In 2008, right-wing talk radio hosts began questioning whether or not Barack Obama was born in the United States. This was ironic because his opponent, John McCain, was the one who was not born in the United States, but in the Panama Canal Zone. The idea, however, was not only an ugly reminder of the Jim Crow days when black Americans were often asked for their papers, it also was an attempt to de-legitimize Obama, to paint him as "other" and, of course, as "un-American," a theme Sarah Palin made her own on the campaign trail.
In 2009, President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress, during which Rep. Joe Wilson from South Carolina shouted at the president "You lie!" It was a jarring moment, violating all the usual decorum of such presidential addresses. But, like the all important rest that precedes the first notes in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it was the word Wilson did not say, but which we all heard, that mattered: "boy!" As in, "You lie, boy!" It is worth noting that Mr. Wilson still serves in Congress. He won his last election with 62 percent of the vote.
In 2010, the Tea Party wave brought control of the Congress to the Republicans. Polls showed that a majority of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States. A majority of Republicans believed he was not a Christian. An opening presented itself to someone sufficiently willing to touch the lowest and basest kinds of populism in American history and exploit it. That someone was Donald Trump who, in 2011, made birtherism his cause.
The pedigree of racist populism is long but it is not all ancient. In my lifetime, Gov. George Wallace won five states when he ran for the presidency in 1968. (Wallace went on to repent his racist past.) In 1990, Sen. Jesse Helms famously ran an ad showing a white hand opening a rejection letter, while the voice over said a minority had gotten the job, a patently racist attack. Pat Buchanan's campaign in 1992 channeled the racist populism against Latino immigrants as well as the "welfare queens" -- always understood to be black -- that Ronald Reagan liked to cite.
When Trump announced his candidacy last year, he shifted his fire from the black people to the "tan" ones. He denounced Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. He allowed that "some" were good people. He went up in the polls. Trump promised to build a wall to separate "us" from "them" and to deport those undocumented Americans who are already here. He went up in the polls. Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. He went up in the polls.
From our sister publication: A Place to Call Home, a new series focusing on women religious helping people who are homeless. Read more
The nation faces a moral question this election that is as simple as it is severe: Are we to permit white supremacist thinking and language back into the mainstream of American politics, or not? We have seen the rallies. We have heard the nastiness, both from Trump himself and from his supporters. When he says he wants to make America great again, he means that he wants America to go back to a time when whites were economically and culturally dominant. When he says he is tired of political correctness, he is not saying what I would say, that too many of our college campuses have become stupidly averse to the value of free speech; he is saying it is okay to use the "n" word. I am sure that Mr. Trump is not a racist personally. I am quite certain that he built his campaign on the legacy of Wallace and Helms and Buchanan, and that is a racist legacy, inflected with a strong sense of nativism.
There are other insurmountable moral problems for my Republican friends. Since securing the nomination this week, Trump has reiterated his support for deporting all undocumented Americans and for banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Republicans who really care about limited government cannot support someone who thinks deporting 11 million people is a task the federal government should undertake. Republicans who genuinely care about religious freedom cannot support a man who thinks it is acceptable, and constitutional, to ban people based on their religion. And while championing women's rights has not been a hallmark of the GOP, we have not witnessed the casual misogyny of a candidate like Trump in decades. Does the GOP think that, too, is permissible again?
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, to his credit, declined to endorse Trump yet. He said they would have to come to a meeting of the minds, and noted several areas where their policies diverged. But, the challenge is not a divergence of policy. I disagree with Ryan's ideas, but recognize he is a grown up, that he is a decent human being, that he believes his ideas will help people. He is not a narcissist. Others in the GOP have already begun slouching towards Trump, terrified of losing his supporters, hoping they can distance themselves from his more outrageous comments and proposals. I don't see that happening. The moral stakes are too obvious and too high for anyone to be able to waffle on Trump's candidacy.
Yesterday, E. J. Dionne wrote about the Trump ascendancy and he quoted our mutual friend Leon Wieseltier who suggests voters adopt the slogan, "Preserve the Shock." Not sure if it is catchy enough to last, but it hits the key moral demand when faced with Trump: We cannot try and make excuses for his comments, nor entertain the hope that he will surround himself with wise counselors. To quote Nancy Reagan, we need to "Just say no." His politics cannot be allowed to mainstream itself. He won a plurality of the votes in a GOP primary. That was enough to earn him the nomination. It is not enough to allow him to take American politics back to its ugliest manifestations of populist racism and nativism.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]