Trump and the GOP: This Is Who They Are

Terrance Heath

House Speaker Paul Ryan condemned Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. by saying, “this is not who we are as a party or a country.” Ryan is mistaken: Trump represents exactly what the GOP is, and what progressives must not let America become.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has grabbed headlines with the latest proof that there is no limit to how low his xenophobic campaign will sink. On Monday, Trump’s campaign called for “a total and complete shutdown” of all Muslims entering the United States — including U.S. citizens abroad — ”until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Trump used data from a “wildly flawed poll,” to justify his position. The Trump campaign also cited the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to justify his plan. Trump himself stopped short of calling for internment camps, but only just.

This is not the first time Trump has mined the deep veins of xenophobia and Islamophobia on the right. He has called for or advocated:

● spying on mosques;
● shutting down mosques; and
● requiring Muslim-Americans to register for a database, and wear special IDs indicating their religion

Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration plan earned him the strongest criticism yet from many of his fellow Republicans. “This is not conservatism,” Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters. “What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and more importantly, it’s not what this country stands for.”

However, Ryan’s condemnation of Trump juxtaposed with his next words illustrates the challenge Trump’s candidacy presents to Republicans. Asked if he would back Trump if the party nominated him, Ryan tried to have it both ways. He answered, “I’m going to support whoever the Republican nominee is and I’m going to stand up for what I believe in as I do that.”

Ryan is right in saying that what Trump touts is not mere conservatism. It is fascism, as authoritarian and nationalistic as ever. Its attendant violence has manifested at Trump’s own rallies, where his supporters attack Black Lives Matter activists, and immigration protesters, with Trump’s explicit support. Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric has been paralleled in recent weeks by a wave of anti-Muslim violence and harassment. Just this week, a sixth-grade Muslim girl was attacked at recess by classmates who called her “ISIS” and tried to pull off her hijab. In Houston, Texas, Muslim anti-radicalism activist Dr. Bilal Rana was detained by authorities after landing, because other passengers thought he “looked suspicious.”

Ryan is wrong, however, that Trump does not represent what the Republican party stands for. Trump’s front-runner status in Republican presidential primary polls reflects his increasing popularity with the Republican base. As John Nichols wrote in The Nation, the Republican party will not be the Party of Lincoln again until Republicans have the courage to say they will not back a Trump-led Republican ticket. “A failure to reject the billionaire’s vile bigotry at this relatively early stage of the campaign,” Nichols writes, “cedes the fight for the soul of the party to Trump.”

Republicans must also face up to their role in turning the GOP into a party where Trump’s candidacy could happen. As Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in response to Ryan during a speech on the Senate floor, “This sort of racism has been prevalent in Republican politics for decades. Trump is just saying out loud what other Republicans merely suggest.”

Trump is merely reaping the bumper crop of a harvest Republicans planted long ago with their “Southern Strategy,” and spent decades tending and nurturing with coded language and “dog-whistle” politics that appeal to an increasingly angry base. Trump has no need for coded language. It’s as if he swallowed the dog whistle, and now speaks exclusively in dog whistle — with a megaphone.

Anger is just one face of this coin. Fear and anxiety always follow close behind it. For decades, Republicans played the socioeconomic fears of their white, working-class, evangelical base; as jobs were shipped overseas, wages stagnated, and the American Dream slipped beyond their grasp. Today, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, “White evangelical protestants and white mainline protestants are markedly more pessimistic than other groups, with majorities believing that Americans best days are behind us.”

Republicans are unable to address the economic fears and anxieties of their base because conservative policies caused that fear and anxiety. So instead they play upon the fear and anxiety of a constituency that knows the system has been rigged against them, and appeal to racism to misdirect the anger of their base. Now, Trump exploits people’s very real fear following the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., though his rhetoric only helps ISIS/Daesh recruit.

Trump’s ascendancy in the GOP represents a challenge to progressives, too. Polls like those complied at PopulistMajority.Org show that a majority of Americans support progressive populist positions. Progressives must not only continue to offer those solutions to achieve health care for all, an economy that works for all, a safe and secure world for all, decent jobs, livable wages, but want all of those things for Trump’s supporters. Our challenge is to show even Trump’s supporters that these things are only achievable when the forgotten and left behind turn to one another, instead of turning on one another, and stand against our common enemy and the true threat to our freedom, prosperity, and way of life — the manipulators and dividers who have profited from rigging the system against 99 percent of us for too long.

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