What a time to be a Republican in the United States. It’s the first open election since 2008, general voting doesn’t take place for 10 months and the party’s nomination process has already become a reality TV circus in which the star attraction is a world-famous billionaire who decided to run on a platform that could have been written by Benito Mussolini.
Not that the other candidates are much better. To think that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio somehow managed to convince enough voters in Texas and Florida to vote them into the United States Senate doesn’t say much for those states. There’s something of a bomb-throwing anarchist about Cruz–who at least has the decency to temper his nasty anti-immigrant views with a slight air of respectability–while Rubio is clearly more android than human. (Remaining candidates John Kasich and Ben Carson hardly matter these days.)
It’s hard to believe when you look at such candidates that the Republican Party used to boast General Dwight Eisenhower (the last person who won the presidency without having previously held an elected office), Gerald Ford and even Brooklyn Dodgers legend Jackie Robinson as members. Then, when I was in college in the mid-1990s, the scary Republicans included people like Rep. Newt Gingrich. Oh, how quaint those times seem now.
Though there are five Republicans currently running for president, only one matters: Donald Trump. The bombastic billionaire has flirted with the presidency since the 1980s, but only very recently started building a real organization backed by substantial numbers of people willing to vote for him. Trump may be a megalomaniac who’s addicted to fame, regardless of the price (indeed, the Associated Press reported on Feb. 27 that leaked emails from Trump’s top corporate stooges show great fear throughout the highest levels of his company that his racist demagoguery “could permanently damage the Trump business brand with Latinos”), but he’s attracted so many votes that he’s now the front-runner for the nomination.
For Washington’s establishment, this is a terrifying scenario. The Washington Post described Trump this way, on Feb. 24: “He wants the United States to commit war crimes, including torture and the murder of innocent relatives of suspected terrorists. He admires Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and sees no difference between Mr. Putin’s victims and people killed in the defense of the United States. He would round up and deport 11 million people, a forced movement on a scale not attempted since Stalin or perhaps Pol Pot. He has, during the course of his campaign, denigrated women, Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, people with disabilities and many more. He routinely trades in wild falsehoods and doubles down when his lies are exposed.”
The paper then called for Republican leaders to stop Trump. Given the fact that Republican turnout is up–way up–over 2012 numbers, this is the height of naivete. Indeed, such Republican stalwarts as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and current U.S. Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions have all endorsed Trump. Though not exactly the braintrust of the GOP (the three are, respectively, an idiot, thug and segregationist sympathizer), they send a powerful message: Trump is fine with them.
Trump is of course trolling the nation, and perhaps the world. He knows saying outrageous things against women and minorities get TV news coverage, so he says outrageous, unthinkable things on a nearly daily basis. He’s demanded the overturning libel laws. He has openly called for the assault of protesters at his rallies. He wants the U.S. military to torture–his word–suspected terrorists like they’ve never been tortured before. His refusal to comment on the Ku Klux Klan–a member of which recently stabbed a protester in Anaheim with an American flag–is a masterstroke in electioneering. He is, in fact, running such an outrageously repulsive campaign that he’s threatening to split the Republican Party wide open.
Were he just an agent provocateur bent on infiltrating the GOP and destroying it from within (a possibility that I still can’t dismiss completely), then this election would be the most entertaining of all time. But Trump’s violent rhetoric, his appeals to a past “greatness” that conjures images of Jim Crow and lynching, also feed the racist, nativist monster that exists within the American psyche. Though we like to believe we’re an exceptional nation, a “city upon a hill,” as both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan put it, borrowing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, our history is far more brutal–America has been a violent, frightened nation since its birth. The nation founded by white slaveholders who decreed that “all men were created equal” has never found itself at ease with other nations and races.
Look no further than this example of Trump’s electoral base: 74 percent of Trump voters in South Carolina agreed with his call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. An astonishing 20 percent thought Abraham Lincoln’s freeing the slaves during the Civil War was wrong.
With rising numbers of Latinos and ever greater power afforded to women and minorities, many whites feel imperiled. You want to know how many? Look at Trump’s voters–largely white, male and aging, they’re the ones with the most to lose from a truly equal society.
The question now before the Republican Party as a whole is the most profound of its existence: completely reject Trump and his racist, violent white supremacist fury, or embrace it all and vaporize the legacies of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Ford.
That an airhead like Palin and a thug like Christie have already knelt down and kissed Trump’s ring implies that the future of American politics will be rough. Demographics do not favor the Republicans, but rather than adapt to a changing ethnic and cultural landscape, they have chosen to attack and demonize.
Should they assume power–and control over America’s substantial and terrifying conventional and nuclear arsenal–what will they do? Or more apt, is there anything they won’t do? Previous presidents have already stretched the federal government into assaulting privacy and civil rights in ways thought unthinkable just a generation ago.
George W. Bush created an archipelago of “black site” prisons across the world. Barack Obama has gone one step further, unleashing CIA-controlled drone aircraft, killing suspected terrorists–including at least who was born in the U.S. and therefore entitled to due process.
Even if Trump wins the nomination but loses the presidency (still, at this point, the most likely scenario) what new imperial boundary will Obama’s successor push? When do our actions become indistinguishable from those of the “rogue nations” we regularly denounce?
On Tuesday, Mar. 8, Hawaii Republicans will get a chance to caucus on the nomination. In 2012, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney came out the top vote-getter in Hawaii, with a mediocre 44.5 percent of the Republican caucus (can you believe that a quarter of the state’s Republican voters preferred gay-baiting former Senator Rick Santorum?). So who will get the state’s 19 Republican delegates this year?
“We don’t have a whole lot of polling data, and it depends on who shows up, but I think it’s going to be Trump and Hillary [Clinton],” UH Political Science Professor Colin Moore told me. “I suspect that Trump just has the most name recognition. I can’t believe Cruz has any traction. In Massachusetts, another very blue state, Republicans there seem to be going strong for Trump.”
Though Hawaii may be a small state, the extraordinary nature of this year’s election has given the state’s party more power than they’re used to. The question all of us must live with, though, is what they’ll do with that power.
For more information on the Hawaii Republican Caucus, go to GOPHawaii.com.