With John Kasich abandoned even by establishment figures like Jeb Bush (for Ted Cruz) and Rudy Giuliani (for Donald Trump), the GOP standard bearer this year will almost certainly be one of two loathsome wannabe strongmen—a Banana Republican, and I don’t mean someone shopping for khakis.
This was just another week in monkey land. First, Cruz imperiled our safety by arguing (to the horror of police chiefs and counter-terrorism officials in both parties) for un-American police occupations of Muslim communities that would alienate the very people whose help we need to prevent terrorists from striking. Trump gave his Lyin’ Ted line a rest long enough to endorse Cruz’s dangerous idea.
But not too long—only a few hours. On Tuesday, while the bodies in Brussels were still warm, Trump Tweeted innuendo about Cruz’s wife after charging that Cruz spread naked pictures of Trump’s future first lady. Cruz responded in kind.
You might think Cruz and Trump would take a few hours off from their juvenilia out of respect for the victims, or at least realize that their little flare-up mostly just served to spread Melania Trump’s privates and Heidi Cruz’s unhappiness with her husband to the far corners of the globe.
But we know better than to expect that out of these guys.
That’s because we are living in a different country now, for at least the next seven months. It’s a country more like… Argentina. Not the Argentina that President Obama is visiting, the one whose president is committed to addressing climate change and advancing the rule of law. I mean the Argentina of President Juan Peron, the one whose wife, Evita, told her country not to cry for her.
Or maybe the right comparison is the old Paraguay, or the old Guatemala, or the old Nicaragua…
At the turn of the last century, when the U.S. was beginning to feel its oats as a world leader (often to the point of military intervention in Latin America and the Philippines), the great short story writer O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” to describe politically unstable and socially stratified countries that often depended on a single product—bananas, or, more recently, oil.
These Third World oligarchies or single-party states—and we still see plenty of them around the globe—are run by right-wing strongmen who make their own rules and are often more than faintly ridiculous. So while there’s something to the comparisons between Trump and Benito Mussolini (though not Hitler, who has become a lazy cliché in these debates), it’s the tin-horn dictators and their craven supporters who we should be referencing.
Banana Republicans use fear and threats to public safety to stigmatize ethnic groups and political opponents in order to consolidate power. The “other” can be communists, Muslims, Jews, Mexicans, anyone.
Banana Republicans call their enemies “parasites” (as the Trump campaign refers to protesters), a trope favored by totalitarians for generations because it makes “removal” or “relief” seem more natural.
Banana Republicans are not only unapologetic about immense income inequality, they support tax policies to make it worse. They pose as outsiders (what were once called “men on horseback”) and populists while furthering oligarchy.
Banana Republicans are fierce nationalists and devotees of “honor culture” (to wit, the wife business) who condone violence when it’s convenient. Trump’s claim that “there will be riots” if he’s not nominated was right out of the despot handbook—“Nice little democracy you have there. Pity if anything should happen to it.”
Banana Republicans always try to intimidate the media. Trump's decision to block critical reporters from major news organizations (Politico and Huffington Post, among others) from his news conferences is something that, until now, happened in other countries, not here.
Banana Republicans sully stately institutions with out-of-bounds rhetoric (Cruz calling Mitch McConnell a “liar” on the Senate floor), while attempting to politicize the judiciary. Thanks to McConnell and his colleagues, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Merrick Garland, is the first nominee to the high court in American history not to be granted the courtesy of a hearing. This refusal to recognize that the president’s term is four years, not three, resonates of the cavalier way dictators view their constitutions. It suggests the contempt for tradition and the Constitution inside the GOP extends far beyond its leading candidates for president.
It sounds portentous, but this is a time of moral reckoning for all Americans. You can’t believe Trump is a con man and also support him if he’s the nominee. That’s putting party before country. You can’t be a network executive knowingly manipulated by Trump and rationalize it with reference to great ratings. That’s putting money above liberty.
And you—we—should be worried for the stability of our country when one of our great political parties—an important institution deserving of respect in ordinary times, even from opponents—becomes a recruiting tool for terrorists and a laughingstock around the world. It isn’t funny to slip on the banana peel of history.