Poor Paul Ryan. The nation’s highest-ranking Republican and speaker of the House describes comments by Donald Trump about a judge with a Hispanic surname as “a textbook definition of racism,” but can’t quite bring himself to withdraw his endorsement of the candidate. Most of his party colleagues concur, fearing that an open split in their party will cost them seats in the House and Senate this fall.
Thus, the leadership of the Republican party — the party of Abraham Lincoln — has sold its soul. By accepting Trump as their standard bearer, they’ve lowered their standards right down into the gutter.
This is a sad time for those Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mark Kirk, and for Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and others who have the integrity and courage to oppose Trump. And for those still on the fence, it must be sobering to read the very moderate Tom Friedman, writing in the New York Times, “If a party could declare moral bankruptcy, today’s Republican party would be in Chapter 11.”
But Trump didn’t suddenly fall out of the sky. His candidacy is, as many have noted, the full flowering of an eight-year-old backlash against the election of our nation’s first black president. Barack Obama’s success drew America’s most virulent strain of racism out of hiding and was a major driver of the tea party’s “take back our country” rhetoric.
During those eight years, Republicans slid slowly into acceptance of an ever-more-extreme cadre of birthers, bigots and buffoons. Having once climbed into bed with them, Republican leaders now find themselves locked in a smothering embrace.
Last week, Ryan’s painfully illogical position of disavowing the racism of the racist candidate he supports overshadowed his attempt to gain some media attention for his proposals for a new Republican agenda to address poverty. Republican positions on international trade deals, immigration reform, foreign policy and other issues are also being pushed aside by Trump’s insistence on representing only the reality TV audience that attends his rallies.
Tom Friedman proposes starting a New Republican Party from scratch — one that is committed to some basic principles such as “pluralism, immigration, democracy, trade, the rule of law and the virtue of open societies,” and free from dominance by special interests. Today’s Republican party, he believes, is now beyond redemption.
But of course the problem isn’t just that Trump is ruining the Republican party; it’s that if elected, he will ruin the country. And ruining our uniquely powerful country will surely wreak ruin on the rest of the world.
The alternative, Hillary Clinton, may present another dilemma. If electing the nation’s first black president caused this incredible backlash of nativist, racist energy, what will electing the nation’s first female president cause? Are Trump’s statements and behavior regarding women red flags?
If the popularity of Donald Trump shows us anything, it’s that a lot of people are nostalgic for the bygone era of white supremacy and male dominance, and willing to support an authoritarian leader in an attempt to return to that past.
It will be a happy day when our country is finally beyond these first-of- a-kind candidates and the backlashes they provoke.
Until that day, our challenge as both Republicans and Democrats is to clearly and unequivocally reject those dark impulses, and keep working to create a civic culture where the quest for full equality and moral progress matters more than transitory partisan advantage.