Super Tuesday gave us some priceless moments — Donald Trump bellowing in his personal ballroom while neutered lapdog Chris Christie awaited his master’s command to fetch pipe and slippers — but arguably best of all was Paul Ryan’s hilarious attempt to distance the GOP from Trump’s raw racism.
Nine hours before the polls closed, the House speaker surfaced in Washington to assure everyone that he and his fellow Republicans don’t share Trump’s affinity for sliming racial minorities. Ryan was upset that the likely Republican nominee had failed to disavow David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan. These were Ryan’s words:
“If a person wants to be the nominee of the Republican Party, there can be no evasion and no games. This party does not prey on people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals. This is the party of Lincoln.”
I’m glad I wasn’t sipping coffee when I heard Ryan say that, because the liquid would’ve exited through my nose. I thought of Keith Richard, who wrote in his rock n’ roll memoir that life’s absurdities are best handled with “legs-in-the-air laughter.”
“This party does not prey on people’s prejudices …”
Is Ryan kidding or what? Because it’s empirical fact that his party has been preying on prejudice for the past 50 years. Donald Trump is different only in degree. He has merely ditched the dog whistle and stripped away the code words.
Trump’s mission to Make America Great Again (or, more accurately, Make America White Again) is rooted in the party’s longstanding practice of playing on whites’ hostility toward minorities. It started in 1964, when nominee Barry Goldwater voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act, and thus inspired millions of white southern Democrats, led by Strom Thurmond, to join the GOP. That was the plan all along; when political columnist Robert Novak covered a GOP confab in 1963, he presciently wrote that “a good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, evision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, if not in name, the white man’s party.”
Richard Nixon successfully played to white voters with his 1968 “southern strategy,” using coded phrases like “law and order.” As Nixon said at the time, after watching a TV ad that featured footage of ghetto riots, “Yep, this hits it right on the nose … it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.” Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later said, “The subliminal appeal to the anti-black vote was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
Decades passed, but the formula stayed the same. Ronald Reagan talked about “states’ rights” and “welfare queens,” and everyone knew what he meant. George H. W. Bush won the presidency in 1988 with help from the notorious “Willie Horton” ad, which featured a black convict who’d raped a white woman after being furloughed in Massachusetts. The governor at the time was Mike Dukakis, Bush’s Democratic opponent. (Actually, the furlough program had been created by Dukakis’ Republican predecessor. No matter. An unnamed Bush aide told The New Republic magazine that the Willie Horton ad was “a wonderful mix of liberalism and a big black rapist.”)
I could go on indefinitely — witness Senator Jesse Helms’ infamous TV ad about black people taking away white people’s jobs — but for the sake of brevity, let’s fast-forward to 2012, when Paul Ryan was on the presidential ticket. Late that summer, Romney-Ryan claimed in a TV ad that President Obama was gutting the federal law that required welfare recipients to find work: “Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check, and welfare-to-work goes back to being plain old welfare.”
So, according to Romney-Ryan, Obama was gonna let Those People, the takers, loaf around with their welfare checks. It wasn’t hard to read that code. White voters were free to conjure the visual imagery.
The big problem, however, was that the Romney-Ryan message was a lie.
The truth was, five governors (two of them Republicans) had told Obama that the federal workfare rules were too rigid; they had their own ideas about how to move people from welfare to work. They asked Obama to give them more flexibility to achieve those goals. Obama said yes. In other words, he didn’t “gut welfare reform.” He didn’t bring back “plain old welfare.” He kept the work requirement, while ceding more power to the states — which is exactly what Republicans always say they want.
Funny, I don’t remember Paul Ryan ever distancing himself from the campaign’s racist dog whistling. Yet he had the gall yesterday to harrumph about Trump — and to insist, in defiance of factual reality, that Republicans “do not prey to people’s prejudices. We appeal to their highest ideals.” He seems to have convinced himself that Trump is an outlier, whereas, in truth, Trump has risen from the same swamp where Republicans have long chosen to swim.
Trump didn’t say anything incendiary last night; fresh from winning seven states, he tried to act presidential. He talked mostly about bringing back jobs with his magic wand. But at one point, Ryan’s name came up. Trump said: “I’m sure I’m going to get along great with him. And if I don’t, he’s going to have to pay a big price.”
Ah. There’s the thug we know and loathe.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton won 7 of 11 Super Tuesday states and widened her delegate lead over Bernie Sanders. I’ll repeat what I wrote here on Monday: Bern-feelers may soon be compelled, far sooner than they would like, to compromise in the national interest, to redirect their attention to the dire authoritarian threat facing this country.