Over the weekend, Donald Trump finally went too far for some in the Republican Party, leading at least one Republican senator to insist that they would refuse to back him in November should he win the nomination.
What did Trump do? He failed to adequately repudiate an endorsement from David Duke.
As Trump said, upon being told that David Duke had advised his supporters that they would be committing “treason to their heritage” if they voted for anyone other than him:
Well, just so you understand, I don’t anything about David Duke, OK? I don’t even know anything about what you’re talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. Did he endorse me, or what’s going on? I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.
This was particularly silly on Trump’s part because this isn’t the first time David Duke has said nice things about him, and it isn’t the first time he’s been asked to say on national television that David Duke is bad. Back in August, when asked about praise from Duke, Trump said that “I don’t need his endorsement; I certainly wouldn’t want his endorsement.”
But Trump’s obvious lie wasn’t what sent conservatives into a tizzy. And neither was the simple fact that Trump had earned the endorsement of a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in the first place. That would implicate quite a few Republican politicians — including the current third-ranking Republican in the House, Steve “David Duke Without the Baggage” Scalise. Instead, Trump’s sin was failing to, once endorsed by Duke, put his foot down and state, unequivocally, that the KKK and its associated racism are bad.
Talk, it appears, is not so cheap after all. It may in fact be the only currency.
Shortly following Trump’s non-repudiation of Duke, anti-Trump conservatives started passing around this quote, representing Ronald Reagan’s reaction to having been endorsed by the Klan in 1984:
Those of us in public life can only resent the use of our names by those who seek political recognition for the repugnant doctrines of hate they espouse.
The politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.
Ah, now there‘s a disavowal. Why couldn’t Trump do that? When it came to dealing with support from white nationalists, Reagan’s statement was everything it needed to be: emphatic, unequivocal, emotionally satisfying and, at the end of the day, utterly empty.
Absent from this conservative backlash to Trump in Reagan’s name was any thought as to why the Klan endorsed Reagan in the first place. This was a president who launched his first campaign by wink-winking at “states’ rights” in a city famous for the high-profile lynching of civil rights activists. This was a president who coined the term “welfare queen” and linked public assistance to lazy, shiftless people of color. This was a president who signed the Sentencing Reform Act in 1984 and followed it up with mandatory minimums for drug offenses in 1986. Reagan may have rejected the KKK’s endorsement, but only after he earned it. The group clearly felt that Reagan was the candidate who was most likely to represent their interests in office. They were right.
Much in the same way, white nationalists today feel that Trump is the presidential candidate who most closely resembles their politics. Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination overall, but he performs especially well among people who think that the South should have won the Civil War, that the Confederate flag should be flying over South Carolina’s state capitol and who disapprove of President Lincoln’s executive action to free the slaves. There are a number of reasons for this — from railing against “political correctness” to scaremongering over Syrian refugees to retweeting white nationalist propaganda — that have been more or less the hallmarks of Trump’s candidacy.
And Trump weren’t in the race, these voters would be backing another Republican in the race. That Republican would most likely be Ted Cruz, who, despite describing Trump’s non-rejection of David Duke as “really sad,” is promoting his own brand of racial resentment. Cruz is himself to the right of Donald Trump on racialized issues ranging from immigration to the Confederate flag, and has endorsed a radically theocratic plan to “fix” black culture by, among other things, forcibly removing children from parents in homes that the government deems to be “dysfunctional” — seemingly defined as any low-income home with a black single parent.
However, none of these policies are all that far outside the norm in Republican politics — in large part due to the fact that Reagan, following a path laid out by Nixon, made the Republican Party the party of racial resentment. As a Republican it is the rule, not the exception, to support voter ID laws that have been shown to have racially disparate effects. As a Republican it is the rule, not the exception, to link poverty to moral decay in the inner cities. As a Republican it is the rule, not the exception, to insinuate that it’s acceptable to turn three year-old refugee children away because they might actually be terrorists.
This being the case, the idea that Trump’s handling of praise from David Duke represents some kind of last straw for principled and totally-not-racist Republicans is laughable. If you saw Trump curry favor with groups of outwardly racist voters and said nothing, your outrage over his failure to emphatically reject them when they state their support is far from righteous. Especially if you plan on supporting another candidate in the Republican primary that would be more than happy to have those voters choose them instead.
Update: The guy whose immigration platform in 2012 was to make life so difficult for brown people that they’d leave on their own has a take:
A disqualifying & disgusting response by @realDonaldTrump to the KKK. His coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) February 29, 2016