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The Cancer Is Spreading

Trump's racism isn't veiled anymore. As bad as it is, there's an even bigger danger.
July 17, 2019
The Cancer Is Spreading
(GettyImages / Shutterstock / Public domain)

Last year I wrote a piece arguing that we should all hope there isn’t a tape of Donald Trump saying the n-word.

Here’s the nub:

[N]o matter what your feelings are about Trump, you should hope that these tapes, if they do exist, never see the light of day. . . . Do you think he’d lose support from his base? . . . Or for using the N-word? I do not. Everything we know about the president’s base supporters suggests that there is no straw that will break the camel’s back—only goalposts, receding constantly to the horizon.

This is a comment on the character of his base, certainly. But it’s more about how narrow his base already is to begin with. Trump’s approval rating among strong Republican partisans is extremely high: 93 percent of the people who voted for him in 2016 approve of him to this point. His approval among everyone else is dismal: 39 percent among independents; 9 percent among Democrats. Just as a structural matter, he doesn’t have very far to fall with either of these groups. And if the last two years are any guide—Stormy Daniels, tariffs, denigrating America while praising Russia, the fluffing of Kim Jong-un, personnel scandals—then Trump is already resting on his foundation.

But let’s pretend that Trump could hollow out, that an N-word tape would finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Let’s pretend that Trump’s approval collapsed among Republicans. What then? He’s not going to resign. He’s not going to be impeached and removed from office. The #Resistance fantasy is that some deus ex machina will make Trump disappear. This is not going to happen. The only way Trump leaves is if he loses re-election in 2020. For both good and ill, President Trump is our reality and he will continue to affect the world around him.

So now we must imagine what a weakened Trump would be like for the next two years. Do you think he’d knuckle down, start acting like a statesman, and try to unite the country? Or do you think he’d push for more chaos and division in the hopes of somehow drawing to an inside straight (again)? Assuming he does, the only possible downside of such a strategy, from Trump’s perspective, would be salting the ground of American political life for any potential successor. And he would view this not as a bug, but as a feature.

If you look at the Trump administration and think it can’t get worse, then you haven’t contemplated what a scorched-earth Trump might be like. But the worst outcome is the one that requires the least speculation and imagination. As things stand right now there are still a handful of norms left in public life. Not saying the N-word is one of them. It would be nice if we could hold on to that norm. If we have a tape of the president of the United States saying it and he suffers no proximate consequences, that norm will be shattered.

I take no joy in saying that this turned out to be pretty much dead-on.

“Go back to your own country” isn’t exactly a tape of Trump saying the N-word, but it’s in the same zip code. Maybe the same ballpark.

And what’s happened?

The Republican base has doubled down on him. Elected Republicans have stood with him, on the record. Approval numbers from Republican voters have increased.

And the stigma of outright racism is evaporating everywhere.

You’ve probably heard of the website American Greatness. It’s the thinking man’s OANN. It publishes mostly illiterate cranks, but also some respectable people, such as Henry Olsen from the Ethic and Public Policy Center and Victor Davis Hanson from National Review and the Hoover Institution.

This week American Greatness published an anonymously written poem titled “Cuck Elegy.” I’m not going to link to it. It is an attack on David French and other conservatives who the author believes are too invested in getting the approbation of the left and not willing enough to fight . . . well, for whatever.

And midway through the verse are these lines:

The “Global South”? “The mocha-skinned Lazarus”?

“You are more rich than him if not in cash, then in your white skin”?

I don’t know how to read this as anything other than racism—and not just racism, but actual, honest-to-God, KKK-style white nationalism.

Especially since—again—the author is using a pseudonym. Which is the writerly equivalent of wearing a hood. If there was an innocent interpretation for this, then the author’s name would be on it.

It is not a coincidence that this post appeared on a website devoted to the perpetual and total defense of Donald Trump 72 hours after Trump started telling some of America’s elected representatives to “go back to your own country.”

This is how the cancer spreads.

The growing white nationalism is disturbing. Actually, the word “disturbing” doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s much worse than that.

But it’s not the proximate danger from all of this.

The near-term danger is the other half of what I wrote last summer, about how once Trump goes into chaos mode and his base is totally, completely committed to defending literally everything he does, we have opened the door to a constitutional crisis.

Andrew Egger pokes around that idea in his piece this morning about Republicans refusing (with four honorable exceptions) to vote for a non-binding resolution condemning the president’s attack on their fellow legislators:

There was no conflict of interests for lawmakers to consider here; no conservative “higher good” was at stake. They did not have to give up a SCOTUS seat or a tax cut. It was a freebie. Lawmakers were merely required to go on the record in response to the question: Donald Trump just said a baldly racist thing—will you raise your voice in protest? Practically none would. It’s hard to see them falling much farther than that. For all intents and purposes, the capitulation of the GOP to this president is now complete.

You may find this foolish or disgusting or morally reprehensible. But it is much worse than that: It’s dangerous.

Republicans have always told themselves that despite Trump’s authoritarian impulses, he would never be able to act on them. The guardrails of democracy were too strong; the main body of the party would only let him stray so far.

Ask yourself this: If congressional Republicans could not support a non-binding resolution condemning these remarks as racist, then what line could Trump cross that they would push back on, especially if pushing back was going to cost them something?

What if, just as a for-instance, Trump is defeated by a narrow margin in 2020 and decides to contest the election? What if he claims his defeat was the result of “illegal votes” and a “rigged system.” (Charges he made about the 2016 election.) Are we now supposed to believe that, in such an event, that congressional Republicans would condemn his behavior as dangerous? That they would insist that Trump stop and proceed with the transfer power?

Which is what I can’t stop thinking about.

People conjure all sorts of Constitutional doomsday scenarios about Trump: What if he launches nuclear missiles on a lark? What if he decides to run for a third term?

But for the most part, those scenarios require some slightly modified behavior from Trump. They require imagining a Trump who has not yet materialized.

For me, the big worry is this: What if, six weeks before the 2020 election, he says exactly the same things he said six weeks before the 2016 election?

I’ve raised this alarm before and I’ll do it again, because it’s important. In the run-up to 2016, Trump said that the election was rigged against him and refused to say that he would abide by the result. Flat out refused. After the election he claimed he’d actually won the popular vote.

So what happens if, in October 2020 the sitting commander in chief refuses to say that he will abide by the results of the election?

What happens if the election is close and Trump loses and then, the sitting president of the United States says that the results are fraudulent and that in reality he won the popular vote?

None of this requires any imagination or extrapolation. This isn’t a thought experiment. We’re only using things he’s already said and done in the same context.

What happens then?

We have told ourselves not to worry, that Mitch McConnell and the other grownup Republicans would step in, that this would not become a partisan fight. That elected Republicans would have no trouble separating owning the libs from protecting the Constitution. Even if it meant ultimately paying some price.

The scariest thing about Tuesday’s vote isn’t the racism. It’s the foreshadowing that if push comes to shove and we do wind up in a real-deal constitutional crisis, we will not be able to count on elected Republicans to do their duty.

There’s a great line in L.A. Confidential where the corrupt police chief warns one of his bent cops not to start growing a conscience. “Don’t start trying to do the right, boy-o,” he says. “You haven’t had the practice.”

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.