Richard Cohen: Republicans need to speak out against Trump's racism
There are red states, blue states and, it is now clear, yellow states. The yellow states are represented in Congress by Republicans too cowardly to condemn a president who resorts to unabashed racism not only to stir his base, but also to express his genuine bigotry. Donald Trump does not drink. Stark sober, he is drunk on hate.
In the immediate aftermath of Trump's tweet about four Democratic congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — the GOP went mute. Here and there came objections, but no full-throated, unified denunciation of the president's bigotry. Trump told the women in question to "go back" to the countries they had come from. To do so, three of them need only to stay in place. Just one of them, Omar, was born elsewhere — Somalia. All four, though, are women of color. That, of course, was Trump's point.
Republicans must acknowledge: The party has been taken over by a racist. The Trump of last weekend's tweet binge was the culmination of a racist electoral strategy going back to Richard Nixon's southern strategy and Ronald Reagan's aw-shucks indifference to civil rights. Early in the 1980 campaign, Reagan went to Mississippi's Neshoba County fair to, among other things, extoll "states' rights." He tastelessly uttered those loaded words near where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. The Reagan smile could not mask the appeal to bigotry.
As for Trump, it should come as no surprise that he is a racist. Those who think he is merely appealing to his base and that, in private, he retires to read the speeches of Frederick Douglass ought to chat up people who have long known him. Former associates say his language is often clotted with racist references. Even before he officially ran for president, he was promoting his racist "birther" theory, insisting that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii but in some foreign country — probably Kenya, his father's homeland. Despite it being an obvious lie, Trump stuck to his guns. It was as if he could not fathom how a black person could be an American president. He even said he had dispatched private investigators to Hawaii to get the truth.
I can empathize with some Republicans. Take Lindsey Graham. With considerable understatement he once called Trump a "race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot." But that was then. That was before Trump proved hugely popular in Graham's South Carolina, particularly among Republicans. Graham, who's up for reelection in 2020, must figure that if he denounced Trump, he will lose the Republican senatorial primary. And if that happens, he will not be replaced by a relative moderate but by a rabid Trumper. Cui bono, as the lawyers like to say. Who benefits? No one. Better to swallow indignation and play the occasional round of golf with the president. Graham's handicap must be a troubled conscience.
But the consequences of silence are dear. America's oldest scar — race — is being ripped open. We are a magical, marvelous nation, but we are not immune to the forces of racial chauvinism that have divided other nations. This is not what we want for America. We expel none of our citizens. We send none of them back.
The silence on the right has helped produce a reaction on the left. In the 1930s, the rise of fascism triggered a concurrent rise in communism — a fighting fire with fire sort of thing. Now we have liberals advocating and endorsing a pernicious brand of identity politics where everyone has a label, and certain labels grant unquestioned and unquestionable virtue. This stifles needed debate and produces its own reaction. It is fodder for Trump.
It was said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time. Now Republicans and others parrot a version of that amoral argument. They deplore Trump's rhetoric, but say he has kept unemployment low, employment high and sent the stock market into the ozone layer. But there is a cost to all this. Trump may fatten some wallets, but he feasts on the country's soul. With an insolence borne of ignorance, he gives history the finger and traffics in the blood of Civil War dead, civil rights martyrs and the "Strange Fruit" of countless lynchings. The GOP's silence in the face of all this is not just shameful, it is wrenching.
For crying out loud, say something!
Richard Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.