June 1, 2020 is a day that will live in racial infamy. The Republican president of these United States became part racist Southern Governor George Wallace, part vicious police chief Bull Connor, and part law-and-order candidate Richard Nixon, circa 1968. The president of “We the People” of the United States unleashed tear gas and armed troops on citizens of Washington, D.C., who were assembled in peaceful protest. He did so under the cover of Attorney General Bill Barr, who ordered unidentified troops to unlawfully disperse peacefully assembled citizens.
How far the GOP has fallen.
I am personally exhausted by the tweets and articles being written by well-meaning journalists like Washington Post opinion page editor Fred Hiatt, who penned a piece on Saturday almost begging: “Republican senators, it's not too late to help save your country.”
I respect and have known Fred for years, but on this, he is simply wrong. Republican senators cannot redeem themselves. That ship sailed during the impeachment trial, when Republican senators blocked witnesses. Redemption is not about a singular moment. Redemption is about how we live our lives, our character, and our compassion toward our fellow man each day.
The Party of Lincoln is long gone. It is dead. It was murdered by Donald Trump and a cadre of Republican members of Congress, governors, and surrogates across the land. Their tone-deafness and more importantly the deafening silence of the Republican Party in this moment of crisis has been loud and clear. And it provides a window into the darkness that has descended on the party that at its origin in 1854 established itself as a pro-abolition, anti-slavery party.
I have spent the last week looking through Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, Senate office statements and the like, for some sign of courage, some loyalty to the country over party, for something that would let me know that there are still Republican elected officials who have a pulse. Who don't fear the bully Donald Trump. Who actually know right from wrong. Sadly, I could find only a few. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse had this to say on Twitter: “No right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property, and no right to throw rocks at police. But there is a fundamental — a Constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the Word of God as a political prop.”
Indiana Republican Senator Todd Young said in a prepared statement: “Our country is hurting right now as we mourn this tragedy, and those responsible must be held accountable. We all want justice and peace, and I commend the tens of thousands of peaceful protesters who exercised their First Amendment rights this weekend.” He further called for an end to “the troubling history of abuse against our fellow Americans.”
And Senator Mitt Romney tweeted earlier in the week about George Floyd: “No Americans should fear enmity and harm from those sworn to protect us. The death of George Floyd must not be in vain: Our shock and outrage must grow into collective determination to extinguish forever such racist abuse.” Well said. However, when asked by NBC’s Kasie Hunt what he thought about Trump’s church photo-op and tear-gassing of protesters on Monday night, Romney said he had not watched enough to comment and ran for the elevators.
Hunt chased down a number of Republican senators to ask them their response to Trump’s conduct Monday night. What she found was grown men and women empowered to be United States senators, running from her, ducking, saying they didn’t see it, were late for lunch, and on and on.
Maybe we should be grateful they didn’t speak. We’d all be better off if Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton had kept his mouth shut, because what he said stands out as a horrible example of what the GOP has descended to: “We need to have zero tolerance for this destruction,” he wrote on Twitter, even suggesting that the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and other high-profile units of the military be used to quell any future looting. He followed that up with a Times oped, writing that what we need is "an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers."
The real question on the table now, however, as we enter the general election campaign,, is where are the so-called Never Trumpers and conservatives who have fled the GOP, on the state of race relations and the vicious murder of George Floyd, and the protests that followed? Because it will now be a dominant issue in the 2020 campaign.
The best I can tell, based again on tweets, statements and the like is that it is a mixed bag, with only a few voices willing to speak out. The Lincoln Project of which I was a part, has hit hard Trump with a recent ad on the Confederate flag. Its founders—Steve Schmidt, George Conway, Rick Wilson, and others—have all tweeted their disgust with Trump’s handling of the crisis and seemed to be in solidarity with peaceful protesters. Bill Kristol, who founded Republicans for the Rule of Law. has likewise been vocal on his Twitter feed on issues of racial justice and equity, as has Stand-Up Republic founder Evan McMullin.
Why does it matter? Because the Republican Party will most likely have a civil war inside its ranks if Trump loses in 2020 and takes the Republican Senate down with him. There will be a fight for the soul of a new party. And if the people who form the new party are as tone-deaf and clueless as the old ones on issues of race and gender equity, then nothing will be new. That is a big concern for me and other former Republicans.
There have been a few other conservative voices of color, like Heritage Foundation President Kay Coles James, who is an African-American and former director of the Office of Personnel Management under President George W. Bush, who wrote an opinion piece for Fox News, calling Floyd’s murder a sympton of a deeper racial “cancer that afflicts America’s soul.”
While these few voices have tweeted and spoken up, it’s still a poor representation of the once Grand Old Party that produced Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. It also does not say much for the heart and soul of white conservatives, white evangelicals, or Christian college presidents like Jerry Falwell, Jr., who have remained mostly silent. And when they have spoken up, they are much more interested in condemning “looting and rioting” than the murder of a fellow human being. It’s frankly hard to take.
I have been asking myself for decades, as a former Republican, why are they so tone deaf? Why don’t they get it? It is simple: They are all white and privileged, with few exceptions. They do not have people of color as advisors, cohorts, strategists, pollsters, friends, and the like. The Republican Party sees the country as a white country. Therein lies their horrible failing in this difficult moment. They simply do not understand or see the historical pain and equities that brought America to the brink this past week.
The difference between 1992 and the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots in Los Angeles and 2020 is that George Bush Sr. had Jack Kemp at his side. And Colin Powell. And Condi Rice. They all helped the president respond to the crisis, go to LA, meet with citizens, and engage the affected communities. Donald Trump simply has no one like this in his administration or in his ear.
In the final analysis, gone are the brave Republicans of 2016 who saw the danger of Trump and took a stand against his candidacy. Here is a list of Republicans who came out against then presidential candidate Donald Trump, after he was heard on tape saying that he would grab a woman by her genitalia. Now those very same people, with few exceptions are as The Atlantic put it, his “collaborators.” At the end of the day, President George W. Bush and George F. Will got it right.
They both strongly condemned the murder of Floyd as well as the racism and the actions of the sitting president—Bush more subtly, and Will much more directly. If two arch-conservatives, beloved for decades by their followers, can see the light, maybe a critical mass of “new” Republicans one day soon can too.