I was a Republican in my youth. Back in the 1980s that seemed a pretty easy call. Republicans under Ronald Reagan were optimistic. They believed in the power of the free market compared with the power of the federal government. They were confident that America’s technological dynamism would outlast the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. They believed in America as a land of opportunity for immigrants across the world. And despite the GOP’s complicated history with racism, Reagan adhered to official rhetoric that depicted the Grand Old Party as an inclusive tent.
I am now well into my middle age, and to put it bluntly, the modern GOP looks a bit different. What does the GOP stand for in the Age of Trump?
Donald Trump has proffered his answer to that question. On Monday he made an effort to follow up on his racist tweetstorm, in which he told four members of Congress, three of whom were born in the United States, that they should “go back” to their countries of origin. The president made it pretty clear he thinks that he has found a winning message:
The Associated Press’s Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire offer additional color, making it clear that Trump’s statement was not accidental: “The president has told aides that he was giving voice what many of his supporters believe — that they are tired of people, including immigrants, disrespecting their country, according to three Republicans close to the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.” Or, as Trump put it, “if you’re complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave.”
That last sentence is breathtaking if you think about it for any length of time. First of all, Trump does nothing but complain. Just scanning his tweets in the past week, Trump has complained about 2020 polling, congressional Democrats, the Mueller probe, Paul Ryan, Andrew McCabe, CNN, bitcoin, Facebook and the Supreme Court. Trump is the first president to constantly carp about his victory. Seriously, if Trump went into exile, the aggregate amount of complaining in the United States would fall by an appreciable amount.
Second, Trump fails to understand how democracy works. The opposition party’s job is to criticize the president for policy and political shortcomings. That’s how the system works — politicians complain. The GOP did nothing but complain during the Obama years — Trump included. Imagine the GOP’s reaction if Barack Obama had suggested that complaining Republicans should just leave the country. Trump cannot abide the notion that the members of Congress he disparaged were elected to check his power.
Trump’s inability to understand the loyal opposition is part of a continuing series of Trump failing to understand the building block of the American creed. Last week, at his social media summit, the president offered up his definition of free speech: “To me free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad,” Trump said. “To me that’s very dangerous speech and you become angry at it. But that’s not free speech.” Needless to say, this is not what free speech means.
Trump has increasingly relied upon Fox News’s Tucker Carlson as his go-to political pundit. This is interesting — not because of Carlson’s nativism but because of the other views he recently espoused. Speaking Monday at the National Conservatism Conference, Carlson told the audience that the principal threat to their individual freedoms “comes not from the government but from the private sector.” This sounds rather different from the GOP rhetoric of my youth.
Political parties have to change with the times. Inevitably the GOP would need to find new ideas beyond Reagan. Still, an aversion to democratic debate, an illiberal definition of free speech and a hostility to free enterprise sound — how to put this — un-American. Or a corporatist, white nationalist America that is a century out of date.
Some GOP members of Congress have begun to criticize the president for his remarks. Still, what is disturbing is just how little pushback there has been from the GOP political class compared to his Charlottesville comments from two years ago. As my Post colleague Toluse Olorunnipa notes, Trump “has learned over the past three years that there is little consequence within his party or from aligned corporate and religious leaders for embracing incendiary rhetoric and pugilistic attacks.” Similarly, the New York Times’s Annie Karni writes, “Administration veterans said they had long ago become immune to thinking anything Mr. Trump said would stick to him for more than one news cycle.”
With the rest of the GOP’s complicity or acquiescence, it seems hard to escape the conclusion that to be a Republican in 2019 is not just to be a racist but rather to be one who is proud of that designation. My colleague Greg Sargent puts it best: “Central to Trump’s racism ... is not just the content of the racism itself. It’s also that he’s asserting the right to engage in public displays of racism without it being called out for what it is. A crucial ingredient here is Trump’s declaration of the ability to flaunt his racism with impunity.”
I was a Republican in my youth. But none of the values that attracted me to the party then are present in Trump’s version of the GOP. The party of Reagan is dead. What has emerged in its place is something unspeakable.