Edward Luce: Donald Trump’s apologists have nowhere to hide
The Republican party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. Aug. 13, 2017. President Donald Trump reverted Tuesday to blaming both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., and at one point questioned whether the movement to pull down Confederate statues would lead to the desecration of memorials to George Washington. (Edu Bayer/The New York Times)
Who poses the most realistic threat to the US republic: Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump? In theory, it is obviously Mr Kim. Yet US democracy is within Mr Trump’s striking range at all times.
By providing cover to homegrown neo-Nazis, America’s commander-in-chief is giving succour to the most lethal ideology in history. The fact that the US president does not understand this - or, worse, that he knows it but does not care - is an academic question. The Ku Klux Klan and fellow travellers can scarcely believe their luck. Mr Trump is Mr Trump. The question is what the Republican party plans to do about him.
Judged at face value, the party’s leadership implicitly favours removing Mr Trump. “White supremacy is repulsive,” tweeted Paul Ryan, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr Ryan was an implacable foe of almost everything Barack Obama proposed. Yet he never went so far as to accuse Mr Obama of backing the forces of hate. It follows, therefore, that Mr Ryan believes Mr Trump is unfit to hold the highest office in the land. So too, when privately asked, do many elected Republicans. But will they act on that judgment?
The disturbing answer is not yet. With some honourable exceptions, such as John McCain, the Arizona senator, Republicans are not ready to stand up to the president. Even Mr Ryan, whose condemnation of white supremacism was unequivocal, refrained from criticising Mr Trump directly. Others rushed to his defence. “President Trump once again denounced hate today,” tweeted Kayleigh McEnany, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “The GOP stands behind his message of love and inclusiveness!” By even-handedly condemning the “alt-right” and the “alt-left”, Mr Trump was upholding American values, you see. In addition to bad apples, the far right included some “very fine people”, said the president.
Republicans are paralysed on two counts. First, the party cannot disown what Mr Trump is doing without repudiating themselves. His victory was the logical outcome of the party’s “southern strategy”, which dates from the late 1960s. The goal has been to siphon off southern whites from the Democratic party. Most Republicans have preferred to keep their tactics genteel. The signal of choice has been the dog whistle rather than the megaphone. Thus, in one form or another, most Republican states are reforming their voter registration systems. The fact that such laws disproportionately shrink the non-white electorate is an accidental byproduct of a colour-blind crackdown. Even without proof of widespread fraud, voter suppression has plausible deniability. Over the years, the same has applied to various wars on crime, drugs and welfare fraud, which were never discriminatory by design. Mr Trump has simply taken that approach into the open. He is the Republican party’s Frankenstein. The age of plausible deniability is over.
The second Republican problem is fear. Because of gerrymandering, most Republicans - and Democrats - are more vulnerable to a challenge from within their ranks than to defeat by the other party. As the saying goes, American politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way round. Unfortunately that gives the swing vote to the most committed elements of each party’s base. Though Mr Trump’s approval ratings are lower than for any president in history, he still has the backing of most Republican voters. Any elected Republican who opposes Mr Trump can be sure of merciless reprisal. It is a rare politician who would invite vilification from their own side.
Where will this end? The realistic answer is that Republicans will hide under a rock until they suffer a stinging defeat in next year’s midterm elections. But a defeat in 2018 is far from assured. Even then, it would have to be on a grand scale to reverse America’s deep forces of polarisation. Mr Trump will probably serve out his term.
The more worrying answer is that US democracy is heading towards a form of civil breakdown. After the violence in Charlottesville last weekend, activist groups are seeking to remove statues of Confederate figures across the south. It was opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert Lee, the Confederate general, that drew so many white supremacists to Charlottesville. Each new showdown will offer an irresistible branding opportunity to the far right.
As for Mr Trump, his historic ignominy is assured. One group in Charlottesville stood for racial bigotry. The other opposed it. Mr Trump chose to be neutral. In so doing, he has given life to the worst demons of America’s past.
Edward Luce is the Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times