Donald Trump has dropped all pretense and proudly raised the banner of white racial grievance. The time has come for Republicans in Congress to decide whether this is what they signed up for.
Business leaders decided Wednesday that they’d had enough, quitting two presidential advisory councils before Trump quickly dissolved the panels. Military leaders made their call as well, issuing statements – in the wake of Charlottesville – making clear they embrace diversity and reject bigotry.
With only a few exceptions, however, GOP political leaders have been too timid to denounce the president and the reprehensible game of racial politics he’s playing. I think the corporate chief executives who bailed are making the right bet: History will remember who spoke out, who was complicit, and who stood idly by.
Thursday on Twitter (where else?) Trump poured salt in the nation’s wounds by coming out firmly against the removal of public monuments to the Confederacy – the issue that brought white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan to Charlottesville and led to the death of Heather Heyer.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he wrote. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!”
Some slippery-slope arguments are valid but the one Trump makes is absurd. He can’t possibly be so dense that he doesn’t see a clear distinction between the men who founded this nation and those who tried to rip it apart.
Trump may indeed not know that most of those Confederate monuments were erected not in the years right after the Civil War but around the turn of the 20th century, when the Jim Crow system of state-enforced racial oppression was being established. They symbolize not history but the defiance of history; they celebrate not defeat on the battlefield but victory in putting uppity African-Americans back in their place.
But even if someone explained all of this to Trump – perhaps in a one-page briefing memo with lots of pictures – he wouldn’t care. For him, the important thing is to tell the white voters who constitute his base that they are being disrespected and dispossessed. It’s a cynical and dangerous ploy.
We know this is Trump’s game because White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon told us so. In an interview with journalist Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect, published Wednesday, Bannon is quoted as saying: “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ‘em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
But Trump’s base won’t identify with Nazis and the KKK. That’s why Trump maintained – falsely – that among the torch-bearing Charlottesville white supremacists there were also plenty of “nice people.” And it’s why he now seeks to broaden the issue to encompass Confederate monuments nationwide, abandoning his earlier position that the question should be left to local jurisdictions.
That’s probably also why Bannon, in the interview with Kuttner, referred to the white-power clowns as, well, “clowns.” He’s smart enough to reassure Trump supporters that they’re not like those racists and that all the racial game-playing is on the other side.
Trump’s desperation is palpable. His approval ratings have slid perilously close to the danger zone where Republican officeholders no longer fear crossing him.
For titans of the business community, the tipping point came Wednesday. The chief executives of such companies as General Electric, Campbell Soup, Johnson & Johnson and 3M decided they could no longer serve on Trump’s advisory Manufacturing Council or his Strategy & Policy Forum.
Why stick around? Prospects that Trump can actually follow through on a business-friendly agenda, including tax reform, look increasingly dim. And Trump’s “many sides” reaction to Charlottesville wasn’t going over at all well with employees, customers or the executives themselves.
“Constructive economic and regulatory policies are not enough and will not matter if we do not address the divisions in our country,” JPMorgan Chase chief Jamie Dimon wrote in a message to his employees. “It is a leader’s role, in business or government, to bring people together, not tear them apart.”
The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and National Guard also publicly condemned hate groups in the wake of Charlottesville. They, of course, could not mention the commander in chief by name.
But politicians can. And they must.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.