Half a dozen years ago — just before Donald Trump latched on to the birther issue, but when the conservative base was already erupting in racialized terror against President Obama — The Simpsons slyly satirized Fox News with a pretend slogan: “NOT RACIST, BUT #1 WITH RACISTS.” The first part was probably too kind to a network that has frequently stoked white racial paranoia (and just last week had a prominent host lashing out at Michelle Obama for pointing out that the White House was built by slaves). But it perfectly describes most of the elite of the Republican Party. Within the Grand Old Party, open racism is extremely rare. Far more common is denial of the persistence of racism in American life, a willingness to pursue policies that disadvantage nonwhites, and a refusal to jeopardize the party’s support among racists. Donald Trump has pulled the cloak away, leaving the party’s alliance with racism exposed for all to see.
Donald Trump’s first appearance in the New York Times, in 1973, came as a result of a lawsuit by the Department of Justice over his refusal to rent to African-Americans. In 1989, he took out a full-page ad in the New York Daily News to demand the death penalty for five African-Americans for a rape in Central Park. (They turned out to be innocent.) He has been credibly accused by former associates of racist statements and practices behind closed doors. As a presidential candidate, he has focused more of his attention on Latinos and Muslims, but the discriminatory quality of his persona has, if anything, grown even more naked. He declared that Judge Gonzalo Curiel is unfit to preside over the most recent of his many lawsuits, this one concerning fraudulent practices at “Trump University,” because Curiel is “Mexican,” which is Trump’s way of saying Curiel descends from immigrants from Mexico. He also proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and then later blamed the rampage in Orlando on the entire Muslim American community, who (he claimed) refused to cooperate with authorities against terrorism.
These statements were not incidental gaffes. They were the foundation of Trump’s appeal. As the political scientist Michael Tesler shows, previous Republican primaries lacked overtly racial themes, and as a result, voters did not choose on that basis. In 2016, Trump prevailed because he won over the most racially resentful Republicans:
Likewise, Trump attracted Republican voters with the most disdain for Muslims:
Khizr Khan’s speech before the Democratic National Convention was emotional because it zeroed in on the racist nature of Trumpism. Trump does not merely call for more restrictive immigration policies or a more stern response to terrorism. He blames the entire community for any crime committed by one of its members, separating all of their members from America and the privileges of citizenship on the basis of their heritage. Khan demanded that Trump reconcile his sweeping characterization of all Muslim Americans with the heartbreaking facts of his dead son’s heroic life and the Constitution itself. (It is Trump’s misfortune, or perhaps ineptitude, that the personalized targets of his feuds happen to be the strongest possible refutation of his prejudice: Curiel had to live in hiding from death threats from Mexican drug cartels; Khan is not only a gold-star father but has publicly called upon his fellow American Muslims to turn in radicals.) In response, Trump baselessly insinuated that Khan did not allow his wife to speak, from which it might follow that he adheres to some extreme variant of Islam, and probably was some sort of secret radical. This smear provided yet more confirmation for Khan’s point that Trump refused to judge suspect minorities as individuals, that nothing they say or do can dispel the suspicion attached to them in Trump’s feverish mind.
These constant displays of racism have placed Trump’s party in a delicate position. Some Republican elected officials have fully embraced their nominee and his ideas; a somewhat smaller number have repudiated them completely. But the vast majority of Republicans have arrayed themselves somewhere along the spectrum between these two positions. The goal of this large middle group is to avoid the taint of Trump’s racist ideas while maintaining the support of the voters who are attracted to them.
The Republican who has kept the greatest distance from Trump without fully opposing him is Senator Jeff Flake, who represents a state (Arizona) with a sizable and growing Latino population. “There’s one sure thing: I don’t want Hillary Clinton to be president,” Flake tells Politico. Flake stayed home during the convention, and he says he is “nowhere near ready to support” the nominee. Flake wants Trump to earn his support, but first the candidate “has to stop using language that demonizes Latinos and mocks prisoners of war,” Politico reports. Flake considers Trump’s racism unacceptable, but sees his racism as a series of discrete acts that he can stop engaging in, rather than a pattern that reflects unacceptably racist underlying beliefs. Flake withholds any character judgment of the nominee; he simply requires that he stop acting so racist for some undefined period of time in order to endorse him. Other blue-state senators, like Susan Collins (who has said Trump “really has to change” in order to win her endorsement), have trod this same careful line.
A second group, closer to Trump, has disavowed his most wildly racist statements while endorsing his candidacy. Figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell fall into this category. Both issued statements praising the heroism of Captain Khan, but without naming Trump. Like Flake or Collins, they wish Trump would stop saying such racist things, but, unlike them, they will support him regardless.
The third group consists of Republicans who may cringe at Trump but keep their reservations private. This category, probably the largest, includes Marco Rubio, who once called Trump a “con man,” then retreated to the position that the nominee “should stop saying” racist things, and is now openly campaigning on Trump’s behalf. “We have got to come together as a party; we cannot lose to Hillary Clinton,” Rubio told the crowd. “We cannot lose the White House. We have to make sure that Donald wins this election,” Rubio told Republicans this weekend. “The future of our Constitution, of our Second Amendment — even of our First Amendment — the future of whether Obamacare stands or not hangs in the balance.”
The Republican Party fashions itself as the party of Lincoln, and when its national leaders have used race as a wedge, they have buried it beneath the language of race neutrality. The official party history holds that Barry Goldwater’s rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was merely an overzealous interpretation of constitutional principle, and the mass influx of white Southerners that followed an unrelated coincidence. Those who don’t closely follow conservative rhetoric may not appreciate how deeply the right has invested itself in these fantasies of racial innocence.
And so, even though Trump has sprung naturally from the conservative fertile soil of racism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism, his nomination is truly a sea change. No successful candidate before him has identified himself so tightly with white-identity politics. His place at the top of the ticket, and potentially as head of state, has presented fellow Republicans with an agonizing dilemma. To be sure, their choice is not comfortable. Those Republicans who have distanced themselves from the nominee, even in carefully measured increments, have endured fierce blowback from their own voters and even donors. (Eliana Johnson reports for National Review that Ted Cruz and his inner circle have been shocked at the hostility his carefully neutral, vote-your-conscience speech in regard to the man who accused his father of potentially murdering President Kennedy has provoked among his supporters.) In a party rife with racism, anti-racism is hardly considered an acceptable basis for partisan disloyalty.
What most Republican elites have always wanted is to lead a party that appeals to a majority of the country on the basis of abstract small-government, patriotic themes. Trump has revealed that this is a hopeless fantasy, and what they can lead instead is a party of racists. And they have decided, nearly every one of them, that they will take it.