The party was infested with racists and white supremacists and their apologists. It had been for decades; since the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, when the Democrats started to return African Americans to conditions of near-servitude and impose Jim Crow laws. By the 1920s, this kind of footsie-playing—and worse—with racist elements had reached a crisis point. The Ku Klux Klan was up to 4 million members, its peak.
There were enough Democrats, from the urban machines of the North, who hated all this and wanted their party to have no part of these people. But the South was the party’s base. What to do? The Northerners forced a fight at the 1924 convention, introducing a resolution to denounce the Klan. It was one of those Moments by which a party becomes known.
Charlottesville is one of those Moments for the GOP. Now, it’s the Republican Party that has spent 40 or 50 years of playing footsie with racists, to the point that their voters finally got the message that it was perfectly OK to nominate an openly racist candidate as president of the United States. Donald Trump’s candidacy didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of the Southern Strategy and Lee Atwater and Jesse Helms’ “hands” ad and talk radio and shrieks of “amnesty” and laws to stop “voter fraud” and a hundred other things I could mention but you know them as well as I do.
The Republican Party created Trump. But elected Republicans at the federal level are not Trump. They’re not openly racist (well, with a couple of exceptions of the Steve King-Louie Gohmert variety). They know better these days—or, let’s hope, they actually aren’t that way in their hearts, which I assume most of them aren’t.
But they laid down as Trump mowed his way through their party, and they mostly endorsed him, and they voted for him, and they’re still hoping to God that he doesn’t start a nuclear war or get nailed to the wall by Bob Mueller before they can fool him into signing another big tax cut for the 1 percent. So their hands are all over this.
It’s not enough for them to say, as most of them have since Saturday, that there’s no place in this country for hatred and bigotry. For the record, the most comprehensive list I saw as of Sunday afternoon was compiled by Haaretz, which had 17 GOP senators—including Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul—saying nothing up to that point.
Most of the statements and tweets issued were broad and pretty ambiguous denunciations of hatred and bigotry. John Thune of South Dakota was typical: “The hate and bigotry occurring in #Charlottesville is disgusting and unacceptable to the American people. America is better than this.” Ted Cruz of Texas was a pleasant surprise in that he used the phrase “domestic terrorism.”
But denouncing bigotry is easy for most Republicans, if not for the president. That isn’t what needs denouncing right now. What needs denouncing is white supremacy. What needs denouncing is a White House and a president who goes out of his way to avoid denouncing white supremacy. What needs denouncing is Trump.
Thus the only Republican senator who actually showed some cojones here is Cory Gardner of Colorado, who put it much more directly:
Notice, Republicans, how this tweet starts. “Mr. President.” It’s directed right to Trump. And it urges him to do the right thing—call something by its name. That’s the only Republican response I saw that’s—I don’t even want to call it courageous. Just decent and called for, after Trump’s disgraceful “many sides” comment. I notice Arizona Senator Jeff Flake tried to piggyback on it by retweeting Gardner. Cheap, Jeff. Come up with 140 characters of your own.
If one could feel in one’s bones that Charlottesville was a one-off, that would be one kind of thing. But I don’t know anyone who feels that. This is the Age of Trump. He may surprise me, and the world, this week by coming out and saying himself—not in some half-baked, terribly late and unattributed White House statement—that “white supremacists, Governor McAulife is right. Go home. And stay home. I don’t want your support.” And if he does, that may discourage these people.
We know Trump knows how. When he spoke up against the MS-13 street gang a month ago, he called its members “animals,” said “they butcher those little girls. They kidnap, they extort, they rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn’t be here.” Said that “it is the policy of this administration to dismantle, decimate and eradicate MS-13” and that “one by one, we’re liberating our American towns.”
Now, he says he disavows violence “on many sides,” and—hours after his surrogates took to the Sunday shows to insist that Trump didn’t call out the white supremacists and swastika-wavers because he didn’t want to “dignify the names of these groups of people,” he left it to the disembodied voice of the White House in an emailed statement a day later to add that when “The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, K.K.K. neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.”
Assuming he does not speak up with his own voice against white supremacists, that he does not call for real national unity, the white supremacists—who applauded the president’s words Saturday—will emerge from this plenty encouraged, and Charlottesville will happen again. And again. People will die, and not just one. People.
When will other Republicans address their president on this matter directly, as Senator Gardner has?
In 1924, William Gibbs McAdoo of California was the favorite for the Democratic nomination heading into the convention. He waffled on the Klan condemnation resolution. It lost by one vote. McAdoo lost the nomination, and he lost a lot of credibility along with it. The next year, the KKK held its biggest-ever march on Washington, upwards of 25,000 people.
We’re unlikely to see white robes, but the sight of 15,000 or maybe even 25,000 people marching on Washington and shouting “Hail Trump!” is hardly beyond imagining—ask anyone who’s been to one of these rallies.
Is that what you want, Paul Ryan? Would that make you proud of your party’s leader, Mitch McConnell? Republicans: Decide. Now