The Lincoln Project republicans came out in full force last December, declaring in a New York Times op-ed their mission of defeating both Trump this November as well as Trumpism, meaning they are seeking to erase the republican majority in the senate.
This majority, in their view, has enabled Trump and promises similarly damaging leadership. They emphasize that “this president’s actions are possible only with the craven acquiescence of congressional Republicans. They have done no less than abdicate their Article I responsibilities.”
Constituted by such figures as Steve Schmidt, Reed Galen, Rick Wilson, and George T. Conway III, all of whom have worked for and supported Republican campaigns, the Lincoln Project is serious in its project of electing Joe Biden and liberating America from the politically and humanly damaging enterprise Trump and congressional republicans have unleashed on Americans for the past nearly four years. The project has aired a series of provocative ads highlighting Trump’s betrayal of America and favorably contrasting Joe Biden’s vitality and competence against Trump’s stupidities and frailties.
Certainly, we can use all the help we can get in defeating Trump.
Let’s take it.
But let’s also not be fooled by these folks’ supposedly “principled stand” in support of the Constitution and America’s best ideals of equality, freedom, and justice for all.
They are still defenders of standard GOP “conservativism” and long nostalgically for a pre-Trump Republican party, writing, “We have been, and remain, broadly conservative (or classically liberal) in our politics and outlooks. Our many policy differences with national Democrats remain, but our shared fidelity to the Constitution dictates a common effort.”
They largely distinguish their Republican values from Trump’s: “Mr. Trump and his enablers have abandoned conservatism and longstanding Republican principles and replaced them with Trumpism, an empty faith led by a bogus prophet.”
Are these “longstanding Republican principles” really that different from what Trump sells America—racism, sexism, division, tax cuts for the wealthy while the rest of us scramble for crumbs?
While Steve Schmidt frequents MSNBC’s airwaves eviscerating Trump and waxing sanctimoniously about American democracy, the rule of law, patriotism, and basic political decency, we must remember that he is credited with elevating the likes of Sarah Palin into the political conversation in America. She became a Tea Party favorite and a chief purveyor of the virulent and dishonest politics that overran congress in 2010, providing an intractable obstacle to Obama’s presidency, informed by a deep racism. She changed the game indeed, exemplifying the same anti-intellectualism, the refusal to believe science and experts, which we see in congress today among Republicans.
The Tea Party became the attack dog of the GOP establishment.
And the GOP back then and for some time has been no fan of democracy. Just remember Karl Rove’s fantasy of a “permanent Republican majority” back when he was serving as George W. Bush’s brain. Voter suppression and gerrymandering were the order of the day. These “longstanding Republican principles” did not value democracy in any way shape or form and thus disgraced the Constitution as well.
There is always something unsettling about these figures’ somewhat holier-than-thou turning on the GOP, disavowing its current politics and form as though they represent a sharp break, an incongruous discontinuity with the respectable and dignified GOP with which they reverently identified. This stance of moral indignation at Trump’s cruelty, hate, and flagrant celebrations of racism and sexism, just doesn’t sit right.
It’s not just insufficient; it’s dangerously deceptive, erasing the Republican Party’s complicity in producing Trump and in promoting the divisive, repressive, self-serving, and hostile politics characteristic of the current White House.
For example, the bombshell tape of Ronald Reagan’s conversation with Richard Nixon, made public last July, in which Reagan referred to African diplomats as “monkeys,” begins to make this point clear. Reagan doesn’t sound all that different from Trump, when he tells Nixon, ““Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television, as I did, to see those, those monkeys from those African countries — damn them — they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” And Nixon laughs.
The only difference between Trump and Reagan here is that Reagan thinks nobody will hear the conversation, so his hateful racist attitudes can inform Republican policies in coded and unrecognized ways.
Let’s remember exactly how Republican operative Lee Atwater described the Southern Strategy he crafted to get Nixon elected in 1968 and, really, move to consolidate Republican dominance in the South moving forward to the present, aiding and abetting the likes of Scarborough.
Here’s how Atwater characterized the strategy in a 1981 interview, laying bare its racist underpinnings:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “(N-word), (n-word), (n-word).” By 1968 you can’t say “(n-word)”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N-word), (n-word).” (parenthetical substitutions of “n-word” are mine.)
So what did Republicans like Reagan and the Bushes support? They supported vigorously positions that defended states’ rights and tax cuts—the codes for defending racist policies. States’ rights, of course, are about allowing states to skirt federal enforcement particularly around civil rights issues, enabling local governments to be as racist as they like. And Atwater neatly explained the racist dimensions of tax cuts.
And anyone who has seen Adam McKay’s Vice, a biting satirical “documentary” of Dick Cheney’s rise to power, or Rachel Maddow’s more serious Why We Did it, documenting the complicity of the Bush administration and oil corporations in deceiving the American people to sell the invasion of Iraq, can certainly see good reason to believe that the Bush administration was not so different from Trump’s in the way it abused the Presidency for personal enrichment or to serve the enrichment of a good old boys corporate network at the expense of the American people.
Without accountability for this past and how it has created our present, we can’t move forward in a new direction by fully recognizing the mistakes off the past.
We can’t be fooled that restoring a GOP establishment is any less racist or harmful to the people.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.