I’ve been reading recently about Bill Clinton’s presidency for a project I’m working on, and I just got to the part about the Oklahoma City bombing. What stood out to me, reading over this material in the Era of Trump, is the way a number of congressional Republicans at the time played footsie with the then-burgeoning far-right militia movements in the run-up to the bombing itself.
If you have no memory of that time, here’s what happened in a nutshell. Right-wing militia movements started growing in the late 1980s. In August 1992, federal agents shot and killed a survivalist in Idaho named Randy Weaver, and his wife and son, after a months-long standoff after Weaver had missed a court date (it was on a weapons charge, but the government really wanted him to flip and become an informant on Aryan Nations, and he said no). It became an iconic moment in those circles.
UPDATE: Randy Weaver survived the raid. His wife and a son were killed, along with a federal agent. He went on to stand trial and was acquitted of most charges; others were laid aside by a judge.
When the dreaded son of the ’60s Clinton was elected, membership in such groups spiked further. Then just three months into Clinton’s term came the FBI storming of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, resulting in 76 deaths. The next year Clinton and Congress passed, over the NRA’s objections (yes, this was possible, although it did help lose the Democrats their House majority in 1994), an assault-weapons ban. Finally, in April 1995, on the second anniversary of the Waco siege, Timothy McVeigh exploded his truck bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
What’s relevant to us today is the way Republicans and the mainstream conservative movement pandered to these militant far-right groups. Many didn’t merely criticize the ATF and the FBI, which was entirely reasonable under the circumstances, but went beyond that to stoke these peoples’ paranoia about government and suggest/not suggest, in that same way we’re familiar with on those non-answer/answers about Obama’s citizenship, that armed resistance was acceptable. Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who was prominent and respected and at one point a plausible presidential candidate, was probably the highest-profile pol to use such rhetoric, arguably aside from Newt Gingrich himself. And of course Republican and conservative movement stoking of fears about immigrants has been constant.
This was also the time when right-wing talk radio was just exploding (there was no Fox News just yet). Aside from all the normal racial and xenophobic ranting, the AM airwaves were also full of defenses of these movements. G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy, once advised his listeners that if they saw an ATF man approaching, “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests.”
There’s no serious counterpart to this on the liberal left. You could compare it I guess to Leonard Bernstein’s radical chic back in the day, but unlike Phil Gramm, Bernstein wasn’t a United States senator whose presidential candidacy was being taken seriously by serious people. The difference may simply stem from the fact that radical left-wingers don’t typically vote in our corrupt capitalist system, while radical right-wingers more typically do. But whatever the reason, the difference is there and has been for a good 20 years at least.
The line from all this to the rise of Donald Trump, based wholly on his immigrant-bashing rhetoric, is direct and indisputable. Back in August, in The New Yorker, Evan Osnos went out and spoke to white nationalists and far-right figures who were enthusiastic about Trump. One, a man named Jared Taylor, who edits a white nationalist magazine, told Osnos: “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”
Trump thus culminates a process that’s been going on in the Republican Party for two generations now. Fringe elements never properly denounced then are now, under Trump, becoming an in-broad-daylight part of the Republican coalition. But now, since all this has been going on so long, are they even fringe elements? When 65 percent of Republicans tell a pollster they support Trump’s poisonous call to ban Muslims from the country, it’s hard to call that fringe. A more recent poll puts that support level at “only” 42 percent, but that’s still higher than the percentage who opposed it (36). That sure isn’t fringe either.
The Republican Party of Trump is becoming a white-identity party, like the far-right parties of Europe. Yes, it includes token members of other races, which accounts for Ben Carson, who’s just a political idiot, whatever his skills in the operating theater. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are in a different category as Cubans; in our political discourse, we throw them into the mix as Latino, but of course Cubans are very different culturally and politically from other Latinos; and besides, there are certainly racial categories among Cubans themselves, and Afro-Cubans these two are not.
But whatever one wants to say about those three and others like them, they’re part of a tiny minority in a party that’s probably 97 percent white people, a significant percentage of whom are now openly embracing their racial identity; that is, they’re supporting Trump as white people, because they feel he will protect their white privilege. And yes, this is very different from why black people voted for Obama as black people, and if you even need me to explain that, you’re totally lost.
What is the Republican Party going to do about this? So far it sure hasn’t done much. Denunciations of Trump by Reince Priebus and most others are mechanical and pro forma. You can find headlines blaring that all of them “denounced” Trump, but if you actually read the quotes and tweets, they’re mostly worded pretty gingerly. Jeb Bush did call him “unhinged,” but that sounded like sour grapes from Mr. 3 Percent. The only one who for my money sounds genuinely shocked and saddened by this situation is Lindsey Graham. The rest of them are basically ducking the historical moment and hoping it passes.
Maybe it will pass. In the latest Iowa poll, Cruz now leads Trump by 10 points. But Trump still leads by a mile in New Hampshire and nationally. So there’s a strong chance all of this won’t just go away on its own.
Then the Republican Party will have a choice, a choice it really has to make already, about whether it is collectively willing to stand up and say no, we don’t want to become a neo-fascist, white-identity party. Of course if the party’s leaders do that, they are thwarting, potentially, the will of their voters. It’s quite a bind to be in. And it’s one they created, starting at least 20 years ago.