For liberals who have been around long enough to have spent a healthy chunk of their lives writing about the misdeeds of the George W. Bush administration and thought we’d never see a more destructive presidency in our lifetimes, Dubya’s emergence as a voice of GOP moderation has been more than a little disorienting. Thursday he gave a speech with some thinly-veiled criticisms not just of President Donald Trump, but even of developments within his own party.
Yet at the same time, Ed Gillespie, an old aide of Bush’s, is waging a positively Trumpian campaign to be governor of Virginia - and Bush is raising money for him. Which reveals that despite the better intentions of some within their party, Republicans will always revert to stoking fear and hatred if they see electoral advantage in it. And their continued use of those poisonous tools ensures that their own voters will keep responding to the ugliest appeals.
Here’s a sampling from Bush’s speech:
“We’ve seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism. Forgotten the dynamism immigration has always brought to America. . .
“Being American involves the embrace of high ideals and civic responsibility. This means that people of every race, religion and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
It should be said that as president, Bush did advocate comprehensive immigration reform. But now his former adviser Ed Gillespie has all but centered his gubernatorial campaign on fear of the MS-13 gang, alleging that because his opponent Ralph Northam does not condemn “sanctuary cities” - of which there are none in Virginia - that Northam is practically indifferent to the prospect of MS-13 coming to kill you and your family. And of course, the rape.
This kind of thing has a long history in GOP campaigns; let’s not forget that it was George W. Bush’s dad, a genteel country-club Republican if ever there was one, who ran a vicious race-baiting campaign against Michael Dukakis centered on the story of Willie Horton. Vote for the Democrat, the elder Bush said in so many words, and hordes of scary black men will rampage across the land, killing you and raping your women. Sound familiar?
The boogeyman changes but the song remains the same, and in the age of Trump, Republicans use immigrants to promote fear and division. Interestingly enough, Gillespie is taking pains to distance himself from Trump, no doubt because Trump’s approval is low in the increasingly liberal Virginia, even as he pins his electoral hopes on the same sentiments that helped get Trump elected. “I don’t know the president,” Gillespie insists. “I’ve not met him.” The White House sends Mike Pence to stump for Gillespie, no doubt reading the same poll numbers as the campaign.
But Gillespie has obviously decided that if he’s going to get Republicans to the polls, he needs to serve up the red meat. Let his old boss make a speech about the better angels of our nature; Gillespie will count on our basest fears and ugliest sentiments to get him to the governor’s office.
Many Republicans believe that one day they will get past this sort of thing, that they’ll put their long history of race-baiting behind them and run more inclusive campaigns. The trouble is that every time they run a race like Gillespie’s - or Trump’s - they make it harder to break out of their own pattern. They convince their supporters to enact their own identity politics and blame those who aren’t white for their problems, then find that when the next election rolls around, those voters are drawn to the most divisive, angriest candidates.
That’s the story of the 2016 presidential election: Republicans spent years stirring up anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant feeling, then were shocked when the candidate offering the most naked bigotry trounced all the more reasonable contenders.
If Ed Gillespie loses (as the polls suggest he will), some Republicans will probably say that it proves that the kind of campaign he’s running just doesn’t work anymore. But their voices will be drowned out by one 2018 primary contender after another who banks on hatred and resentment getting them the Republican nomination in their races. In many of those races, they’ll be right, at least in the primary.
For now, the Republican Party can’t transcend the politics of racial hatred and fear, because that’s what they nurtured their base on. Just ask the leader of their party.