Republicans claim reverse racism in defending Trump's racism: It won't work

Republicans push back at Nancy Pelosi for speaking the truth about Trump. It delights their base, but that's all

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published July 17, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Nancy Pelosi; Ilhan Omar; Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell (AP/Getty/Salon)
Nancy Pelosi; Ilhan Omar; Donald Trump; Mitch McConnell (AP/Getty/Salon)

At this point, most of the Republican Party spends much of its time and political capital protecting President Trump. On Tuesday, House Republicans upped their absurd antics in defense of Trump by cleverly relying on an obscure parliamentary rule to try to silence colleagues who dared describe the president as a racist. 

The House of Representatives eventually approved a resolution Tuesday evening condemning Trump’s racist tweets against four freshmen Democratic congresswomen. But that didn't happen before Republicans tried to sanction House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for describing those tweets accurately. It was an egregious, and entirely  unironic, display of political correctness run amok.

The House approved a resolution denouncing “the president’s racist tweets” on a largely party-line vote, 240-187. The measure, introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., who was born in Poland, is titled "Condemning President Trump's racist comments directed at Members of Congress." But Speaker Pelosi was immediately rebuked by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, who pointed to Jefferson’s Manual, which governs parliamentary procedure, to say remarks that “refer to the president as … having made a bigoted or racist statement” are not in order. The rule was put in place by the GOP in 2017 to insulate Trump from his racism.

“I make a point of order that the gentlewoman's words are unparliamentary and be taken down,” Collins objected. Every Republican then voted in favor of a motion to strike Pelosi’s remarks from the record. When Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., took to the House floor to call his Democratic colleagues anti-American, however, not one Republican moved to strike his comments. 

Republicans have scrambled to contain the fallout from Trump’s latest racist outburst by offering a collective shrug, while also  trotting out the classic faux concern over those who call out racism — in order to cover for those who engage in racism. Republicans shamelessly gaslit Democrats on the House floor, reprimanding the first female House speaker for using foul language and destroying decorum by accurately describing Trump’s words. Ironically, the problem isn’t even Trump’s decorum but the substantive odiousness of his words. 

Only a few hours before the House vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., finally spoke out about the outrage over Trump’s attacks on elected congresswomen of color. Naturally enough, he ignored Trump’s comments."Everybody ought to tone down their rhetoric," McConnell said, without specifically criticizing Trump's tweets and comments about the so-called Squad, Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. “The president is not a racist,” McConnell responded after reporters pressed him.

The president told the four outspoken progressives to “go back” to where they came from. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination, cites “go back to where you came from” as a classic form of discrimination that violates civil rights. 

Republicans have adamantly insisted Trump’s remarks were not racist, however. 

“No, I don’t think he’s a racist, and no, I don’t think he’s a xenophobe. He’s got a mom and a wife who are immigrants,” said North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who is up for re-election in 2020, of Trump’s tweets. 

“I don't see it as a racial remark,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. “I just don't think it's appropriate.”

“You know, they talk about people of color. I'm a person of color. I'm white. I'm an Anglo Saxon. People say things all the time, but I don't get offended,” Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., told reporters. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., responded by falsely claiming that hi party had “never disrespected the office” under President Obama.

Republicans' tactical decision to go hard against Pelosi while barely mentioning the president's racist comments is part and parcel of a coordinated strategy to defend Trump at all cost. As Salon’s Heather Digby Parton explained earlier this week, Trump "believes that most Americans are as racist as he is and that he will be rewarded for this indecency with a second term." It is a sentiment that has been cemented by hours of Fox News consumption.

Salon’s Amanda Marcotte notes that the right-wing propaganda network’s rating success offers Trump a safe space from serious critique and a rationalization for his racism. “Trump believes racism is more popular than anti-racism, because, he believes, racism gets TV viewers and anti-racism doesn't. And getting TV viewers is the only measurement he takes seriously,” Marcotte wrote Tuesday. Trump is becoming more overtly white-nationalist, you could say, because Fox News has become more overtly white-nationalist. 

A new Reuters/Ipsos poll appears to back the president’s instinct, finding that Trump’s net approval among Republicans has risen by 5 percentage points after his attack on the four Democratic lawmakers. That may also help explain why Republicans who objected to Trump's personal behavior while he was running for office voted on Tuesday to protect him like lemmings in the face of patently racist remarks. 

It was the only three Republicans to survive in swing districts during last fall’s 40-seat “blue wave” who voted with Democrats on Tuesday to call Trump’s tweets racist. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, whose district voted for Clinton, joined with fellow Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Susan Brooks of Indiana. But other vulnerable Republicans like Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, a Florida Republican in a swing district who called the president’s language “regrettable,” did not vote to condemn his tweets.

Trump is at 42 percent popularity amid a strong economy — and according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll mentioned above, his net approval rating among both Democratic and independent voters has dropped. As numerous observers have pointed out, it was after the Charlottesville fiasco that his approval numbers first began to bottom out. He is perceived as a Machiavellian genius by many of his supporters and some in the media, but his reliance on racism could well be an electoral liability. Democrats were right to force Republicans onto the record about where they stand. 

For her part, Pelosi did not back down following Tuesday’s manufactured fracas. 

"I stand by my statement," she said, meaning the one that officially silenced her for the rest of the day. "I’m proud of the attention that’s being called to it because what the president said was completely inappropriate against our colleagues, but not just against them, against so many people in our country." 

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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