Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”
Two recent examples offer Republicans such opportunities: The first is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has persistently been criticized for making racist comments and for supporting a white-nationalist candidate in last year’s mayoral race in Toronto. His comments in a recent New York Times interview — “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” — make clear that those prior acts and words were not random.
The second example — less prominent, but just as bad — comes from Texas, where 49 Republican precinct chairs voted Thursday to oust the party’s Tarrant County (Fort Worth) vice chairman, Shahid Shafi, solely because he is a Muslim. The move was overwhelmingly defeated, as 139 precinct leaders stood by Shafi. But even this failed effort damages conservatism nationwide.
Sadly, racial and religious bigotry are no strangers to the United States. Those views have, with great effort and at great cost, been shunted aside, left to wither and die in the shadows of American life. Conservatives rightly complained when Democratic senators recently argued that membership in the Knights of Columbus or even adherence to Roman Catholic teachings could disqualify a nominee from serving as a federal judge. We cannot complain about bigotry when it is directed against us, yet practice it ourselves.
Those of a biblical vent will recall Jesus’ admonition (Matthew 7:3-5) that we must first take the beam out of our eye before we have standing to chastise our brother for the mote in his. Or, as he said more simply in John 8:7: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. When it comes to racism and bigotry, we must strive to remove our own beams and be without such sin before we can even seek to call others to our aid.
House Republican leaders swiftly rejected and condemned King’s statements, but that really does not go far enough. The House Republican Conference probably cannot expel him under its rules, but it can censure him. The conference’s campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, can also state that it will break with the tradition of backing incumbents in contested primaries and withhold all aid from King.
King has already attracted one prominent primary challenger, Iowa state Sen. Randy Feenstra, and the district is safely Republican if anyone but King is the nominee. Withholding financial support for King will send a clear signal that racism and white nationalism have no place in the Republican Party.
Texas Republicans and the national party must also denounce anti-Muslim ringleaders in Texas in the strongest terms. They hold their offices by popular election and thus cannot be removed until the 2020 primary. At that time, decent Republicans should recruit challengers and work to ensure their defeat. Again, it’s not enough to say you have a problem; conservatives must work to rid themselves of the problem.
President Trump can also take advantage of these developments to issue his own statement denouncing racism and religious bigotry. Many of his opponents will question his sincerity and motives, but that makes a strong statement even more in his interest. Nevertheless, the party must act regardless of what the president does.
Most local Republican parties host annual Lincoln Day dinners in February, and many have in recent years renamed those as Lincoln-Reagan Dinners. Acting swiftly to repudiate, reject and remove bigots honors both men’s ideals.
Lincoln spoke most movingly about his opposition to racial and religious bigotry in a letter to his lifelong friend, Joshua Speed, in 1855. Rejecting the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothing Party, he declared that the Know-Nothings’ bigotry was contrary to the Declaration of Independence’s creed that “all men are created equal.” But “when the Know-Nothings get control,” he wrote, “it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure.”
Ronald Reagan’s hatred of bigotry nearly cost him his political career. He had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not because of fealty to states rights or dislike of African Americans but because “you cannot legislate love.” His opponent in the 1966 California Republican gubernatorial primary, George Christopher, nevertheless insinuated he was a racist at a joint appearance before the National Negro Republican Assembly California Convention. Reagan exploded in anger and stormed out after shouting “I resent the implication that there is any bigotry in my nature,” raising doubts about his temperament and ability to handle political potshots. He nevertheless prevailed and angrily rejected the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan in his presidential bids, going so far as to write that “the politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country.”
Conservatives and Republicans cannot think it is acceptable to substitute “Muslims” for “Catholics” in Lincoln’s letter. We cannot think that American identity is the province of the white person alone. That was the view of the Confederacy, whose “corner-stone” according to its vice president, Alexander Stephens, rested “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.” We fought a great Civil War to reject that idea, and we have fought a great many less bloody but just as important battles since to stamp down other expressions of it.
Conservatives and Republicans cannot allow these wicked seeds to gain root and produce poisoned plants that will choke and starve our land. Let us act now and uproot them before they grow and again ruin our national bounty.