When Donald Trump is the bad cop, everybody can be the good cop.
Republicans lawmakers looked good by comparison over the weekend after a Charlottesville, Virginia, protest turned violent, just by calling out white supremacists and uttering the words “domestic terrorism” — something the president was never able to do.
Some of them looked even better after their “rogue” president’s wild Tuesday press conference, during which Trump bestowed moral equivalence on the neo-Nazi, white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan armed mobs in Charlottesville and the counter-protesters and, just for good measure, conflated the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers with the Civil War and the generals who would have split the nation over the right to own other human beings.
This after a woman was killed, two law officers died in a helicopter crash and torch-bearing marchers yelled unprintable racist and anti-Semitic slogans, terrorizing a peaceful, prayerful gathering inside a church and surrounding and threatening clergy and college students.
It was Trump being his true self, after advisers had tried to squeeze him into an “acting presidential” suit that will never fit.
After Trump segued from infrastructure to a moral abyss, labeling some members of the far-right protest “very fine” people — was he fooled by the polo shirts and khakis? — Republicans came out in condemnation, mostly on Twitter, the president’s favorite form of communication. Even then, few called out the president by name or office. One who did was Arizona Sen. John McCain, who wrote that “there’s no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate& bigotry. The President of the United States should say so.”
There's no moral equivalency between racists & Americans standing up to defy hate& bigotry. The President of the United States should say so— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) August 16, 2017
But Republican lawmakers should stop congratulating themselves. Their disapproval of the president may be genuinely heartfelt. But if they continue to promote an agenda that harms the multicultural, multiracial America that the neo-Nazis and KKK were marching against, how much will that disapproval mean in the end — for America and the party?
The silence of many, even after the president’s combative sparring on Tuesday — as passionate as his conciliatory Monday message was sterile — was astounding. Could their disgust at the president’s repugnant views be muted by the hope that the Republican Party’s legislative, executive and judicial power will still lead to conservative legislation and policies they are chomping at the bit to implement?
Are side-stepping Republicans, with an eye on gerrymandered districts packed with Trump supporters, just hoping all this will blow over? There’s no chance of that when more rallies with emboldened racists showing their faces are planned around the country. KKK leader David Duke loves the chaos, loves his president and thinks Trump’s Tuesday remarks were very fine indeed.
It took years for the party of Lincoln to get where it is, with a leader with sentiments akin not to those of the 16th president but to his rabid and violent 19th-century opponents.
When I closed my eyes and listened to Trump’s defense of the history of the Lost Cause of the antebellum South, I was back in gatherings with the members of the League of the South and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the defenders I quoted in my Charlotte Observer narrative on Confederate heritage groups.
Some were content to place wreaths on the graves of ancestors who served; others promoted a modern-day secession as they traced all of the country’s ills to the day the South surrendered. That’s when, they judged, America was no longer great, and minorities, immigrants and those they deemed unworthy ceased knowing their place.
The South lost the war but won in other ways: in the Jim Crow laws that ruled until the 1960s and 1970s, the restrictive housing covenants that stained neighborhoods like my own in North Carolina and led to a wealth and health imbalance that persists, and in the statues and monuments erected decades after the Civil War’s end, not to commemorate but to intimidate.
It’s cynically amusing to hear staffers from Republicans administrations past, speaking for the virtue of their former bosses in comparison to Trump.
But the current president did not magically drop out of the sky into the Oval Office. He arrived on the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” racial political game the GOP has been playing since Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Republican Barry Goldwater opposed it.
The through line is clear, from Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, to Ronald Reagan’s warnings of “welfare queens,” “young bucks” and support of “states’ rights,” to the gentlemanly George H. W. Bush’s approval of consultant Lee Atwater’s strategy to link his opponent to Willie Horton. George W. Bush had his New Orleans after-Katrina neglect and his gutting of the civil rights mission of his Justice Department.
Democrats since then are not immune: See Bill Clinton’s support of sentencing guidelines that led to mass incarceration, and the “superpredator” quote that came back to haunt Hillary Clinton and for which she eventually apologized.
In the GOP, however, racial dog whistles became a bullhorn. Trump, dragging a history of housing discrimination, remarks slandering every ethnic group and lies about the legitimacy of the first African-American president, was the perfect messenger.
How can he condemn violence when he encouraged it at his rallies? “I love the old days,” he said when verbally attacking a protester. “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”
The president, his aides and Cabinet members, are channeling the bad old days, with tough on crime policies for low-level drug offenses and a retreat from consent decrees that helped restore trust between police and communities. On the federal and state levels, voting restrictions recall those days, as do laws allowing cutbacks on LGBT protections and legal immigration. The loosening of industrial and clean air and water regulations would mean more Flint, Michigans, disproportionately hitting poor communities of color.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he will investigate what he said was an “evil” attack of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, but he has been skeptical of hate crime laws and is implementing the Justice Department’s about-face of many Obama administration inclusive initiatives.
The Trump administration earlier this year stopped funding Life After Hate, an organization devoted to helping people leave far-right white supremacist groups, and revamped its Countering Violent Extremism program to focus solely on Islamist extremism.
Business leaders have stepped up, perhaps sensing that the president is bad for business as well as the country. His council of top corporate leaders started leaking members following Trump’s Charlottesville statements until the president disbanded his executive councils on Wednesday.
But Republican members of Congress, who aren’t afraid of criticizing Trump in 140 characters or less, stop short of much more. North Carolina senators Richard M. Burr and Thom Tillis agree they don’t much like white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And that’s it.
Meanwhile, in the Tar Heel State, the Republican-dominated legislature has had the decency to stop further action on a House-approved bill that would provide civil and criminal cover for drivers who hit protesters as long as the drivers exercised “due care.”
That is America in 2017. It is easy to say “no” to Trump the bully. The next step is backing up words with legislative actions that make a difference in the American lives Republicans insist matter and leading the party of Trump out of the wilderness to Lincoln once again.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.