"Many Republicans do not agree with and will fight back against the idea that the Party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world," said Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina on Wednesday.
That statement says it all — but not in the way Graham intended.
Many Republicans have a big problem with white supremacists. They are controversial within the party!
Quite a few Republican officials are very upset about the president's statement that some of the torch-bearing marchers who chanted "Jews will not replace us" last Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, are "very fine people." They really wish he would stop saying things like that.
Yes, the party has a pro-Nazi wing, which seems to include the president, and that's distressing, but Graham would like you to also remember there is a large anti-Nazi wing that shares your severe distress about the pro-Nazi wing!
If Lindsey Graham is so bothered, he should follow the business council CEOs out the door
I feel Sen. Graham's pain. I used to be a Republican, too. I did not enjoy watching the party become more and more embarrassing, and I did not enjoy watching the officials I liked repeatedly lose intraparty battles.
I think Graham's reaction is sincere, and his anguish about where Trump has taken his party is real. I swear my point in this column is not to make fun of him.
But the thing is, Sen. Graham's side lost the intraparty fight over whether white supremacists are OK, it lost for a reason, and it's not going to wrest power back.
Trump's business executive councils imploded because corporate CEOs realized it was ethically untenable to be associated with the president. Doesn't this apply even more to elected Republican officials, who are now members of a party whose leader wishes to associate them with at least some fraction of white-power marchers?
Any step Graham takes to solidify the grip of the Republican Party in Washington is now a step to strengthen the pro-white supremacist leadership in the White House.
If Republicans like Graham hate what Trump has done to the Republican Party, and they want to show they find it untenable to be associated with white supremacists, their only ethical option is to exit the party.
The Trumpist right will not be going back in its box
What you hear in Graham's voice is a desire to return to the status quo ante, with white-grievance politics perhaps as a strategic sidebar for the Republican Party but not as its core ideological thrust, and with people like Trump serving as politically useful pot-stirrers rather than powerful officials.
But why would the Trumpists agree to go back to that world, and what would a post-Trump, post-Bannon GOP even stand for?
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.
If Graham wants to stay a Republican senator, he's going to have to work with, for, and under these people. And this isn't just something that happened — it's the fault of establishment Republicans like Graham.
Trump took power partly because a lot of Republican voters wanted someone exactly like him, and partly because the Republican Party's incumbent leadership had no appealing (or even coherent) alternative to offer those voters.
Let's start by blaming George W. Bush
If the post-Bush GOP has often seemed to lack real policy ideas, a lot of the blame for that lies with George W. Bush, whose presidency was built on three big policy ideas that blew up in the party's face.
The first idea was the "ownership society": That the path to middle-class prosperity was a smaller government and more ownership of capital by ordinary people. In theory, Bush wanted people to rely more on private investment accounts for retirement, but the main way the ownership society manifested during his presidency was that people borrowed against home equity values they thought would keep rising rapidly forever.
This all ended very badly and nobody talks about the "ownership society" anymore.
The second idea was foreign interventionism and democracy promotion. Unlike the dark and angry militarism of Trump, this was a bright and hopeful militarism that sought to use wars to remake the world in our democratic image. This idea has come into severe disrepute, for obvious reasons.
The third idea was a social conservatism built around traditional Christian morality, in particular opposition to gay marriage. Gay-marriage ballot measures were an effective strategy for organizing evangelical Christian voters and bringing them to the polls in 2004.
But public opinion has strongly shifted on this issue, and Republicans barely talk about gay marriage anymore. Trump found a new way to rally white Evangelicals that focuses less on the Evangelical aspect and more on the white aspect.
The post-Bush Republican Party was ripe for takeover by a demagogue like Trump
After Bush skulked out of office, there were three kinds of Republicans left. There were Republicans like Sen. Graham with big, unpopular ideas, like waging more Iraq-style wars of intervention. There were Republicans with no real ideas besides opposing Barack Obama.
And then there was Trump, with novel ideas like turning the party much more explicitly toward a politics of white grievance and openly embracing white nationalists.
Trump had ideas about how he'd make middle-income people's lives better: trade and immigration restriction to protect them from competing with foreigners; aggressive policing to stop a supposed wave of crime and violence; "huge tax cuts" without cuts to entitlement programs; and a restoration of white people's concerns to the center of American politics.
Trump's opponents protested these ideas were specious, and offensive, and unconservative to boot. But what did they have to offer? Warmed-over Bushism, minus its most toxic bits; plus opposition to Obama that was slightly less caustic than Trump's; plus a lot fewer appeals to white identity.
Trump won because the offerings of his opponents were truly pathetic. Today, his intraparty opponents remain pathetic. Where is their alternative vision?
Say what you want about the tenets of the so-called alt-right. At least it's an ethos.
All that united the post-Bush GOP was rage at Barack Obama
The failure of the healthcare-repeal bill is more closely related to the party's newly overt alignment with white nationalists than you might think. The link is this: If not white nationalism, what is there for the Republican Party to stand for?
The collapse of the healthcare-repeal bill demonstrated the party's lack of any ideological intentions even on the policy issue that dominated its campaigns for the past seven years.
When Obama was president, they attacked his signature law from the right or the left — whichever was convenient at the time. But when given the power to change the policy, they had no alternative of their own to implement.
There are Republican officials like Sen. Mike Lee who do have principled ideas about healthcare they would like to implement. But these ideas are very unpopular, and were never what most Republican voters cared about when they railed against "Obamacare."
Trump understood that rage against Obamacare was principally rage against Obama — not rage against government healthcare spending, which he promised to protect, or rage against the idea of government guarantees of insurance, which he promised to extend to everyone.
And he understood that this was also true on a variety of other issues. You don't have to be anti-government to win a Republican primary. You just have to promise to refocus the government on the grievances of white people, unlike the bad, black man who was spending all your money on "Obamaphones."
I'm not saying the torch-bearing white-power marchers from Charlottesville represent the median voter within a Republican party that came to be motivated by these impulses. But it's obvious why such people would align with the party that was governed by these impulses, and why a candidate who sought to harness these ideas (if you can call them ideas) would view them as a key part of his base. Right?
Republicans indulged Trump's racist campaign against Obama because they thought they could channel it
In the winter of 2012, months after Donald Trump started his search for President Obama's real birthplace, Mitt Romney went to Trump's Las Vegas hotel to accept his endorsement for president.
Romney called the endorsement a "delight" and praised Trump for being a more successful businessman than him. If he was bothered at the time by Trump's promotion of racist conspiracy theories about the president, he didn't say so.
In the past 18 months, Romney has repeatedly criticized Trump in sharp terms. Romney never endorsed Trump for president, and I believe he is sincerely alarmed about what Trump has done to the party and the country.
But isn't it a little odd that Romney has never apologized for, or even acknowledged, his own role in elevating and validating Trump? Good people make mistakes; an admission by Romney that he had gone astray would make today's criticisms only more powerful.
I think a reason Romney won't do so is that, for successful Republican politicians, appealing to people with views on race like Trump's is part of the job. You can't win the election without them.
What horrifies people like Romney is not Trump and the Trumpists being in the party; it's them being in control of the party.
These Republicans want to revert to a situation where "normal" Republicans are in charge, but Trump and his base still feel included enough in the party to vote Republican. If retaking control of the party entails pushing Trump's people out entirely, the electoral math won't work anymore and Democrats will win.
So Romney can't apologize for the 2012 endorsement event because that was how things were supposed to work: Trump running his mouth so Romney can run the government.
There is no going back to the old GOP
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?
If Graham can't bear to be associated with these people — if he can't be in a party that has its welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world — then he'll have to stop being a Republican.
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