A New York Times op-ed is the latest chapter in what feels like an inescapable drama that is the Trump presidency. In the last two weeks, it seems the GOP’s division is at its clearest: criticism from the left of Supreme Court Candidate Brett Kavanaugh is being rejected as “hysterical,” Sen. John McCain’s funeral sounded like an ongoing subtweet at the president and an anonymous source paints a picture of rational Republicans struggling to keep Trump from complete control. Trump’s tweets are as aggressive as ever. His ex-partner-in-crime, Steve Bannon, is again in the news over the outrage of yet another one of his speaking arrangements and Kavanaugh’s writing that he’s not sure if Roe v. Wade is truly “settled law” has come to light. The prevailing narrative seems to be that Donald Trump is some new existential threat to democracy: a race baiter who attacks the press and behaves irrationally on the world stage. McCain, Kavanaugh and this anonymous source are supposed to represent the other side: a resistance of rational conservatives against the caricature of the GOP that is Trump.
Unfortunately, this is a false dichotomy as old as the post-Civil Rights Era Republican Party. The apparent resistance is only the first step of conservative grifting, a pageantry show without substance or real consequences. The GOP has no problem with what Trump is doing, only how he is doing it—their objection is one in the vein of decorum, not of ideals and certainly not of policy. The Never-Trump Republican is a myth that is the logical conclusion of a media landscape committed to faux “balance”.
Think, for a moment, of the defining moments of Trump’s presidency. His race baiting: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists,” “Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television, Don Lemon. He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do,” “sh**hole countries” and “Maxine Walters, an extraordinarily low-IQ person.” These comments have apparently turned off the more moderate members of the GOP, but why? Not, if you look at their history, because they all regard minorities in a better light and not because they are above race baiting. After all, we are talking about the same GOP that nominated Barry Goldwater, a segregationist, for president; the GOP that saw Nixon’s Southern Strategy (a dog whistling campaign ran by Nixon to appeal to white Southerners’ racism) lead to a landslide victory. The GOP that supported Reagan’s demonization of the black poor through his “Welfare Queen.” The GOP that let Bill Clinton send through his agenda in return for turning up the racist War on Drugs; the GOP that convinced McCain to pick race-baiter Sarah Palin as his VP. Clearly, his statements on race are not condemned for their racism but they are condemned for how thinly veiled his racism is.
Further, the GOP has no problem with the substance of his attacks on the press. It was the party that got behind Nixon’s war on the press—one that went significantly farther than Trump’s, in that it revoked individual media’s credentials, exploded the public’s view of the media as objective and paved the way for strictly partisan sources like Fox News. Its problem is only that his attacks go so far as to challenge libel laws, to attack individuals in the media, and to delegitimize any opposition, no matter how factual. Take away the absurdity of his methods and the GOP would be right with him attacking CNN.
On McCain, moderate conservatives were appalled at Trump’s statement that “He’s not a war hero […] I like people who weren’t captured” and instead rallied around his boasting of a stronger military. However, Trump’s hypocrisy—which uses appeals to the military to conjure up nationalism while not ever having served or supported military members in practice—is not what the GOP hates. The GOP recently voted down a bill that would make the law the most supportive agenda towards veterans in years, which included educational grants and health benefits for those returning from hawkish wars. This pattern is in the very fabric of the Republican Party: wrap yourself in the flag, wage war across the globe, hold military service as the apex of Americanism, but side against congressional Democrats and bills which actually support those same veterans.
In response to Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, conservatives have replaced the former-star-quarterback-turned-activist with Pat Tillman, a veteran of the war of Afghanistan who died in combat. Mention, though, to any of those who posted the image, that Tillman was a liberal whose wife has come out to personally ask that his image not be used for political objectives that he would disagree with, like its current use, and you would probably get a shrug. Conservatives’ only problem with Trump’s military hypocrisy is not, again, his hypocrisy, but how clear it is to the moderate American.
These kinds of examples extend across his presidency to his treatment of women, to the rule of law and to his foreign diplomacy. American history has always been kind to the complicit—the Confederacy was not racist, they were fighting for states’ rights; Cold-War conservatives were not engaging in a witch-hunt of liberal purging; they were caught up in McCarthy’s false Red Scare; Bush was not a war-hawk, but misinformed on the best way to defend our country. I fear, too, that history will be kind to congressional Republicans—conservatives who send shaming tweets and feign horror at the words of Donald Trump—who vote consistently to support Trump’s agenda.
I hope history will remember that real resistance is not using an administrative coup d’état to protect the president from making the GOP look bad. Real resistance is not condemning a race-baiting president with authoritative urges only when he pulls back the curtain on his regressive agenda. I hope history will remember that real resistance is using one’s power to put a stop to what such a president has going on behind the curtain.