The White House says it’s unfair to blame President Trump for our poisonous, increasingly violent political atmosphere. And you know what? They’re right.
Trump isn’t to blame. His entire party is. Because it never had the reckoning it needed after the 2016 election.
Last week saw three reprehensible attacks motivated by far-right animus: pipe bombs sent to people on Trump’s ever-expanding enemies list; the murder of two African Americans at a Kentucky supermarket; and, at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
But Trump didn’t pull the trigger or make those bombs, Trump’s defenders point out. What’s more, the president has denounced bigotry and political violence.
Well, he has sometimes.
He has also sometimes dog-whistled conspiracy theories about a black president or a supposedly treasonous rich International Jew — both of whom were intended recipients of bombs last week.
And sometimes he’s even appeared to blame their victims for provoking their own attacks by saying not-nice things about Dear Leader.
So yeah, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the man with the world’s biggest bullhorn could be at least contributing to a climate in which hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents are increasing. In fact, most Americans believe Trump’s actions as president have encouraged white supremacist groups, according to a new PRRI poll.
But in focusing our anger and debate on Trump, we let so many other Republicans off the hook.
The president is hardly the only elected official who has played footsie with neo-Nazis, far-right thugs and xenophobic conspiracy theorists.
Why, earlier this year, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) invited to the State of the Union a Holocaust denier who had also been banned from Twitter after appearing to threaten the life of a black civil rights activist. At the time, Gaetz said he didn’t know his guest’s ugly background.
Somehow, though, this same far-right hatemonger ended up at a Gaetz fundraiser last month.
More recently, Gaetz suggested that Jewish financier George Soros was funding a supposedly dangerous caravan of asylum-seeking refugees who plan to “storm” the U.S. border at “election time.”
Other Republican lawmakers — such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — have dabbled in this or other dog-whistling conspiracy theories about Soros’s alleged efforts to subvert the United States.
And then we come to Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose good standing in the Republican Party should infuriate anyone who pretends to care about civility (looking at you, Paul Ryan and Jeff Flake).
Some things King has done just since this summer:
He endorsed a white supremacist running for mayor of Toronto, a woman who claims Canada is undergoing a “white genocide.”
He retweeted a self-described British neo-Nazi.
And while on a European trip arranged by a Holocaust memorial group, King met with members of a far-right Austrian party founded by a former Nazi SS officer. He told the party’s affiliated publication that he, too, feared a coming “Great Replacement” of white European culture by “somebody else’s babies,” enabled by Hispanic and Muslim migration, in a plot orchestrated by (guess who?) Soros.
When asked why he was palling around with European ethnonationalists, King defended himself thusly: “If they were in America pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans.”
Yes. And that’s the problem.
Maybe Republicans will never turn on the standard-bearer of their party, no matter how vile his words. The question is why they also refuse to police their less-powerful colleagues. Neither major U.S. party is completely innocent of employing intemperate rhetoric or “incivility,” but only one of them has federally elected lawmakers who sound so often like European ethnonationalists.
Why haven’t the Kings and Gaetzes of Congress been ejected from the caucus, or at least censured in some way, for encouraging ethnic hatred?
The answer, at least in part, is that the GOP learned all the wrong lessons from the 2016 election.
A Trump loss, as the polls predicted, might have taught Republicans that they could no longer exclusively cater to old, white, racially anxious men (as the 2012 GOP “autopsy” report warned). It might have forced Republicans to stop indulging the crazy things that many in their base believed; it might have learned that all that Fox News fearmongering was counterproductive to actually being a governing party.
Instead, by the narrowest of margins, Trump managed to claim the White House. And the cost-benefit analysis for a Republican demagogue considering saying something racist or incendiary — or for a partisan colleague contemplating criticizing such — never changed.
In short, the GOP never cleaned house, and the mess just keeps getting worse.