How self-gratified some elements of the right-wing pundit class must have been in 2009 when, shortly before his inauguration, Barack Obama had dinner at columnist George Will’s home with David Brooks, William Kristol, Peggy Noonan, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow and Charles Krauthammer – a roll call of leading conservatives who themselves were some of the most prominent cheerleaders for the 2003 Iraq invasion – a war Obama rightly opposed.
It’s that same group:
Who today collectively refuse to accept that for nearly eight years they supported and allowed to flourish, through collective inaction and silence, efforts to delegitimize Obama, both at home and abroad, and who today have become some of the most distressed of Republicans, rending gray flannel garments at the thought of Donald Trump being anointed the GOP standard bearer.
Who for years issued only the most pro forma objections as voting rights were rolled back, as Kristol elevated Sarah Palin to become John McCain’s running mate, and as birther and denier controversies erupted – driven by the very same man who so frightens them today.
Who because they believed that candidates like Cain, Bachmann, Carson and Trump couldn’t be nominated made only the most tepid denunciations of prejudice and racism so as not to alienate their own base.
Yet who are still blind to their share of responsibility for their party’s self-destruction and Trump’s ascension – and for the state of Republican politics in general.
None of this should surprise anyone for on Obama’s inauguration night (within days of Will’s gathering) another private dinner took place, at Washington’s “Caucus Room Brasserie,” a gathering more malevolent, more insidious.
That night, GOP stalwarts including Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Pete Sessions, Jim DeMint, Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz swore fealty to a new Republican platform: regain political power, oppose Obama’s agenda and delegitimize America’s first African-American president so to limit him to one term.
These thoughts were triggered recently when, in response to two David Brooks columns a friend sent me, I answered: “Thanks. While there’re some kernels of truth in what he writes I cannot help but read it from my point of view – that Brooks is in part, along with a still unrepentant GOP establishment, either still unaware or deliberately ignoring his role in creating the current iteration of the Republican Party that today embraces ‘Trumpism.’
“I’ve addressed this in some past columns; I believe that Trump is the direct result of the failure of people like Brooks, Mitt Romney, John McCain and others to fully accept and directly confront and reject the racism and demonization of the Other that started in 2007.
“Their tolerance of a party that’s grown increasingly anti-intellectual, their toleration of bigotry, prejudice and evangelical zealotry has released demons that they now can’t control in spite of Brooks’s wish for ‘gray men in suits’ to come to their rescue.
“Personally, I believe that if such establishment figures want to stop Trump they have to start by issuing some very public mea culpas – and some public self-flagellation.
“I don’t expect that to happen: To protect their egos, their highly inflated sense of importance and their lucrative speaking fees they’ve been mostly silent – except for the occasional tut-tutting and pro forma rebukes – as the forces of bigotry and ignorance have infected their party with virulent forms of xenophobia and ignorance.”
Their failure to unequivocally state that the cynical demonization and delegitimization of President Obama and the marginalization of America’s communities of color and of the most needy is un-American and unacceptable, and to repeat that message as often as necessary – individually and in concert – is a moral failure indicative of an entire class of Republicans who value power over principle.
For the past seven years they’ve whistled in the dark as they strolled past accretions of carcasses and discarded conventions of civility and comity – and their whistles have echoed alongside Lee Atwater-inspired dog whistles that were becoming more strident and frequent within their party’s fringes.
Today, those fringes have been woven into whole cloth and they’re at the center of the GOP, consuming it from within.
Today, Trump has become the GOP Pied Piper leading stormtroopers on a sometimes violent march on Washington that may well be unstoppable.
What’s to be done?
I believe that those who hosted Obama eight years ago, those who assembled at the Caucus Room, those who refuse to take responsibility for having failed to resist racism and bigotry must today unequivocally state that they cannot support or vote for a ticket that rejects more than 250 years of progress toward creating a pluralistic and inclusive America.
It’s beyond dispute that reality TV celebrity Donald Trump is a racist, bigot and misogynist. He’s not just a manipulator and liar, but his lies are based on ignorance – he’s revealed himself as lacking in substance. He’s a charlatan, xenophobe and bully who’s not only stripped the establishment of togas and gray suits but exposed their pieties as self-serving and meaningless.
And as evidence that the GOP may rapidly be approaching a dystopian end, just bear witness to the fact that African-American Dr. Ben Carson, who rose from the most humble of circumstances to become perhaps the world’s leading pediatric neurosurgeon, cravenly endorsed his rival, Donald Trump, who’s not only been endorsed and is supported by white supremacists and Klan members, but who tolerates violent abuse of black protesters at Trump political events – abuse that Carson has been slow to repudiate.
Today, 13 years after supporting Bush’s Iraq invasion that helped create Daesh (ISIS) and just seven years after a coterie of self-satisfied white journalists living in a privileged bubble hosted America’s first African-American president-elect for dinner, the Republican political landscape is fragmented, in great part because the establishment that profited from privilege for so long refuses to take responsibility for the Frankenstein they helped create.
On Aug. 24 1855, Abraham Lincoln, in response to the rise of the nativist and xenophobic Know-Nothing Party that was responsible for anti-Catholic rioting and murders, in the torching of Catholic churches and even of the tar-and-feathering of a Catholic priest, Father John Bapst, in Ellsworth, Maine, wrote:
“I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”
My question for these pundits, politicians and prophets is clear: Do they have Abraham Lincoln’s courage to publicly denounce Trump and say they will not vote Republican if he’s the party nominee, or are they so embedded in the comforts of privilege that they’ll align themselves with the corrupt legions of America’s intellectually unwashed, with demagogues, hate-mongers and chickenhawks and risk America’s future just to preserve their perks and speaking fees?
Or will it be that tomorrow we’ll read “except negroes and foreigners and Catholics, Syrians, LGBTs, Mexicans and Muslims?”
And after tomorrow, will we read about “you, and you, and you?”
This column first appeared in the Concord Monitor.