The massacre at a gay club in Orlando on Sunday has caused a fascinating split in the Republican Party to once again burst out into the open. On one side you have the conservative id, distilled into the body of presidential nominee and racist Cheez-It Donald Trump, along with his assorted sycophants. On the other side you have the leaders of the party who long ago abrogated their moral duty to their country and all notions of decency by falling in line behind and refusing to condemn the vile rhetoric of said racist Cheez-It, all because their fear of being yelled at by a bunch of Twitter eggs eclipses whatever ragged shards of humanity might have survived their years of service to the GOP.
This split had already been visible to anyone paying attention, but there had not been an incident that crystallized it so vividly for the public in, oh, a week or two. But as the GOP continues devolving into nothing more than a series of fear responses sent out from a deformed amygdala, it is one we can expect to see again and again over the remaining – God help us –145 days until November’s election.
First to Trump, who has reacted to Sunday’s slaughter by suggesting that President Obama might be complicit in some way in Islamic terrorist attacks on American citizens and then banishing from his campaign’s press pool a major newspaper that reported that fact. That was bad enough.
But what really chaffed the nards of some in his party’s leadership – to say nothing of President Obama, who let him have it in a brief speech Tuesday morning, and whose eloquence was a needed counterpoint to Trump’s paranoia – was the mogul’s suggestion of a ban on Muslim immigrants “from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States.” This nativist, seal-the-borders rhetoric is catnip to the party’s base but very upsetting to its business wing, which a) doesn’t mind importing cheap labor from other countries if it helps the bottom line, and b) has enough sense to know how such racism plays to anyone who is politically to the left of the Imperial Wizard.
A few Republicans backed Trump and even went a step further. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a break from yelling at McDonald’s cashiers to hurry up with Mr. Trump’s McRib to suggest that America needs to “fight back” against terrorists and that the country needs to “get over there and start making them pay where they live,” as if our military hasn’t been bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq for a couple of years now, and as if making more war on Muslim lands wouldn’t likely create a lot more lone wolves like Orlando shooter Omar Mateen. Who, it should be noted, was an American citizen, born and raised here, and therefore would not have been affected by Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration.
At the same time, Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich suggested that Congress bring back something akin to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, when it existed in the 1940s and 1950s, was most famous for ruining the lives of any citizen of the nation suspected of being a subversive member of the Communist Party. The witch hunts of that era are generally considered one of the most shameful episodes in our history.
But there was Gingrich on Fox News on Tuesday, saying that the United States is going to have to re-form HUAC to root out ISIS sleeper agents who might be plotting attacks inside our borders. The fact that these people are, like Mateen, American citizens with full Constitutional protections didn’t seem to come up in the conversation. Perhaps Gingrich is just buying time until Tom Cruise starts up the Pre-Crime Unit.
Ranged against the nativist fear-mongering from the Trump camp was Paul Ryan and…well, Paul Ryan. The Speaker of the House held a press conference on Tuesday morning to denounce Trump’s rhetoric, saying that “Muslims are our partners” and that he does not think a ban on Muslim immigration “is reflective of our principles, not just as a party, but as a country.” It was about as brave a stand as one could expect from Ryan, who has spent much of the time since his Trump endorsement putting out fires ignited by Trump’s ignorant babbling about Muslims and the heritage of a judge overseeing a lawsuit against the nominee, among other garbage. The Speaker is a policy wonk. Standing up to vicious racial demagoguery is not his forte.
Most of the rest of the GOP spent Tuesday dodging and ducking and complaining about reporters asking about Trump in the first place, as if the party’s presidential nominee being a closed-borders xenophobe who just suggested banning 1.8 billion people from coming to the United States isn’t news. About the only major figure who condemned Trump was Lindsey Graham, but considering his own history of fear-mongering, it shouldn’t earn him any points with reasonable people. Graham’s past hysterics helped lay the groundwork for the force he is now railing against.
Splits between nativists and the more moderate forces of the GOP are not new, but it’s hard to remember a time when one has been so pronounced. It highlights the depths of the electoral wipeout the party is careening towards in November, at least with the presidency and the Senate. (Gerrymandering will likely keep the House under Republican control.) One side of the party knows how badly this kind of rhetoric will play with the broader electorate, which likes to think of itself as more enlightened and not so susceptible to fearful cowering from imagined terrorists that Trump supporters seem to see around every corner. The other side of the party, the side that backs the orange-skinned meat sack it nominated, does not care in the least.
There is no real solution. Trump isn’t going to moderate, no matter what the costs of his present course. GOP leaders could at least go down while taking a stand by telling the base everything that is wrong with Trump’s position – morally, ethically, and legally. But that would require an honorable foundation that has been missing from Republican politics for decades.