Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?
Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?
Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.
So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.
Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.
This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.
No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)
But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.
The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.
With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like
- Social Security,
- Medicaid and the
- Affordable Care Act.
So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.
But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.
The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.
A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.
But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.
In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.
So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.
In the last days of the campaign, the president is going all in on turning out his base. But base voters aren’t the only ones Republicans need.
The ad has drawn immediate comparisons to the infamous “Willie Horton” spot that Republicans used to attack the Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election, though as the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse notes, it’s actually worse: The makers of the Horton ad were at least ashamed of inflaming racial tension, while the president is proudly trumpeting his. (It’s also not running on television anywhere. Instead, the Trump team is relying on word of mouth and media coverage to spread it, so that even writing critically turns critics into abettors.)
.. It seems just as likely that
- Trump is resorting to immigration at this stage because, even though the economy is strong, his signature policies, like a big tax cut, aren’t popular; because
- his health-care position is downright unpopular; and because,
- without Hillary Clinton in the mix, he doesn’t have an effective villain against whom he can campaign.
Just because it’s a desperation play doesn’t mean it won’t work. But if it does, it will do so not by persuading swing voters, but by driving as many Trump-supporting voters to the polls as possible, and neutralizing Democratic advantages on enthusiasm and turnout. The problem is that while Trump’s base remains devoted, it’s also slowly shrinking. Along with others, I have argued for months that Trump’s strategy of only appealing to his hardest-core supporters and not making any effort to expand his coalition is a dangerous strategy, since his base remains a small share of the electorate. The president’s decision to go all in on immigration in the last week of the midterms will provide a crucial test of whether the base is indeed insufficient—or whether he once more knows something the political class doesn’t.
As long as I’ve covered politics, Republicans have been trying to scare me.
Sometimes, it has been about gays and transgender people and uppity women looming, but usually it has been about people with darker skin looming.
They’re coming, always coming, to take things and change things and hurt people.
A Democratic president coined the expression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it was Republicans who flipped the sentiment and turned it into a powerful and remorseless campaign ethos: Make voters fear fear itself.
The president has, after all, put a tremendous effort into the sulfurous stew of lies, racially charged rhetoric and scaremongering that he has been serving up as an election closer. He has been inspired to new depths of delusion, tweeting that “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not! Vote Republican.”
He has been twinning the words “caravan” and “Kavanaugh” in a mellifluous poem to white male hegemony. Whites should be afraid of the migrant caravan traveling from Central America, especially since “unknown Middle Easterners” were hidden in its midst, an alternative fact that he cheerfully acknowledged was based on nothing.
The word “Kavanaugh” is meant to evoke the fear that aggrieved women will hurtle out of the past to tear down men from their rightful perches of privilege.
Naomi Wolf told Bill Clinton, and later Al Gore, they should present themselves as the Good Father, strong enough to protect the home (America) from invaders.
The Left is still looking for scapegoats for his 2016 victory, and the coterie of critics on the right — loosely referred to as Never Trump — often sound like they are in denial.
.. A serious primary challenge is not in the offing. For that to change, it would probably take a smoking-gun revelation in the Mueller probe or some other jaw-dropping scandal, plus a significant political betrayal. And if Trump crashes and burns, it is doubtful the 2020 nomination would be worth having. This means that Trump’s welfare is inextricably caught up with the party’s... Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have been the potent figure he was in the late 1970s if he hadn’t pounded away at the premier populist-nationalism issue of the time, resistance to giving up the Panama Canal: “We bought it. We built it. We paid for it. It’s ours.”
We can argue about what role populism and nationalism should have in conservative politics, but that they have a place, and always have, is undeniable.
.. Trump is not seriously engaged enough to drive this himself, while congressional Republicans lack interest in immigration restriction and oppose Trump on trade. But make no mistake: On immigration and China trade, Trump is closer to the national Republican consensus than his conservative detractors.