Here Are the Republicans Willing to Say Anything to Please Trump’s Base
Even now, three months after Donald Trump’s White House exit, the former president’s presence continues to loom over the GOP. In a radio appearance with right-wing radio host Joe Pags last week, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson claimed he didn’t feel threatened by the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol to challenge the presidential election results, but he might have if the mob had been Black Lives Matters or Antifa protesters. Johnson compared BLM to Antifa, basically saying there’s nothing scarier than a bunch of angry Black people (and the white people who support them).
Despite some understandable blowback, Johnson doubled down on his claim in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, where he minimized the trauma caused by events in Washington, D.C., on January 6 and instead focused on the left’s supposedly hypocritical infatuation with the Capitol siege. “570 protests became riots last year,” he wrote. “The vast majority of these protests were organized and attended by leftists. Twenty-five people lost their lives and 700 law enforcement officers were injured.” (For reference, five people died during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.)
Johnson wasn’t the only Republican grabbing headlines in the past few days. We saw Texas Rep. Chip Roy use imagery that celebrated lynching to describe the might of Texas law enforcement at a hearing on anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, 12 GOP representatives, including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, voted against a bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to the Capitol Police and others who protected both them and democracy on January 6 because it referred to the violent mob led by white nationalists as “insurrectionists.” And in a March 22 tweet, Republican Sen. John Cornyn criticized President Joe Biden for emphasizing “the humane treatment of immigrants, regardless of their legal status.”
Taken together, these anecdotes paint an unsettling picture of a Republican Party that remains defined by Trump’s racist rhetoric and sees bigotry as its only path toward electoral success. For four years, Republican politicians watched their leader, Donald Trump, effectively use racism as a political tool to court white supremacists. Trump said there were some “very fine” neo-Nazis after the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; he suggested Kyle Rittenhouse may have acted in self-defense last summer when he gunned down two BLM protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin; he invited the couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matters protestors in St. Louis to appear at the Republican National Convention in August.
Despite his race-baiting, Trump has retained a loyal GOP following. (And, as we’ve seen with country singer Morgan Wallen’s still-soaring record sales and Piers Morgan’s continued bankability after leaving Good Morning Britain, being branded a racist is not always the death knell the anti-cancel culture mob makes it out to be.) In the aftermath of Trump’s presidency, the Republican Party seems to be moving away from policy and is now openly embracing the sort of personality politics that made the former president so successful. We saw the new tactic in action at CPAC last month when Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley called systemic racism “a lie,” echoing the sentiments of his Texan colleague Ted Cruz, who had previously denied that white privilege is a thing.
Racist language and behavior may alienate “leftists” on social media, but it can earn GOP respect. Last year, several Republicans condemned then-Georgia congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene after racist videos she’d previously made surfaced. Still, only 11 House Republicans broke partisan ranks and voted to remove her from her committee assignments in February. Greene may have lost her spot on the committees, but in endorsing her polarizing presence, the majority of GOP House members may have also emboldened it.
Some Democrats are rightly calling out the recent racist Republican talking points, and it’s promising to see at least a handful of GOP lawmakers joining them rather than toeing the partisan line. The increasingly racist words of those who continue to defer to Trump might please the far-right within the party, but their loud-and-proud reality TV approach likely won’t appeal to moderate Republicans or sway independents, whose support the GOP will need in order to remain a viable force on a national level outside of the more rural local electorates.
For now, though, the party that made Ronald Reagan a political idol in the 1980s continues to be ruled by the former host of The Apprentice. The most successful reality stars are the ones who trend by saying and doing polarizing things. The stakes in Washington, D.C., however, are much higher than on The Real Housewives and Big Brother. If courting racist voters can give these Republicans the power they crave, why should Black lives matter to them?