting Rights Act and Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech.”
The restraint highlights the GOP’s Trump dilemma: Republicans are searching for ways to distance themselves from the president without personally taking on a president who remains popular in many GOP-dominated states. McConnell’s Senate office declined to comment.
“Every member I’ve talked to has been apoplectic about it,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who’s worked at the Republican National Committee and in the George W. Bush administration.
“This is just the beginning,” added Heye. “The potential for it to be really bad is real.”
The rift within the GOP could also be seen in how the Republican National Committee responded to Trump’s controversial remarks.
Kayleigh McEnany, the RNC’s new spokeswoman, praised Trump’s “message of love and inclusiveness” on Twitter after the Tuesday statement.
Yet RNC chair Ronna Romney McDaniel said on Good Morning America that “the blame lays squarely on the KKK and white supremacists.”
McConnell wasn’t alone among Republicans who sought to distance themselves from the President’s remarks while at the same time not directly criticizing him by name:
In the aftermath of Trump’s remarks, many Republicans rushed out statements sending an unequivocal message condemning white supremacists and Nazis – with only some urging the president by name to do the same after days of apparent reversals. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. was one of them. “Mr. President, you can’t allow white supremacists to share only part of blame. They support idea which cost nation & world so much pain,” he tweeted.
For his part, McConnell aimed his statement squarely at dissuading would-be white supremacists in his home state who are planning a rally in Lexington by saying they are “not welcome” in Kentucky.
According to those close to him, McConnell also didn’t rush out a statement because he was also hesitant to stoke a narrative about a personal war with the president after Trump has publicly excoriated McConnell for the failure of a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The situation was made all the more delicate given that his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was standing next to Trump on Tuesday at the event meant to be about infrastructure. McConnell was upset his wife was caught up in the controversy.
Another prominent Republican – House Speaker Paul Ryan – also criticized racism and white supremacists without naming Trump, who remains at 79% approval among Republicans according to Gallup’s latest weekly recent polling.
Lawmakers will be watching closely whether and how far that number dips in the first round of surveys since Trump’s news conference, said Heye, the Republican strategist.
Other GOP strategists also said it’s the beginning of a tough political chapter for their party.
“The faction of white nationalists in the party has now emerged and they’re going to go forward,” said Vin Weber, who has advised a number of Republican presidential candidates including Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
As The New York Times notes, the President’s incendiary remarks about Charlottesville both on Saturday afternoon and on Tuesday have put the GOP in something of a crisis. That may be true, and individual members of Congress are currently trying to navigate the rather difficult waters that lie between not seeming to embrace the racially and morally offensive position taken by the President of the United States, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump continues to put his party in a position where it is ultimately going to have to choose between standing by the President out of some naive hope that doing so will allow them to pass agenda items such as tax reform or an infrastructure bill and protecting themselves from the blowback that is likely to inevitably come from standing by a President who is saying things that are not only reopening some very old wounds but also negatively impacting his job approval numbers, which continue to sink to levels that seem likely to inevitably come back to impact the party as a whole down the line.
E.J. Dionne makes the point quite well in his column today when he argues that we have reached a point where it is simply indefensible for Republicans to continue to stand by the President:
If they are so appalled by this man, why do they stick with him? Why do chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly keep standing there? Kelly was supposed to turn this White House around. But since he arrived, Trump’s troubles have only deepened. A much-honored Marine cannot possibly want this as his legacy.
Can any policy victory be worth it for Cohn and Mnuchin to absorb the damage that further complicity with Trump will do to their reputations? As for Chao, her boss had already gone after her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, even before he distanced himself from Trump on Wednesday. “There are no good neo-Nazis,” McConnell said. “And those who espouse their views are not supporters of American ideals and freedoms.” Both Chao and McConnell have big decisions to make.
And every member of the administration should read Sohrab Ahmari’s warning on Commentary magazine’s website to his fellow conservatives “who are convinced that a responsible, presidential Trump is just around the corner.” Ahmari concludes: “He will always disappoint you. And with each disappointment comes a fresh dose of humiliation.” His warning to journalists applies even more to officials who imagine they serve the public interest by serving Trump.
Republicans have spoken a great deal in recent days about their commitment to racial justice, but they need to back up their talk. Now, for example, would be an excellent time for them to pass a revised Voting Rights Act and to end their voter suppression efforts.
And let there be soul-searching in the party about racial dog whistles that exploit white resentment in ways more subtle than Trump’s but still scandalous. Party leaders failed to reproach Trump unequivocally for his birtherist attacks on President Barack Obama. Birtherism was a first step toward Charlottesville.
Every new Trump outrage seems to invite bold declarations that this time will be the end of the line. If this week’s spectacle of moral obtuseness isn’t the breaking point, may God save our republic.
Josh Barro makes a similar argument at Business Insider:
Trump has taught the Republican Party a few unfortunate things. He showed that the penalty for overt racism, not to mention for admissions of habitual sexual assault, is a lot lower among the entire electorate than it is among cultural and business elites. (I say “entire” for a reason: Trump seems to have done no worse among black or Hispanic voters than Romney did.)
Trump showed the 2013 GOP autopsy report was wrong and that the party did not need to move to the center on immigration and inclusion to win elections. In fact, it could win by shifting in a nativist direction and winning even more support among white voters.
Trump popularized Steve Bannon’s realization that there are a lot of angry men out there, stewing on the internet, often in their parents’ basements, angry that women won’t have sex with them, and waiting to be organized. Now that they exist as a force within the party, they won’t be going away — and they won’t be agitating for a Graham or a Romney.
And Trump showed the crew of Pepe-avatar morons and hang-Hillary hotheads that they could take over the party if they wanted.
In a way, the Republican Party is getting what it deserved for indulging its racist elements for so long. But there’s no way of going back to how things used to be.
“Normal” Republicans can’t displace Trump because they don’t have an alternative to white grievance as a core message. And if the party is going to have white grievance as its core message, how can it be expected to gain distance from white supremacists?
Barro’s column goes into far more detail than this, and it’s worth reading in full, but his point is nonetheless clear. Perhaps Republicans could have been excused at the beginning of the Administration for lining up behind the President even though they found his rhetoric grating and often embarrassing. For better or worse, he is the leader of their party, and if they are going to get anything done on Capitol Hill over the next two to four years they are going to need the cooperation and support of the White House to get it done. Additionally, there have been plenty of points where the agenda of Republicans on Capitol Hill have been parallel to those of the President over the past six months, including things such as the effort to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed to the Supreme Court, the health care reform debate, and budgetary issues. Additionally, the fact that Trump continues to enjoy widespread support from the Republican base that exceeds that for Congress itself or any of the member of the Congressional leadership means that the party as a whole, and individual members, take a big political risk any time they seek to distance themselves from a President that remains popular within the GOP even as he becomes more and more unpopular in the nation as a whole.
There comes a time, though, when political reality and the fear of facing a Trump-backed primary challenger in 2018 have to take a back seat to considerations of morality and what is best for the nation. Objectively speaking, it’s not hard to see that the answer ought to be that officials will do what’s best for the country, but history has unfortunately shown that elected officials far too often put partisan loyalty and the desire to safeguard their own political futures ahead of the interests of their country. There have been some exceptions to that rule, of course. Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska have been particularly notable in their willingness to defy President Trump several times over the past six months, for example. Notwithstanding the fact that we are just 210 days into the Trump Presidency, it seems clear that this time is fast approaching and may have already been reached. Former candidates for President ranging from Rick Perry to Mitt Romney who sought to warn their party of the danger that Trump posed.
In addition to a long history prior to the time he entered the race for President of making inappropriate and offensive comments about celebrities, public officials such as President Obama, and other matters, Trump’s campaign was built largely on the legacy of being outrageous and appealing to the worst aspects of American politics. From the start of his campaign, his speeches, media appearances, and Tweets included instances of making bigoted comments about Mexicans, John McCain, Megyn Kelly, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, a disabled New York Times reporter, and Muslims in the most crass and demeaning manner, encouraging his supporters to engage in violence against supporters, and demonstrating utter disdain for the Rule of Law and Freedom of the Press. During the campaign itself, he did everything from attacking a Federal Judge and the parents of a soldier who gave his life in defense of his fellow soldiers to defending demeaning and sexually graphic comments about women that he made during a taping of Access Hollywood. More broadly, throughout 2015 and 2016, Trump openly courted the support of people who identified with the so-called alt-right and, eventually, made Steven Bannon, the founder of a website that has taken up their cause, a close campaign adviser and now a top adviser in the Oval Office itself. Taken in that context, the President’s initial response to the events in Charlottesville and his rambling press conference on Tuesday where repeated that response and essentially repudiated the more measured statement he made on Monday have only served to make the reality about this President clearer.
During the campaign, I argued that Republicans were facing a time for choosing between their country and their party and, by and large, they chose to put their party’s interests before their country, thus we are faced with the prospect of this man being President for at least the next three and a half years. That doesn’t mean, though, that Republicans are required to sit idly by and tolerate whatever nonsense may spew forth from the White House and the President’s Twitter account, though. If they chose to, they could stand up and denounce him by name. With very few exceptions, though, that isn’t happening. Instead, we see Republican officials saying all the right things about denouncing the hatred that came out in Charlottesville last weekend but failing to denounce by name the President who has implicitly endorsed that hatred with his statements in the wake of the violence. As long as that continues, their party will continued to be tied to Donald Trump, and the consequences for that, though it may be some time before they emerge, are likely to be quite sever.