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Republican backlash to Biden's inauguration points to post-Trump challenges

Conservatives must be clear-eyed about the long, hard task before them — even if that conflicts with their political instincts.
Image: Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Lexington, Kentucky
President Donald Trump looks on as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at a campaign rally at the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., on Nov. 4, 2019.Bryan Woolston / Getty Images file

First, a confession: At the time, I did not believe Hillary Clinton’s 2016 “basket of deplorables” comment would become the political disaster that it proved to be.

Throughout 2016, as a cycle of violence and counterviolence escalated, it seemed plain to me that Trump had turned over an ugly rock. Even if assuming “half” of Trump’s voters fit this description was obviously hyperbolic — “grossly generalistic,” as Clinton herself conceded — I was willing to excuse the excess. Why shouldn’t Clinton paint a stark portrait of the company Republicans would keep? Who would voluntarily identify with characteristics like racism and bigotry.

Throughout 2016, as a cycle of violence and counterviolence escalated, it seemed plain to me that Trump had turned over an ugly rock.

Clinton apologized for the quip shortly after she made it. A Washington Post-ABC poll taken shortly after her remarks found that just 30 percent of registered voters believed Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters was “fair.” And Republicans went on to leverage the comments to great effect and, while this gaffe wasn’t entirely responsible for her 2016 defeat, it didn’t help.

The lesson here is that it is a mistake to malign voters. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call their self-defeating behavior to task when warranted.

Which brings us to the conservative pushback against President Joe Biden over his inaugural address. “I was offended by the speech,” said former President George W. Bush advisor Karl Rove. While he confessed that it was a “good speech,” one commensurate with “the moment” in which America finds itself, it created in Rove’s view a false impression that the nation was not “united as a country against racism and nativism.” In particular, he believed Biden’s goal was to imply that anyone who does not support Democrats is “a part of the group that’s racist and nativist.”

Rove wasn’t alone in this interpretation. “If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in an appearance on Fox News. Biden, Paul claimed, is “calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book.” Author and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald agreed. “It’s an odd way to seek national unity,” she wrote of Biden’s inaugural address, to “call a significant portion of the American public white supremacists, racists, and nativists.”

This is a lot of subtext to divine from Biden's passing reference to the “perennial” struggle against prejudice. “Our history,” the president averred, “has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we're all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.”

Why would these conservatives claim ownership, tacitly or otherwise, of elements of the Republican coalition that even critics of Biden’s speech agree deserve to be stigmatized and whose ideas must be anathematized? As Rove acknowledged, “there are people in this country who are racists and nativists, but the vast majority of Americans stand together on those issues.”

Both parties struggle with an ungovernable, nihilistic, militant wing with an appetite for violence, and most Americans are repulsed by them. On the Republican side, that wing is disconcertingly comfortable with racial hostility. There’s no point in denying it; the evidence of it was on full display on Jan. 6, as the pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol Building did so bearing Confederate battle flags.

This obscene phenomenon cannot be wished away. It must be confronted, and Republicans in good standing must confront it. If not in observance of a moral imperative — though that should be enough — in service to the instinct for political self-preservation. It has become apparent that the benefits of preserving a big-tent coalition that includes such noxious elements is yielding diminishing returns.

This obscene phenomenon cannot be wished away. It must be confronted, and Republicans in good standing must confront it.

But such an internecine confrontation would also be a painful enterprise. It would be easier to avoid that conflict and hope that the passions unleashed during the Trump presidency will dissipate thanks to forces of entropy alone.

Additionally, the GOP is obliged to mend the bonds of partisan kinship lacerated by Trump’s ultimately divisive movement. And one of the easier way to do that is to appeal to a shared sense of persecution. Democrats help the GOP here by promoting the idea that Republicans of all stripes are animated by racist sentiments. That smear — and it is a smear — is one to which Democrats appeal all too frequently.

It was a smear when Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Miss., accused Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Republican conference of racism because they opposed a Democratic president’s agenda. It was a smear when then-Vice President Joe Biden implied that Republicans wanted to repeal the 13th Amendment because they supported Mitt Romney, of all people. It is a smear that is transferable to even non-white Republican voters, who have somehow been seduced by the “appeal of white supremacy.”

And it is an effective smear because it induces tribal solidarity. As a late 2018 Axios-sponsored survey showed, more than six in 10 self-identified Democrats believe all Republicans to be “racist/bigoted/sexist.” Of course, that which produces cohesion among Democrats has a reciprocal effect on Republicans, and vice versa. Politics does not occur in a vacuum.

But while these tactics are shameful and dishonest when they occur, Biden did not appeal to them in his inaugural address. He did not fall into the same trap as Hillary Clinton by labeling “a significant portion of the American public” racist, as Mac Donald suggests — he did not attempt to quantify the problem at all. Nor did Biden fail to make note of the fact that “the vast majority of Americans” despise racism and are revulsed by racial conflict, as Rove suggested. Indeed, in professing his belief that America is a “great nation” and that Americans are “good people,” Biden implied just the opposite.

Biden’s left flank, liberals who believe that the nation’s institutions were forged in racism, might disagree with the Biden administration’s platitudes, but Republicans certainly don’t. Or, at least, they shouldn’t. And yet, agreeing with Joe Biden is, at this moment, unproductive for conservatives. It makes the work of recapitulating a winning Republican coalition that much harder. And so instead, Rand Paul, Karl Rove and others are fanning nonexistent flames of partisanship — and giving cover to the GOP’s extremists in the process. That will only make the work before the Republican Party harder.

The GOP does not need to marginalize its own members. No party with an instinct toward self-preservation would engage in such a self-defeating project anyway. The party must, however, marginalize the sentiments prevalent on fringes of the Republican coalition that have transformed conspiratorial paranoia into a governing philosophy. Those impulses produce only frustration in their increasingly radicalized adherents, and this frustration will not disappear on its own. Conservatives must be clear-eyed about the long, hard task before them — even if that conflicts with their political instincts.