A political movement will either police its extremes or be defined by them.

Disapproval from opponents is easy to dismiss as mere partisanship. It is through self-criticism that a political party defines and patrols the boundaries of its ideological sanity.

This is the reason the case of Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) remains so instructive and disturbing. Johnson is a Republican who prefers his racism raw. He recently described the majority-White crowd protesting on Jan. 6 (some of whom stormed the Capitol and assaulted police officers) as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” Meanwhile, he would have been “concerned” by an approaching crowd of “tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters.” So: Whites who propagate a destructive lie, attack the democratic process and commit violence are Johnson’s kind of people; African Americans who protest a history of injustice are a scary horde.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has been misconstruing data to support false allegations of violence related to Black Lives Matter and antifa in the summer of 2020. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

There have always been bigots with access to a microphone. But in this case, Johnson did not face the hygienic repudiation of his party. Republican leaders preferred a different strategy: putting their fingers in their ears and humming loudly. Republicans have abolished their ideological police.

The reason is simple. After four years of Donald Trump, Johnson’s sentiments are not out of the Republican mainstream. They are an application of the prevailing Republican ideology — that the “real” America is under assault by the dangerous other: Violent immigrants. Angry Blacks. Antifa terrorists. Suspicious Muslims. And don’t forget “the China virus.”

Trump did not create such views. But he normalized them in an unprecedented fashion. Under Trump’s cover, this has been revealed as the majority position of Republicans, or at least engaged, activist Republicans. A recent New York Times poll found 65 percent of people who identify with the GOP to still be Trump “die-hards,” Trump “boosters” or captive to conspiracy theories. And most of the rest find nothing disqualifying in Trump’s pathologically divisive performance as president.

Our country faces many crises. But our nation’s politics has a single, overriding challenge: One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.

This has left some of us politically disoriented. I am pro-life. For me, this has always been the natural application of a humane historical trend: The United States’ gradually expanding circle of legal inclusion and protection. You may disagree with me, but I believe there is a logical moral progression that leads from abolitionism to the civil rights movement to the protection of the disabled and unborn.

Yet it is precisely this progression that’s being denied in today’s GOP. Claiming that discrimination is an illusion, that White people are the true victims, that diversity is a threat and that the American way of life is really identical to the good old days of White dominance — these are not just mistaken policy views, like being wrong on entitlement reform or tax policy. They are the fundamental failure of empathy, the triumph of dangerous historical lies and the violation of the highest objectives of politics: the advance of equal justice and human dignity.

It is one thing to be involved in policing the excesses of an ideological movement. It is another task entirely to persuade the large majority of an ideological movement to adopt the basic rules of morality and humanity. In the first case, the Republican Party is a flawed instrument of good. In the second case, it is a source of dangerous dehumanization that gets a few important things right.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Politics does not directly determine the morality of citizens. But it helps shape the system of social cues and stigmas in which citizens operate. It matters whether leaders delegitimize hatred or fertilize it; if they isolate prejudice or mainstream it. If political figures base their appeal on the cultivation of resentment for some group or groups, they are releasing deadly toxins into our society without any idea who might be harmed or killed. Such elected leaders might not have blood on their hands directly, but they are creating a society with more bloody hands.

I am still finding it difficult to fully embrace the Democratic Party, which denies the American progression toward justice and inclusion in other ways. But I could not advise an idealistic and ambitious young person to join today’s GOP because her ambition would be likely to destroy her idealism. Most Republican leaders can no longer be trusted with the moral education of the young on the central moral challenge of our history. Elected Republicans who are not bigots are generally cowards in the face of bigotry. And that is a shocking, horrible thing.

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