Republicans in Congress have been meek, if not mute, in responding to such venom. Appearing on “Meet the Press” (before the most recent outburst), Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the more responsible voices on the GOP side, did acknowledge that Trump’s rhetoric demonizes immigrants and makes his job harder, but he only gingerly responded to Trump’s racist rhetoric. “I would just say I would prefer the president would step out and say, ‘A lot of these are folks that are coming for economic reasons. They want to be able to flee into an area where they have greater economic opportunities. Every family wants to be able to see that for their family. But there are also some individuals that are there.'” No condemnation, no outrage.
It is left to retiring members of Congress such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to plead for pushback against the president. Appearing yesterday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Flake argued that “we ought to more jealously guard our institutional prerogative. I think in this crisis we’re in I think the judiciary has stood up well. The press has stood up well in terms of institutions. The balance. But the Congress has been lacking.”
Alas, increasingly, Trump’s utterances find favor with Republicans who have imbibed the toxic brew of right-wing populism. A recent CBS News poll suggests disdain for decency and tolerance goes well beyond Trump:
Republicans and President Trump’s strongest backers saying it is not a high priority to re-unify them, while Democrats say that it is. Seventy-five percent of Democrats call it a high priority, compared to 23 percent of Republicans and just 16 percent of the president’s strongest supporters. Women are more likely to call it a high priority than men. . . . A large majority of Americans – 72 percent – disapprove of family separation. Although Republicans split on that policy, generally – half support it, half oppose it – Republicans do give the president high marks (81 percent favor) for his handling of the matter, overall.
Even more stunning, a majority of Americans (54 percent) want the asylum seekers treated with kindness rather than punished (46 percent); 73 percent of Republicans say they should be punished as an example to others. Republicans, following the lead of Trump and his state-TV, Fox News, are more likely than voters overall to think these people are criminals and gang members. Republicans are less likely than other voters to think they are people looking for jobs or escaping violence.
Flake suggested that someone primary Trump “just to remind Republicans what it means to be conservative or Republican, that we believe in limited government, economic freedom, free trade, immigration.” But right now, they don’t. This is the party of mean-spiritedness, protectionism, nativism and authoritarianism. I’d wish Flake well if he ran, but I think he’ll need to look outside the confines of a GOP primary for support for his agenda and values.
The degree to which Republicans, to borrow from Exodus, have hardened their hearts against innocents, even wishing them ill, should not surprise us, but it should appall us. Perhaps they are simply mouthing what they think Trump thinks as a way of showing solidarity; but if they are not and they have swallowed his racist bilge, the rest of America needs to take notice. No, we should not excuse cruel, racist people who deliberately choose to ignore facts that contradict their conclusions about immigrants. And, certainly there are people — perhaps some who saw the news accounts for the first time — who are persuadable.
But in the end, it is incumbent on the great majority of Americans who believe asylum seekers — including children — should be treated humanely and who know the vast, vast majority are not criminals or gangsters to make their voices heard and their votes count. We really do face an election in which the soul of America is up for grabs.