The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why no one should be surprised that Donald Trump didn’t disavow the KKK

Donald Trump disavowed former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Feb. 26, but then declined to do so on Feb. 28. The Fix's Chris Cillizza asks, "why?" (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Trashing Donald Trump for failing to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and one of its better-known living figures, David Duke, is all the rage in Republican circles right now.

The Republican Party’s Donald Trump implosion is happening, now

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the presidential candidate it seems much of the Republican establishment is hoping can lay waste to Trump's campaign, described Trump's defense or at least absent critique of the KKK and Duke as an act that renders Trump “unelectable.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) issued an anti-Trump declaration on Twitter this weekend after Trump's comments indicating that he cannot, in good conscience, support Trump. Sasse said he would instead “look for some third candidate — a conservative option, a constitutionalist.” And MSNBC host and newly minted Washington Post contributor and former Florida congressman Joe Scarborough (R) has described Trump's whole gentle David Duke, KKK commentary as a "disqualifier."

And the critiques really do not stop there. Many are coming from fellow Republicans, conservative media and think-tank types who, coincidentally, also want to derail the fast-moving and well-powered Trump campaign. And, as if on-schedule, Trump has offered another one of his classic blame-the-media explanations for the whole darn thing. This time, it's the media and its faulty equipment -- a bad earpiece that rendered CNN host Jake Tapper's question about Duke and white supremacists hard to hear. Trump was, as per usual, not interviewed in person but from a distance with the assistance of technology. And it did not perform well. Trump says he could not really hear the questions that were being asked.

Right. Maybe. Or, maybe Trump had some concern that speaking too badly about the Klan might dredge up some not-so-distant family history, about which The Fix has written.

In 1927, Donald Trump’s father was arrested after a Klan riot in Queens

During appearances on network television Feb. 28, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump repeatedly declined to refuse the endorsement of David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. While Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both took aim at Trump. (Video: The Washington Post)

But, alas, this moment allegedly brought to us all by a bad earpiece isn't exactly the first, the second or even the 50th bit of evidence that a central part of Trump's campaign and appeal to voters is built upon what many reporters have politely but rather insufficiently described as the growing "anxiety" about America's shrinking white middle and working classes. Much of this logic hinges on the counterfactual notion that, if 11 million people -- most of them Latinos who earn paltry wages -- were shipped out of the country tomorrow, the jobs available would somehow restore or provide white America's economic security. That, folks, just plain is not true. So, reason says that what these people believe that what they would get out of a massive deportation program is really something else.

There is a big blinking sign pointing right at this. For all of the sudden Republican hand-wringing and wagon-circling in the battle to dethrone Trump, Donald Trump remains a relative newcomer to the national political scene, and this kind of equivocation existed long before he showed up.

Many, many national Republican candidates have made similar claims about what is necessary to restore the United States' allegedly lost, alleged former glory. But that work has often connected the proper social order, safety and personal economic security of some Americans with constraining, incarcerating, closely policing and dominating nonwhite Americans.

Simply put, that's been a central part of almost every Republican presidential campaign and certainly many congressional races since Barry Goldwater became that party's presidential nominee in 1964. And those are campaign tactics, strategies, claims and arguments that have inculcated at least some portion of the entire electorate -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- with what are fundamentally racist, sometimes white supremacist ideas.

Other candidates have just been more subtle. That's all. Sometimes they weren't even that.

For decades, the Ku Klux Klan openly endorsed candidates for political office

For those of you now enraged, please take a deep breath and consider the following from very recent political history.

Let us take, for example, the explanation of the GOP's 2012 presidential loss offered by a Republican often considered to be quite "moderate." This is a Republican who has, during the 2016 election cycle, emerged as a voice of reason and offered fairly consistent -- and we must say, well-reasoned -- critiques of Trump. But think back to that moment just after the 2012 election, when Mitt Romney told reporters that he lost because of Obama's "gifts" and free stuff for minorities. Actually, Romney also included "young people." Perhaps he meant young, liberal white people, in this explanation, too.

Consider that Romney said this in mid-November, when the fact that his own campaign had won 59 percent of the white vote (just four points more than McCain in 2008) was well-known. So, too, was the fact that he lost black, Hispanic and Asian voters by even larger spreads than McCain. And the latter is particularly important because Asians, as a group, have higher education levels and median income than all other racial and ethnic group. That can making the personal need for "free stuff" less than pronounced. Romney also had to have known that a larger proportion of black women turned out and voted than any other group.

We can understand Romney's reluctance to acknowledge that one of the so-called "free" things Obama delivered during his first term was health insurance reform sought by Democrats since Truman -- or that, even in 2012, there was evidence that this program would eliminate health insurance coverage disparities between white and black kids (as Obamacare did in 2014). We can certainly understand why this wealthy man who unquestionably earned even more money in his lifetime would not want to acknowledge that at least some portion of Obama's stimulus package and other economic ideas brought the U.S. and, for that matter, the world economy back from the brink. We even understand that Romney and some voters today aren't willing to face the full truth about the changing composition of the American electorate. The fact that white Americans have not been participating in presidential elections at the rate that they could for decades well, that just completely escapes them.

Donald Trump and the decline of the white voter

Some of this may be a principled matter of political disagreement. Some of this may have been a public attempt to bolster his own understandably bruised ego. But Romney and anyone else who repeats the free-stuff claim should and probably do know that this claim is, first, fundamentally wrong on the facts.

White Americans comprise the numerical majority of the individuals receiving almost every form of public assistance or social support in the United States. That is a fact. It is also true that regions of the country where people vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, not Democrats, receive the largest share of taxpayer-financed help of various kinds. Fact.

When someone as capable with numbers and as rational as Mitt Romney offers up this kind of excuse for a campaign loss with many other quite logical explanations, Americans really should pay attention. What he really did was tap into a long-running set of racial stereotypes and rationalizations that have been used to explain disproportionate black and Latino poverty in the United States since before the end of slavery. The free-stuff idea may be more subtle than membership in or gentle public commentary about the KKK. But the free-stuff argument is most definitely a product of  white supremacy.

Now, that is not to say that every Republican is a racist and every Democrat is not. That is beyond simplistic and untrue. But Trump is a relatively new figure on the national political stage. He cannot be blamed alone for thinking this pervasive in the electorate.

In reality, Republicans have trafficked in a vicious circle of ideas about race, effort, opportunity, equality and superiority for nearly 60 years. Republican presidential candidates and many a members of Congress have used some version of the Southern Strategy to motivate white voters and to win elections. More recently, it seems that scarcely updated versions of the same tactics have been used to distract the party's increasingly economically distressed working-class white voters. It's quite useful to have them believe that illegal immigrants, affirmative action, social safety net programs, voter fraud and, last but not least, political correctness are their biggest political problems. That secures votes for Republican candidates and, at the same time, allows those same people, once in office, to avoid some very hard and complicated policy work.  Laws governing labor and pay, taxes and entitlement programs shape all Americans' lives.

Republican voters -- 49 percent of whom now back Trump, according to a CNN poll out Monday -- have been primed for Trump's campaign, its overt racism and xenopobia for decades. Romney's free stuff and Trump's claims about dangerous illegal immigrants, Muslims and political correctness are very much coming from the same very old playbook.

In fact, they all remain so much a part of modern American political culture that almost everyone agrees that the myth of millions of black welfare queens elected presidents on both sides of the political aisle. We also know that race-related ideas about danger, risk, criminality and incompetence have fueled public policy, George H.W. Bush's infamous Willie Horton ad and more recent Obama attack ads where his skin was digitally darkened.

Obama’s skin looks a little different in these GOP campaign ads. Here's why.

And in 2016, we have all watched experienced political reporters struggle to figure out how to describe Trump's statements about undocumented Mexican immigrants, his calls for a ban on Muslim immigration or a Muslim surveillance program in language that felt accurate but "fair."

We have also heard former Florida governor Jeb Bush echo Mitt Romney's free-stuff claims during his own failed presidential bid. And if you read any comments beneath political stories in the last few days, you have almost certainly seen something quite similar repeated many times and in many ways by both Republicans and Democrats to explain Hillary Clinton's huge South Carolina Democratic primary win.

We won't question the sincerity of each of the men who critiqued Trump for his soft touch on the KKK. We are, after all, talking about the KKK. Disavowing the organization probably has the same kind of near universal support enjoyed by advocates of expanded literacy.

What we are saying here is that there is very little reason that any voter paying attention to presidential politics since 1964 should find themselves in need of Republican Party smelling salts right now.