WASHINGTON – In an internal Republican Party memo, officials tried to come to grips with the possibility of Donald Trump as their nominee by comparing Trump to Wendell Willkie, the businessman who won the 1940 Republican nomination.
“Willkie and Trump have a lot in common,” Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, wrote at the beginning of the memo, obtained last week by my Washington Post colleagues Robert Costa and Philip Rucker. “Both were seen as fresh-faced outsiders. … Willkie would go on to lose to wartime President Franklin Roosevelt, but this time it’s harder to predict an outcome.”
Thus placing Trump squarely within the party’s traditions, Baker suggested that Republican candidates should embrace some of Trump’s “character traits” and “limit the Trump criticisms.”
It’s hard to imagine a less apt analogue for Trump than Willkie. If the current front-runner for the Republican nomination is to be compared to a 1940 political figure, he comes closer to Il Duce.
Willkie was an outspoken proponent of civil rights and a special counsel to the NAACP. He was an avid internationalist and proposed a postwar plan for international peacekeeping. He was denied the 1944 Republican nomination because he was too liberal.
Trump is the opposite of Willkie, pulling the party to the black-shirted right by playing on fears of foreigners and racial and religious minorities. “The analogy is ludicrous,” says David Hart, a political scientist at George Mason University.
Indeed, Trump owes less to Willkie’s tradition than to Benito Mussolini’s, and not only because of the superficial: Trump’s chin-out toughness, sweeping right-hand gestures and talk of his “huge” successes and his “stupid” opponents all evoke the Italian dictator’s style. Monday’s breathtaking announcement that he would block all Muslims from entering the United States has many pointing out the obvious fascist overtones.
But Trump has built toward this for some time, beginning with his pledge to round up and deport millions of illegal immigrants. A couple of weeks ago, after Trump said he would consider forcing Muslims in the United States to register in a database, the conservative military historian Max Boot tweeted: “Trump is a fascist. And that’s not a term I use loosely or often. But he’s earned it.”
Trump uses many of the fascist’s tools: a contempt for facts, spreading a pervasive sense of fear and overwhelming crisis, portraying his backers as victims, assigning blame to foreign or alien actors and suggesting that only his powerful personality can transcend the crisis. He endorsed the violence done to a dissenter at one of his rallies, and he now floats the idea of making entry to the United States contingent on religion.
A quantitative analysis of Trump’s speeches by The New York Times found that Trump echoes what historians said were “the appeals of some demagogues of the past century” in his repetition of “divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery.”
Perhaps more troubling than Trump is the reluctance among Republican leaders to disavow him.
“Trump can hit the right chord,” the NRSC’s Baker wrote in his memo. “We can’t afford to depress the GOP vote,” he added. “Spending full time attacking our own nominee will ensure that the GOP vote is depressed. That will only serve to topple GOP candidates at every level. Maintain the right amount of independence, but avoid piling on the nominee.”
In fairness, Baker wrote that in late September, and Trump’s campaign has grown ever darker. Last week, I wrote that it’s necessary to call Trump the racist, bigot and demagogue that he is. His supporters’ reaction confirmed that he’s appealing to the ugliest impulses: My inbox filled with anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-black and, particularly, anti-Muslim invective. The next day Trump gave a speech to a Jewish group and portrayed them as money-obsessed “negotiators.”
Trump’s rivals and other GOP leaders, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have condemned his proposed Muslim ban. But, with few exceptions, they still pretend he would be an acceptable Republican standard-bearer.
“This is not conservatism,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said.
Right – it’s fascism.
“What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for,” Ryan added.
But, asked if he could support Trump, Ryan said he would back “whoever the Republican nominee is.”
After last weekend’s suspected terrorist attack on London’s Underground, a witness shouted at the perpetrator the now famous words: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv.” What’s needed here is for conservative and GOP leaders to send a similar message to Trump: “You ain’t no Republican, bro.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.