GOP 'unnerved' by Trump's racism, but not for the right reasons

Republicans are concerned about Trump's racism, not for its moral or societal implications, but because it might interfere with the GOP's quest for power.
President Donald Trump listens during a round-table discussion at the White House on June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump listens during a round-table discussion at the White House on June 15, 2020 in Washington.Doug Mills / Pool via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Racism has fueled Donald Trump's political persona for many years, but as the president's re-election campaign struggles, his willingness to cling to racial animus and racial grievances like a political life-preserver has become more obvious.

Over the course of seven days, Trump promoted a video with a supporter shouting, "White power," denounced Black Lives Matter as “a symbol of hate,” threatened to veto a defense bill over his support for Confederate generals' names, delivered 4th-of-July messages with a less-than-subtle subtext, and targeted NASCAR's Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, a prominent Black driver, with an obviously ugly tweet.

The incidents came on the heels of a campaign rally in which Trump called COVID-19 “kung flu,” condemned those who protest in support of racial justice “thugs,” celebrated Confederate monuments as part of “our heritage,” and warned supporters of a hypothetical “very tough hombre” on the prowl, targeting unsuspecting households.

Many Americans have come to expect a degree of routine racism from the incumbent president, but recently, Trump has abandoned any sense of subtlety, making what was implicit far more overt.

And according to a Washington Post report, it's making some Republicans nervous.

President Trump’s unyielding push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination, crystallized by his harsh denunciation of the racial justice movement Friday night at Mount Rushmore, has unnerved Republicans who have long enabled him but now fear losing power and forever associating their party with his racial animus.

Motivations are relevant in a situation like this. On the one hand, we see GOP officials who are increasingly "unnerved" by Trump's racism, but on the other, we see their concern rooted not in the president's reprehensible beliefs, but in their affects on the party's electoral prospects.

Indeed, the article was explicit on this point, adding that on Capitol Hill, some Republicans -- who, naturally, aren't prepared to speak on the record -- are concerned that "Trump’s fixation on racial and other cultural issues leaves their party running against the currents of change. Coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and related economic crisis, these Republicans fear he is not only seriously impairing his reelection chances but also jeopardizing the GOP Senate majority and its strength in the House."

Ideally, Americans would hear Republican officials saying, "Donald Trump's racism is wrong and I reject it categorically." Far less satisfying would be GOP officials making such a declaration, but doing so quietly.

But what we're actually seeing is worse: Republicans concerned about the president's racism, not for its moral or societal implications, but because it might interfere with their party's quest for election victories.

As Dana Milbank noted, "So Trump’s enablers are unnerved by his overt racism -- not because it’s despicable on its face but because they fear losing power."

The old cliché is that the first step toward fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem. At least some Republicans appear to have checked this box, acknowledging the president's racism. The second step, however, would be dealing with it -- not just as part of an electoral strategy, but because decency demands it.