Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > “We Find the Republican Party Busily Chewing on Itself”

Jun 7, 2016

“We Find the Republican Party Busily Chewing on Itself”

tags: 2016 election,Donald Trump,Joe McCarthy

Mark S. Byrnes is professor of history at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.

“We find the Republican Party … busily chewing on itself”

—Barry Goldwater, commenting on the division over whether to condemn Joseph McCarthy in 1954

Donald Trump’s bigoted comments on Judge Gonzalo Curiel have produced an amazingly clarifying moment for the Republican Party.

John Weiss, the author of The Fascist Tradition, argued that “often scholars ... have failed to perceive how willing respectable conservatives have been to trade these differences with their own ultraright wing in order to prevent the victory of liberalism.” Watching so-called Establishment Republicans supplicate themselves before Trump ever since he became the inevitable nominee certainly bears out this idea.

And now Republicans are dealing with the consequences of that surrender, as Trump refuses to suppress his bigoted views.

The responses from Republican politicians to the most recent Trump outrage seem to fall into four separate categories, representing the fault lines within the party.

First is the “Never Trump” faction, best exemplified by the comments of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina: “This is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy. If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.” Graham faces the reality of Trump’s comments head-on and finds them disqualifying.

No hedging, no qualifications. That's rare.

Then there’s Paul Ryan: too capable of feeling shame to deny the bigoted nature of Trump’s comments, but still unwilling to accept the logical consequences of that acknowledgement. Ryan admitted that “claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should be absolutely disavowed. It’s absolutely unacceptable. But do I believe that Hillary Clinton is the answer? No, I do not.”

Ryan’s position is logically incoherent. If Trump’s repeatedly stated view is “unacceptable,” then he should be retracting his support for Trump’s election. Otherwise, his comments are not at all “unacceptable,” since Ryan is willing not only to accept but support Trump as president despite the fact that he says things that fit “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

If you’re not willing to go “Never Trump,” however, the only way to avoid Ryan’s incoherence is to shamelessly refuse to address the question of whether what Trump said was bigoted. Enter Chris Christie. He denied that Trump is a racist, but when pressed to characterize Trump’s comments, he said: “I am not going to get into critiquing a campaign that we’re in the middle of. There will be plenty of times for post mortem after the campaign is over and if you want to ask me about it then that’s fine. I‘m not going to micro analyze every bit of a campaign because the voters don’t. What matters here is winning and losing, first and foremost.”

The problem with Christie’s solution is that, like Ryan, he also makes crystal clear that there is at least one thing he cares more about than Trump’s bigotry: winning.

Last but not least, there is “I know you are, but what am I?” response. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.): “You can easily argue that the president of the United States is a racist with his policies and his rhetoric. You could go back to presidents of the past.” So what if Trump says bigoted things? Evidently everyone does. Nothing to see here.

The less said about this disgusting response, the better.

There is no precise historical comparison to this moment, but as Graham suggests, the closest may be 1954, when the Republican Party publicly struggled with how to deal with Joseph McCarthy.

Donald Trump did not create “Trumpism” any more than Joe McCarthy before him created “McCarthyism.” In both cases, utterly unscrupulous men intuited the potential of the moment and seized an opportunity to capitalize on it. “Respectable” Republicans in the early 1950s looked down their noses at McCarthy, but as long as he was attacking Harry Truman and the Democrats, they were more than happy to have him do their dirty work. It was only when McCarthy’s witch hunt continued into the Eisenhower administration and he attacked the U.S. Army that he became intolerable. Then as now, for many Republicans, it was simply a matter of tone rather than substance, since their own policy prescriptions were not so substantively different from the demagogue’s.

Similarly, most of today’s Republicans gleefully indulged Trump’s buffoonish birtherism since the target was Barack Obama. The now-righteous champion of respectable politics Mitt Romney willingly accepted Trump’s endorsement four years ago.

What distinguishes Trump from McCarthy is that the latter was ultimately dependent on the party. When Republicans turned on him in 1954, he was finished as a political force. Trump has never been dependent on the party. Now he is taking it over.

Trump’s unrepentant, public bigotry puts elected Republicans in the worst possible position. They were clearly hoping he’d shelve the bigotry as part of a moderating pivot to the general election. That’s not happening. So they have to look forward to the prospect of spending the next five months defending the indefensible, or disowning their party’s presidential nominee.

The GOP was divided over McCarthy in 1954 (which is what gave rise to Goldwater’s remark that the party was “busily chewing on itself”), but it stepped back from the edge when McCarthy attacked the Army. With the quiet support of President Eisenhower, half of the Republicans in the Senate swallowed hard and voted to censure McCarthy. Despite his public support, most Republican elected officials decided that McCarthy did not represent what they wanted their party to be.

Today’s party leaders face a similar choice. Some, like Paul Ryan, are clearly uncomfortable because they know that they have substantive differences with Trump, and that accepting Trump today normalizes every outrageous policy he proposes and bigoted comment he makes. Others, like Sen. Mark Kirk, have decided to cut their losses and un-endorse Trump.

Anything less than a forthright repudiation of Trump will mark every Republican officeholder with his dangerous bigotry, but it will do even more than that: it will brand the entire Republican Party with that bigotry.

Paul Ryan’s public equivocations will not do. He told CBS News that “what bothers me about the comments is it does not represent who we are or what we think or how we think as Republicans. It’s antithetical to what we think and our principles.”

But those comments do represent Donald Trump and what he thinks. He has told us repeatedly who he is. It’s unmistakable.

It’s time. Choose.

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