Republicans’ sickness is far worse than a ‘Trump problem’
No one is buying the idea that Donald Trump's dinner last week at Mar-a-Lago with anti-Semite and white nationalist Nick Fuentes was some sort of aberration – even if Trump's claim is true that Fuentes showed up unannounced in the company of rapper (and fellow anti-Semite) Ye, formerly known as Kanye West.
That Trump would meet with bigots and conspiracy theorists was very much on brand for someone who sees loyalty to himself as the only character trait that matters. Trump, after all, claimed moral equivalence ("very fine people on both sides") between the neo-Nazis who chanted in Charlottesville that Jews would not replace them and a group of counter-protesters, one of whom was murdered.
Which means things like the Mar-a-Lago dinner are surely going to continue to happen as Trump forges ahead with his bid for the GOP's 2024 presidential nomination. And with each instance, the far-right extremists who spew hate will continue nudging their way from the fringes into the mainstream of the Republican Party.
In the wake of the GOP's disappointing performance in the midterm elections, it is plainly self evident that the party has a "Trump problem“. But there is a deeper problem, and that is the Republican Party itself.
Republicans cannot move past Trump, as long as they cannot bring themselves to confront him and, by association, the element he attracts. This is not the party that had the fortitude to purge the hateful John Birch Society from its ranks in the mid-1960s. As former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye put it to me, today’s Republicans still think they can “outrun the crocodile“.
Since the dinner became public over the weekend, we have heard plenty of prominent Republicans denounce anti-Semitism, as though that is anything other than basic human decency. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who is reported to be considering a presidential bid of his own, tweeted that anti-Semitism is “a cancer” and declared: “We stand with the Jewish people in the fight against the world's oldest bigotry.”
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel issued a statement: “As I had repeatedly said, white supremacy, neo-Nazism, hate speech and bigotry are disgusting and do not have a home in the Republican Party.”
But depressingly few were willing to even mention Trump himself.
One welcome exception was outgoing Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson (R), who told CNN: “I don't think it's a good idea for a leader that is setting an example for the country or the party to meet with an avowed racist or anti-semite. And so it’s very troubling, and it shouldn’t happen. And we need to avoid those kinds of empowering the extremes. And when you meet with people, you empower.”
Another was Trump's own vice president, Mike Pence, who said on NewsNation: “President Trump was wrong to give a white nationalist, an anti-semite and a Holocaust denier a seat at the table, and I think he should apologise.“
Come January, there will be fewer Republicans left in Congress willing to speak out when Trump does what he keeps doing. That in itself is a testament to where the party has positioned itself with regard to the crocodile, given how many of those who did take issue with him were either wiped out in Republican primaries this year or chose to retire.
And those who have followed Trump's example in associating themselves with extremists and their ideas will have more clout within the institution. Earlier this year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) spoke at a conference organised by Fuentes, later claiming (as Trump has about last week's dinner) that she didn’t know who he was; House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has promised, if he becomes speaker, to restore her committee assignments, which the Democratic-controlled House stripped the Georgia congresswoman of in 2021 because of her incendiary comments.
Meanwhile, don't expect much by way of correctives to be offered as the GOP gets ready to elect its next party chair in January. McDaniel, who was hand-picked by Trump to run the party after the 2016 election and who has been a model of obeisance to him since, has indicated she plans to run for another term.
There is grumbling in the party about McDaniel's win-loss record, with South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem telling Fox News: "I don't know a party that can continue to lose like we have and keep their jobs." But none of the talked-about alternatives – who include defeated 2022 New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin and MyPillow chief executive and leading election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell – represent a turn away from Trump.
So Republican leaders should quit deluding themselves about the possibility of moving on from the former president, who continues to bring the worst people into their fold. They are along for the ride – even as it takes them over a cliff.