The schism in the GOP could not be more obvious: On one side stands “blood and soil” nationalists bent on stirring the passions of working-class whites who have been convinced that all Muslims are dangerous. They decline to look at the outcomes of the policies; rather, they seek to bond with and channel the irrational anger of their base. The justification for an outlandish policy becomes: That’s what President Trump ran on. (Put differently, the more closely you look at Trump’s executive order on immigration, “the more clearly un-serious it is in addressing any real problem. It’s Breitbart-like boob bait for the bubbas,” as Bill Kristol tweeted.) The order is both under- and overinclusive in scope, substituting immigration exclusionism for national security policy. (Or is it using national security to justify immigration exclusionism?)
When it comes to Trump’s executive order on immigration — which he facetiously declares is not a Muslim ban (didn’t he chide President Obama for ignoring the identity of our enemy?) — the nativists do not care that refugees are the most well-vetted immigrants or that the seven countries from which immigration is halted do not include any from which the 9/11 hijackers (or any other jihadist attack on the homeland) emanated. They remain indifferent to the real possibility that the order could do real and material harm to our military efforts. (The Post quoted former CIA director Michael V. Hayden as saying: “We’ve got good people who will work hard at it, but there is no question that this has already created an irretrievable cost. … [The order] inarguably has made us less safe. It has taken draconian measures against a threat that was hyped. The byproduct is it feeds the Islamic militant narrative and makes it harder for our allies to side with us.”) Together with those that malevolently fan the flames of hysteria and xenophobia are Republicans who have lost their nerve and moral bearings, who imagine their careers or agendas will be bolstered by avoiding confrontation with Trump. That sadly includes such former conservative darlings as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
On the other side of divide were lawmakers — including Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) — foreign policy experts, former officials and the former independent conservative candidate (and former CIA officer) Evan McMullin, all of whom understood how unnecessary, counterproductive and morally offensive was the directive which anti-immigration zealots Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller cooked up. Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Portman matter-of-factly said that while security measures are essential, “we have to do it in a way that’s consistent with our values and consistent with our national security. We are this beacon of hope and opportunity for the rest of the world. That’s our self-image and it’s also an important part of our foreign policy. So we have to do it in a way that makes sense.”
The two halves of the party differ on priorities, sensibilities, tone and values. The Trumpkins have put aside rationality and democratic norms; the other side of the GOP resists. The divide also separates those who already serve in the administration and those who refuse to. Among the latter are Trump critic, former State Department official and scholar Eliot A. Cohen, who wrote:
We were right. And friends who urged us to tone it down, to make our peace with him, to stop saying as loudly as we could “this is abnormal,” to accommodate him, to show loyalty to the Republican Party, to think that he and his advisers could be tamed, were wrong. …
To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.
In short, #NeverTrump Republicans were right to take him literally and to understand the threat he poses to our democracy.
A series of questions — other than what the executive action means and to whom it applies — remain unanswered:
- Was the order vetted through applicable departments (Justice, Homeland Security, State) and if so, did they approve?
- Did Bannon override those who said it should not apply to green-card holders (only to be overruled himself when all hell broke loose)?
- Rather than just give tepid criticism for its incompetent implementation (which makes the healthcare.gov website rollout look brilliant), will Congress move to reverse it by legislation?
- Did we vet the plan with allies, and if so, what was their reaction?
- Is it mere coincidence that Trump has business interests in countries not on the list from which terrorists actually do come?
- Did the Holocaust statement (issued on the same day as the executive order) which left out mention of Jews, and thereby aped the lingo of Holocaust deniers, come from the same campaign operative(s) who dabbled in anti-Semitic symbols during the campaign? Since Reince Priebus and other Trump aides confirmed that the wording intentionally omitted that Jews were the target of Hitler’s genocide, do we conclude the administration is rife with anti-Semitic sentiment — or merely ignorant to a degree we have not seen in a modern president?
- Does the inclusion of pro-Russia political operatives and the removal of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of national intelligence from the permanent National Security Council roster signal the that matters of national security are subservient to the raw political calculation of someone who cheers nationalist right-wing parties in Europe aligned with Russia?
- When is Congress going to demand a full accounting of Trump’s finances to determine if these erratic, damaging national security moves are related to his own financial self-interest?
As important as all those are, the fundamental issue of our times remains: Can Americans reject the hysteria of bigotry, repudiate irrationality, insist policy be based on reality and put aside far less weighty issues that separate left/right, Democrat/Republican in order to defend democratic norms (e.g. free speech, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, the primacy of the Constitution)? The issue is not whether the conservative movement or the GOP survives, but whether the assumptions that underlie American democracy do.