correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to a district in West Virginia as represented by Evan Jenkins (R). Jenkins has been replaced by Carol Miller (R) in that district. This version has been corrected.
It’s hard to believe, but it has been less than three weeks since President Trump told a group of congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from. It already seems as though it was months ago, because we are already dealing with the fallout from another racist attack by the president against another person of color.
On Saturday, Trump tore into Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), calling his majority-minority district “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess," where “no human being would want to live.” Trump even had the temerity to label Cummings, who is African American, a “racist.” When the Rev. Al Sharpton criticized Trump’s language, Trump tweeted that Sharpton was a “con man” who “Hates Whites & Cops,” once again adopting the white-nationalist device of labeling those who oppose racism as antiwhite racists.
Trump and his advisers plainly perceive a political advantage in these kinds of bigoted attacks. As The Post noted on Saturday: “Trump’s advisers had concluded after the previous tweets that the overall message sent by such attacks is good for the president among his political base — resonating strongly with the white working-class voters he needs to win reelection in 2020.”
Yes, racism sells in America. But the political advantage from these attacks might be negated — and Trump might be deterred from launching more of them in the future — if only his own party would call him out. The president would have a more difficult time defending himself from charges of bigotry if they were leveled by Republicans rather than just Democrats. But, with painfully few exceptions, Republicans have adopted a “see no evil, hear no evil” policy toward Trump’s racism — one that makes them complicit in what is undeniably evil. As former Ohio governor John Kasich noted, “There is a culture of silence in the party.”
A few decades from now, when the entire country is majority-minority, the Trump era will be seen as a sad last gasp of white resistance — a reprehensible episode that will be recounted alongside the McCarthy era, the internment of citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II, and the Palmer Raids. No one will remember or care who backed a corporate tax cut. When their grandchildren ask today’s Republicans what they did to oppose Trump’s racism, what will they say? “No comment”?
“I don’t do hallway interviews,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). “I like Baltimore, and I like it better when the president talks about policy,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). “Another act of political theater,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — without offering any opinion on whether Trump’s comments were racist. “Instead of all of this back and forth about who everyone thinks is racist and whose not, the President just offered to help the people of Baltimore. They should take him up on it,” former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley wrote on Twitter, acting as though the president was trying to be constructive.
“Neither is a racist,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), when asked about Trump and Cummings. Meadows’ lackluster and delayed defense of Cummings — an echo of “very fine people on both sides” — is especially notable in the annals of Republican cowardice given that when a Democratic member of Congress accused Meadows of racism, Cummings immediately and passionately jumped to his defense. But, hey, at least Meadows’s comment is better than Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel’s gutless response when asked whether Cummings is a racist: “I don’t know Elijah Cummings.”
What is going through the minds of these Republicans? Most, I assume, know the president is being racist — something that is now admitted even by Trump friends and flunkies such as Omarosa Manigault Newman, Michael Cohen, Geraldo Rivera and Anthony Scaramucci — and yet they are too afraid of the president’s wrath to say so. Others, however, no doubt rationalize by claiming, as Fox News analyst Brit Hume does, that Trump is an equal-opportunity, colorblind offender, that he simply lashes out at anyone of any race who dares to criticize him. That defense does not account for the fact that Trump uses dehumanizing language (“infested,” “rat and rodent”) and xenophobic language (“go back”) only when discussing people of color.
The racist nature of Trump’s attack is brought into sharp relief by pictures that are circulating on the Internet showing unsightly, garbage-strewn scenes not from Baltimore but from districts represented by Republican members of Congress. I can’t vouch for these photos, but the statistics don’t lie: Cummings’s district, with a poverty rate of 16.6 percent, is far better off than the districts represented by Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), which has a poverty rate of 29.1 percent; Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), which has a poverty rate of 25.1 percent; or Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.), which has a poverty rate of 23.3 percent. Indeed, of the 10 poorest states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, West Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arizona and Georgia), all except New Mexico are overwhelmingly Republican.
It would not be difficult to find unsightly pictures of poverty from any of these states. But, naturally, Trump chooses to focus on poverty in a largely African American district represented by an African American member of Congress. And most Republicans profess to believe, or at least not contest, the president’s disingenuous claims that he is “the least racist person that you have ever met.” In the 165-year history of the Republican Party, this is its most ignoble hour. It has become a cult of personality for a repugnant person.