President Trump’s racist outburst has placed his party in an excruciating position. Some have ignored the remarks, and a handful have defended them on the absurd grounds that identifying nonwhite lawmakers as foreigners who are not entitled to criticism of the president is somehow race-neutral. (Trump’s comments are literally defined by federal law as discriminatory.) But as the controversy has unspooled, the predominant impulse within Republican Party ranks is to locate a defensive position by identifying grievances of their own. The point they wish to press is not Trump’s sins but the sins committed against him.
Marco Rubio was groping toward this position when he used anti-Semitic comments by Ilhan Omar to infer that somehow both parties are equally to blame. “Democrats didn’t want to vote on a resolution that condemned anti-Semitism by name,” he charged, somehow failing to recall that Democrats introduced and approved a resolution that began with the words “Condemning anti-Semitism” and proceeded to define the exact terms used by Omar as an example of anti-Semitism.
Rubio’s need to summon this fantasy sequence, in which the events followed the exact opposite of reality, fulfilled a deeper need to balance out the president’s very real offenses with equal ones on the opposing side. If no such offense existed, it had to be imagined.
The House resolution condemning Trump’s tweets gave this impulse a somewhat more concrete form. The House has many rules, some of them quite antiquated and obscure. One of them, which was patterned after a British parliamentary rule forbidding mockery of the king, disallows personal attacks on the president. When House Republicans objected to Nancy’s Pelosi’s statement denouncing Trump’s tweets as racist, Democrats agreed to withdraw her remark but then voted not to strike them from the record. (The rules allow that, too.)
The Wall Street Journal devotes an editorial to this episode. This minor point of parliamentary order has become a sacred principle. “In her zeal to play to the media chorus that Mr. Trump is a ‘racist,’ Mrs. Pelosi violates her own House rules on appropriate speech,” the Journal complains. “All of which proves again that Donald Trump, for all of his excesses, has no monopoly on violating political norms.” Overt white-nationalist rhetoric, violating obscure monarchial-inspired parliamentary traditions, it is all the same, you see.
During this debate, Representative Doug Collins complained, “I believe calling the president a racist is personally offensive.” His cry, repeated on Fox & Friends, may be the pithiest expression of his party’s reaction to the episode in particular and Trump’s racism in general. “Racism” is obviously a subjective notion, but the evidence of Trump’s racism is overwhelming, stretches back decades, and takes every possible form, from private remarks to public statements to documented acts of illegal racial discrimination.
There appears to be no point at which evidence of Trump’s racism will compel most Republicans, though. They are only able to process offense at the charge itself. Indeed, the more evidence Trump supplies for the charge, the more offended they become. Collins confessed their thinking: They won’t entertain the notion that Trump is a racist because it offends them.