Republican leaders knew things could get bad if they didn't pass immigration reform. But they probably didn't imagine a rally with a GOP frontrunner in Alabama featuring neo-Confederate literature, openly racist attendees, and at least one shout of "white power" broadcast live on all three cable news networks.
Now they're beginning to see the mess they're in.
"If, after November 2016, there are autopsies of Republican presidential hopes, political coroners will stress the immigration-related rhetoric of August 2015," said occasional voice of conservative sanity George F. Will.
As our David Cay Johnston wrote, Donald Trump's campaign has become a public service announcement — revealing how a conservative base nurtured on resentment and false promises is falling for a candidate who feeds them the shrillest and most unconstitutional policies imaginable.
What is being exposed is a Republican Party intent on proving itself incapable of and unqualified for power, as evidenced by both its acceptance of Trump and its wider embrace of destructive delusions. Here's how Republicans have proven that they are unfit to lead.
1. They let Trump become Trump.
Trump's birtherism should have disqualified him from public life. Instead, his embrace of a lunatic conspiracy theory vaulted him to the forefront of conservatism. Mitt Romney pleaded for Trump's endorsement and Fox News made him a staple of right-wing discourse.
For decades the GOP base has been offered scapegoats to blame for the demise of the middle class, concealing the true cause — namely, the enactment of conservative policies. "Welfare queens" have faded and now the threat is people who risked their lives to come to America to pick your fruit. The thrill of having someone weak and safe to blame is contagious, providing the perfect opportunity for a huckster promising the defeat of all foreign enemies, spouting incoherent bluster and sporting a dopey hat.
It took three staff members at The New York Times — Mike Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy W. Peters — to come up with this analysis of how a thrice-married charlatan who takes pleasure in calling a female critic a "fat pig" has managed to win the hearts of even conservative evangelicals: "Tellingly, when asked to explain support for Mr. Trump in their own words, voters of varying backgrounds used much the same language, calling him 'ballsy' and saying they admired that he 'tells it like it is' and relished how he 'isn't politically correct.'"
Was Trump telling it "like it is" when he was constructing racist fantasies about the president's citizenship? Is he telling it "like it is" when he pretends to love the Bible and Ronald Reagan, checking all the boxes to qualify as a generic conservative? Is he telling it "like it is" when he calls immigrants "rapists" and criminals, despite evidence suggesting the exact opposite?
No, he's telling it how conservatives would "like it to be" — and he gets away with it the way they would like to.
He's promising an America defined by white identity that forces all others to bow down. For a movement that has been fed subtle promises of such a world for decades, these outlandish declarations feel like truth, when they are nothing but a dangerous fantasy.
2. They're opposing peace with the same dishonesty that led us into war.
The American politicians and pundits opposing the nuclear deal reached with Iran by the United States—along with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China—nearly all have two things in common: They supported the Iraq war, and they opposed negotiating with Iran in the first place.
All of the arguments that the right is making against the agreement — from the inflated 24-day inspection canard and the fiction that Iran will inspect itself to the nonsensical promise of a better deal — are easily debunked. And those arguments all lack the suggestion of any secret classified information of the kind that supposedly justified the Iraq invasion.
"The opponents of the Iran nuclear deal are doing fairly well in the media-pundit-sphere," Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall wrote. "But they've had an extremely difficult time making substantive arguments against the deal because according to almost all technical experts, it is about as tight and comprehensive and total a surveillance regime as we've ever seen. Ever."
So the casual promise made by several Republican candidates to trash a deal achieved with our closest allies on day one should instantly disqualify them from occupying the White House.
3. They're paralyzed by irrational promises.
Senator Ted Cruz demanded a government shutdown before Obamacare's exchanges opened because, he said, if millions of Americans gained coverage, the law would never be repealed. Cruz failed, and while 15 million Americans now have insurance thanks to the law, he's still demanding repeal.
Cruz's primary opponents Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Marco Rubio recognize that running on the promise of stripping something valuable from a block of voters larger than that which will likely decide the election isn't so smart. So they've released their own plans with the exact flaws that they revile in Obamacare.
"Is a party that brutalized Obamacare for taking insurance away from people who were happy with what they had really going to become the party that takes insurance away from millions of people who are happy with what they have?" asks Vox's Ezra Klein. "Is a party that attacked Obamacare for raising premiums on people really going to raise premiums for millions?"
Klein says no. But how does the next Republican president, after nearly a decade of pandering to the hope of full repeal, sanctify Obamacare without dividing the party?
4. They've abandoned all pretense of serving anyone but the rich.
Nearly every Republican candidate for president is vowing to raise the retirement age.
"For the record, these proposals would be really bad public policy — a harsh blow to Americans in the bottom half of the income distribution, who depend on Social Security, often have jobs that involve manual labor, and have not, in fact, seen a big rise in life expectancy," The New York Times' Paul Krugman wrote.
Cuts to the public retirement guarantee are especially harmful to women — who live longer, are more likely to leave the workforce to care for family members, and inevitably are more dependent on Social Security.
The program continually polls as one of the most popular, if not the most popular thing that government does. So why would Republicans embrace drastic cuts in benefits for the poor rather than slight tax increases for the rich? The reasons are obvious.
"By a very wide margin, ordinary Americans want to see Social Security expanded. But by an even wider margin, Americans in the top 1 percent want to see it cut," Krugman wrote. "And guess whose preferences are prevailing among Republican candidates?"
After a decade of the complete failure of conservative policies and unprecedented wealth inequality, the right cannot escape its urge to make the rich richer, no matter the costs.
5. They refuse to learn from failure.
In six years, we've seen unprecedented advances in fairness for the sick, the LGBTQ community, and those who've come to our country or been brought here to pursue a better life. The deficit is now manageable and health care cost predictions have shrunk, despite (or more likely due to) the historic expansion of coverage. We've made leaps in green energy, the regulation of Wall Street, and favoring diplomacy over war in resolving conflict. And in every arena in which we've made progress, Republicans promise a complete reversal of that progress.
Conservatives see in Donald Trump the realization of their worst fears: Someone who can capitalize on a base to which they've fed delusions for decades, and expose their promises and policies for the divisive frauds that they truly are.
Whether he succeeds or fails, he's already helped to reveal that conservatism has become less a movement — and more a cry for help.
All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.
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