WASHINGTON -- In West Virginia, Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of creating jobs for “China people” and getting donations from his “China family” (McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan). In Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate Michael Williams drives around in a bus he promises to fill with “illegals” who will be deported to Mexico. On the rear is stamped: “Murderers, rapists, kidnappers, child molesters, and other criminals on board.” In Arizona, Republican Senate candidate (and former sheriff) Joe Arpaio is a proud “birther” with a history of profiling and abusing Hispanic migrants. Vice President Mike Pence recently called Arpaio “a great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” In Wisconsin, Republican House candidate Paul Nehlen runs as a “pro-white Christian American candidate.”
Yes, these are fringe figures. But they are fringe figures in a political atmosphere they correctly view as favorable. In the Republican Party, cranks and bigots are closer to legitimacy than at any time since William F. Buckley banished the John Birch Society.
For some of us, this was a concern from the beginning of Donald Trump’s rise -- not just the policies he would adopt but the attitudes he would encourage and the passions he would provoke.
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The problem is one of social psychology. Human beings are wired to favor their ingroup and to view people in outgroups as interchangeable and dispensable. We are willing to form ingroups at the drop of a hat, based even on minor characteristics. We tend to believe that bad things that happen to people in our ingroup are bum luck, while bad things that happen to people in outgroups are evidence of a just universe. Because we are inherently predisposed toward stereotyping, we are particularly vulnerable to propaganda.
Whatever else Trumpism may be, it is the systematic organization of resentment against outgroups. His record is rich in dehumanization. It was evident when Trump called Mexican migrants “criminals” and “rapists.” When Trump claimed legal mistreatment from a judge because “he’s a Mexican” (Judge Gonzalo Curiel was born in Indiana). When he proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” When Trump attacked Muslim Gold Star parents. When he sidestepped opportunities to criticize former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. When he referred to “very fine people” among the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville. When he expressed a preference for Norwegian immigrants above those from non-white “shithole countries.”
This is more than a disturbing pattern; it is an organizing political principle. And it has resulted in a series of radiating consequences.
First, it has given permission for the public expression of shameful sentiments. People such as Blankenship, Williams, Arpaio and Nehlen are part of a relatively (and thankfully) small political group. But the president has set boundaries of political discourse that include them and encourage them. Even when Trump opposes their candidacies, he has enabled the bolder, more confident expression of their bigotry. The Trump era is a renaissance of half-witted intolerance. Trump’s Christian supporters in particular must be so proud.
Second, Trump’s attacks on outgroups have revealed the cowardice of a much broader faction within the GOP -- those who know better but say little. Some leaders (see House Speaker Paul Ryan) have been willing to criticize specific instances of Trump’s prejudice. But few -- and very few with a political future -- have been willing to draw the obvious conclusion that Trump is prejudiced, or to publicly resist the trend toward prejudice among the GOP base.
Third, Trump’s attitudes toward diversity have moved the center of gravity of the whole GOP toward immigration restrictionism. In Republican Senate primaries such as the one in Indiana, candidates have engaged in a competition of who can be the most exclusionary. Mainstream attitudes toward refugees and legal immigration have become more xenophobic. Trump has not only given permission to those on the fringes; he has changed the Republican mean to be more mean.
The good news about bias against outgroups is that it can be mitigated. And that, in fact, describes the high calling of a democratic leader -- to set an aspiration of unity, to speak the language of empathy, to emphasize our common goals, our common values and our common fate as a people. The GOP waits on leaders who will make these tasks their own.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.