What It Means To Be A Republican Now

Ken AshfordRepublicans, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

Ishaan Thoroor in the Washington Post:

Trump saw a white nationalist seam in Republican politics and pulled at it to achieve power. He kept tugging and tugging and has dragged in his direction the entirety of the Republican Party — a party, as New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote, “that elevates its narrow, shrinking base as the only authentic America and would rather restrict the electorate than persuade new voters.” Only a smattering of prominent GOP politicians came out to denounce the president’s remarks; many stayed silent or echoed Trump’s jabs at their Democratic opponents.

It was evidence, once more, of what some analysts see as Trump’s steady assault on norms in American political life — in this instance, the supposedly entrenched belief in the equality of all American citizens, no matter their ethnicity or place of birth.

“But a norm that was built up through speech, persuasion, and belief can be undermined the same way,” observed political philosopher Jacob Levy in a 2018 essay. “Trump’s own racism, his embrace of white nationalist discourse, and his encouragement of the alt-right over the past two years have, through words, made a start on that transformation.”

Levy concluded that “Trump’s stump speeches and unhinged tweets . . . are changing what Republican voters think it means to be a Republican.”

What it means to be Republican now is to be firmly on the far right of Western politics. When set against many of their Western European counterparts, American political parties have always skewed a bit to the right. But Trump has accelerated the steady morphing of the once big tent conservative faction into a vehicle for primal nativist rage and resentment, in some instances in line with Europe’s ultranationalist, far-right parties.

study published last month in the New York Times attempted to map where the Democrats and Republicans sit across a spectrum of Western parties through an analysis of individual party platforms. It placed Trump’s Republicans to the right of a number of parties with an explicit history of neo-fascism; the Democrats, meanwhile, are seen as largely centrist.

That asymmetry is a defining and oft-ignored aspect of American politics, where platitudes over the need for bipartisanship and consensus governance still remain Washington mantra. Through his racist demagoguery, though, Trump is doing a good job bringing the new reality into focus.

“The difference is that in Europe, far-right populist parties are often an alternative to the mainstream,” noted the Times. “In the United States, the Republican Party is the mainstream.”

What is it, exactly, that we want from elected Republicans?

In a perfect world, what we’d want is some combination of the following:

  • Universal condemnation of Trump’s remarks.
  • Reaching out to Democrats in order to establish a bipartisan response showing unity of purpose.
  • Backing of a formal censure or similar statement of legislative condemnation.

The problem is that we do not now, nor have we ever, lived in a perfect world.

So I would suggest that while this is a reasonable hope, it would be an unreasonable expectation.

In the real world, there is some percentage of elected Republicans who simply will not criticize President Trump.

Their reasons may differ. Some of them genuinely believe that it is not their place. Some genuinely believe that their party is bigger than any one man and must be supported at all costs. Some genuinely believe that criticizing Trump will produce worse outcomes than not criticizing him.

And some genuinely believe that Trump is right on the merits. Which is to say, they also wish that brown people would just “go back to their own countries.”

Which leaves us with a Republican party in which only some percentage would even want to criticize or censure Trump, even if they got a free pass for doing so.

Would that percentage by 80 percent? Or 50 percent? Or 30 percent?

I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter because the reality is that it means that the Republican party can’t/won’t criticize Trump. Only some portion of it could/would.

So when we say that we want Republicans to condemn Trump here, we’re saying that we want them to break the party.

That’s a big ask.

At just about every step in Trump’s ascension, Republicans who had the power to stop him chose not to, for more or less the reasons outlined above.

The biggest of these missed opportunities was Paul Ryan’s decision not to mount a campaign against Trump following the Access Hollywood tape.

Had Ryan actively turned on Trump and called on other Republicans to do the same, he would have broken the party. That’s a 100 percent certainty.

But Trump would not be president today. That’s also a 100 percent certainty.

Which means that all of the damage Trump has inflicted on the GOP since 2016 wouldn’t have happened. And without the power of the White House, his institutional hold on the party would have been broken. If the party was capable of healing itself—an open question—the healing process would already be underway.

Paul Ryan’s political career would have been over, too. But then, that was inevitable at the time anyway. Ryan just didn’t realize it.

So there’s the case for Republicans actually speaking their mind:

You might break the party.

You might sacrifice your political career.

But those things are happening already. Right now. Whether you like it or not.

And with every passing corruption, the institutional value of the party diminishes. Because institutions are only forces for good when they are in the right hands. When bad people control them, institutions can be deeply destructive.

Finally, if you disagree with President Trump on whether or not your political opponents should “go back to their own country” then as of right now you areout of step with your party. And that bill will come due eventually.

Just ask Paul Ryan.

Greg Sargent makes an astute observation about this fatuous spin in which Trump’s racism is actually good for the Republicans:

In the closing days of the 2018 elections, President Trump’s political guru, Brad Parscale, rolled out a massive TV ad campaign featuring a worried suburban mom fussing over her daughter. The woman told herself that everything would be okay, because of Trump’s economy — yet the spot did not feature Trump himself.

This ad, Parscale said at the time, was targeted toward “independent voters” and “suburban mothers.”

Meanwhile, Trump was sending the military to the border, demonizing asylum seekers as criminal invaders, and attacking Democrats as socialists, with some GOP ads tying then-House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Nancy Pelosi. Republicans then lost more than 40 House seats, making Pelosi the speaker — to no small degree due to desertions by suburban women like the one in Trump’s own ad.

Now that Trump is continuing his racist attacks on nonwhite progressive lawmakers, this political dualism is on display once again. Trump is confidently proclaiming that these attacks will deliver victory in 2020 — which is a claim about his blue-collar white base — yet the real headwinds Trump faces are among those very same more upscale and suburban white voters.

Trump just unleashed a new tweetstorm aimed at the four nonwhite congresswomen he has been targeting, accusing them of “vile” and “hateful” and “pro-terrorist” rhetoric, and bashing the Democratic Party for refusing to take on the “Radical Left.”

Trump sees this as a winner, claiming that he cleverly forced the party to defend Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad,” and this is “Not good for the Democrats!” Some pundits have endorsed this idea, suggesting this is the turf Trump wants 2020 fought upon.

Similarly, Trump campaign operatives tell The Post’s Jacqueline Alemany that this is brilliant politics. One claims Trump’s attacks “reinforced in the minds of many Americans that the Democratic Party is the party of AOC and Omar.”

Trump advisers made this same boast in 2018.

What’s strange about this argument is that it pretends the last major national election never happened. Indeed, it’s worth recalling that Trump allies made an almost identical boast in the runup to the 2018 elections.

“I want them to talk about racism every day,” former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon said in August 2017. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

“The Democratic Party is at grave risk of completely marginalizing itself,” Trump adviser Stephen Miller said in the summer of 2018, scoffing at the party’s alleged embrace of “absolutist anti-enforcement positions,” and of “vile” MS-13 members.

In August 2017, the racial battle was over Confederate statues. In 2018, it was over caravans of asylum seekers. Now it’s over young, nonwhite lawmakers who are criticizing America, for which they are being told by the president of the United States that they should “go back” to the countries of their ancestry, even though three of them were born in the United States.

But in all these three cases, the argument is basically the same: The Democratic Party is defined by a race-obsessed fringe, which means it can’t win a national majority. In the Bannon-Miller mythology, a silent majority agrees with Trump on immigration and is repelled by Democratic race-baiting, and a nationalism that fuses this cultural message with Trump’s economic agenda will durably hold that majority.

But, as the ad featuring the worried suburban woman showed, even some of Trump’s own advisers didn’t believe this. They needed to decouple the economy from Trump and his nationalism and nativism, to win back independents and suburban women.

But it was too late. David Drucker reported that even Republicans privately admitted Trump’s immigration focus — his hate and nativism — helped cost the GOP the House by alienating those constituencies.

Given this history, why would anyone credulously accept Trump’s spin that similar race-baiting will be a huge winner this time around?

They were trying to move him toward attacking socialism instead of women of color but it’s not going to work. For him, it’s all about racism — because he’s a racist and he believes his base voters are too. And sadly, he is right. They are. And now they expect their president to “tell it like it is” which means dogwhistling is not going to be enough. 

But they cannot win without at least a few of those suburban moms and independents.

Amanda Marcotte says the same thing, noting that the white nationalism of Fox News makes Trump think he has a winning strategy:

So where does Trump getting this idea that ever more extreme racism is the way to win over voters? One major source is likely his favorite TV network and the only source of information he tends to take seriously: Fox News.

For years now, Fox News has been mainstreaming arguments that used to be the province of  fringe websites run by neo-Nazis and other groups who believe the U.S. is meant to be a country of white people and for white people — perhaps with others permitted in small numbers of they stay quiet and keep to themselves. Trump was a major factor in the early rumblings of white nationalism on the network, which gave him considerable airtime during his reality TV days to air conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Such “birther” theories rested fairly obviously, in the first place, on the belief that black people cannot be “real” Americans.

Since Trump was elected, the Fox News programming that promotes white nationalist ideas has slowly grown both in airtime and in severity. At Salon, we sounded the alarm in the early months of Trump’s presidency, when prime-time Fox News host Tucker Carlson began to experiment with segments that used euphemisms like “Western civilization” to package the idea that white people are inherently more civilized while people of color are a threat to national stability.

Since then, Carlson and many of other Fox News pundits have only grown bolder. “Replacement theory” — the white nationalist idea that has spurred multiple terrorist attacks, holding that white people will somehow be removed and “replaced” by people of color — used to be confined to fringe neo-Nazi websites with atrocious early-2000s design aesthetics. Now that’s become a regular feature of slick Fox News segments, which suggest that immigrants of color are “invading the country” and can never be “fully American,” and that demographic changes from immigration are “more change than human beings are designed to digest” and inherently a threat to “your neighborhood.”

The network also hypes the idea that nonwhite immigrants are dirty and diseased, as well as inherently criminal. (For about the 400th time: Immigrants, documented or otherwise, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. There is no serious dispute about this.) Furthermore, because many immigrants speak languages other than English and may eat unfamiliar food or bring cultural practices that appear foreign to some, American society will soon be “tipping over a cliff.”

This is the same kind of rhetoric that was used to demonize the Irish and Italian immigrants of the past, who were seen as threats to American culture due to scary foreign practices like putting garlic in food and praying with the Rosary. One hardly needs to mention the bigotry and discrimination directed at Jewish immigrants, who were barred from certain neighborhoods and many commercial establishments well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, most of the Fox News audience for this rhetoric, the president included,  doesn’t know anything about that history, or care to learn.

It’s true that Fox News ratings are high, and that is incredibly meaningful to Trump, who has a long-standing obsession with TV ratings dating back to his days as host of “The Apprentice.” More important still, Trump tends to view TV ratings as the single  most meaningful metric of public opinion, one that far outweighs more statistically significant measures like political polling.

In looking over Trump’s Twitter obsession with TV ratings, it’s clear that he believes — or at least pretends to believe — that ratings are tied tightly to alliance with his racist agenda. It’s not just that he routinely mocks CNN and MSNBC for supposedly having poor ratings. Any TV product that deviates too far from a racist agenda, he believes, takes a ratings hit for it. When NFL players were protesting racism, Trump gleefully declared it was hurting TV ratings. When the Oscars tried to improve racial diversity and attendees decried Trump’s bigotry, he gloated that it was the “Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY”. He even repeatedly (and falsely) tried to argue that his inauguration ratings exceeded Barack Obama’s.

The pattern is clear: Trump believes racism is more popular than anti-racism, because, he believes, racism gets TV viewers and anti-racism doesn’t. And getting TV viewers is the only measurement he takes seriously.

By any measure of cable viewership, there is no denying that Fox News has disturbingly high ratings. Its daytime audience is 1.3 million viewers on average and the prime time shows pull 2.4 million people. That doesn’t just outdo other cable news networks, but mainstays like TNT and HGTV. Carlson gets nearly 3 million viewers a night, numbers that far exceed his rabid fan base of open white nationalists. Racism does sell, and the audience for white nationalist rhetoric is not small.

But those numbers do not even come close to a majority of Americans, or even of American voters. Nearly 129 million Americans voted in 2016, meaning that only about 2% of the electorate is tuning into Carlson’s show on any given night. By contrast, the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” has nearly 19 million viewers. Racism sells, sure — but exponentially less well than unfunny sitcoms with aggressive laugh tracks.

Trump’s racism is wildly popular with his base, in other words, but a large majority of Americans find it repulsive. No amount of the president’s obsessive dissection of cable ratings will change that. That’s not to say Trump’s opponents should become complacent or assume that his unpopularity will automatically translate into a 2020 defeat.

Unfortunately, racists are dramatically overrepresented in politics, due to the outdated mechanism of the Electoral College, which is how Trump won the 2016 election while getting nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.  He could certainly pull it off again.

Still, Trump’s apparently adamant belief that white nationalism will pay off in electoral terms doesn’t reflect any reputable political polling. It appears instead to be an artifact of his obsession with TV and with Fox News in particular. It’s a closed loop of awfulness: The more Trump pushes his racist agenda, the more the network amplifies his message, and the more he believes his bigotry is massively popular. Unless and until Trump takes a decisive L in 2020, he’s going to keep believing the majority of Americans are secretly on his side.

We really need to go after Fox advertisers. Racism-for-profit cannot be permitted to thrive.

P.S. Oh fuck you McConnell

Both sides-ism