Republicans may wish that President Trump is not moored to a coherent ideology, but they are mistaken.
The New York Times recently published an anonymous op-ed authored by an ostensibly highly-positioned member of the Trump Administration, who eviscerated President Trump’s behavior as “detrimental to the health of our republic.” The piece was heavy on accusations against the President’s character, but sparse on specific objections to his official acts. Missing from the narrative, for example, was any condemnation of the Administration’s forced separation of immigrant children from their families, or of the President’s vocal defense of white supremacist demonstrators. Instead, the author attributes the President’s lack of fitness for office to a lack of “any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
A core premise of the now-infamous op-ed is that the President is insufficiently dedicated to conservative ideology, which the author says President Trump has privately “attacked.” This might be a comforting belief for someone in the author’s position to hold, but it is absolutely incorrect. While the President’s policy priorities may not be a perfect fit for the Republican Party’s governing class, their existence is undeniable. President Trump has revealed his personal ideology time and again, most acutely at the worst moments of the Administration that go unmentioned by this self-styled “quiet resistance within the administration.” These tendencies are not new, but instead have deep roots in the vociferous President’s long-held public views. These views are also not alien to the conservative movement. Indeed, they were sufficiently popular to catapult President Trump through a primary and general election, and they have gradually taken over the Republican Party’s agenda at all levels of government.
A History of Racial Animus
Racial animus has been among President Trump’s most consistent character traits throughout his adult life. His first appearance in the Times, for example, was in an October 1973 article highlighting his company’s discrimination against black tenants in New York City. The court case that followed included testimony from ten of Trump’s employees, such as a building superintendent who testified that he was instructed to affix a letter “C” (for “colored”) to applications submitted by would-be black tenants.
More infamously, Trump took out a full-page advertisement in several New York newspapers in 1989 to call for the execution of five black men falsely accused of raping a woman in Central Park. The real assailant would later confess in 2002 and investigators were able to connect him to the crime using DNA evidence. Nonetheless, as recently as 2016, President Trump continued to profess against all available evidence that the five men he had falsely accused were guilty.
In 1992, authorities in New Jersey fined Trump’s company $200,000 for racial discrimination against black and female employees who the company transferred to appease a client connected to organized crime. In 1993, Trump appeared before a House of Representatives subcommittee to testify that Native American casino owners did not look sufficiently “Indian” and that tribes were harboring mafia operations. When asked for evidence supporting the latter claim, Trump offered none and deferred to the FBI. He would go on to finance inflammatory advertisements against Native American casinos throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
The President’s long history of racial animus extends beyond his business dealings. Several employees and co-stars connected to Trump’s Apprentice television show claim that the President would use racial slurs on set, particularly against blacks. In 2005, he publicly toyed with the idea of turning the show into a literal competition pitting whites against blacks.
By the 2010s, President Trump had married his racial animus with his long-held ambition to run for President by stoking the racist “birther” lie that President Barack Obama was not born within the United States. Despite being obviously false, Trump’s outrageous claims nonetheless earned him nonstop cable news coverage and made him a coveted endorsement, speaker and fundraiser within Republican politics during the 2012 election cycle. He made the issue central to his nascent campaign for the presidency at the time, observable in his 2011 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When Trump needed a marginally less conspiratorial angle, he would simply trade one racist lie for another by arguing that President Obama’s college records would reveal some unnamed duplicity.
People operating in good faith did not require countless fact-checks or further documentation to know that Trump was lying about Obama in order to earn publicity, but we have received both in multitudes. The news media’s penchant for covering Trump for entertainment value carried into his 2015-2016 campaign for the presidency, during which he received nearly $5 billion worth of free media coverage.
Sympathy for Autocrats
President Trump has long held dictators, despots and strongmen of all stripes in high regard. His worldview certainly does not use academia’s vocabulary, but his views do parallel the so-called “Great Man theory” of history quite closely. This view argues that leadership is an innate talent, and that individuals possessing that talent are the primary forces driving the machinations of politics and history.
His interest in partnering with Russia in particular dates back to the 1980s, when he argued that Washington and Moscow should partner more closely to combat nuclear proliferation. By his analysis, a skilled negotiation between American and Russian leaders is all that stood in the way of a potential nuclear war. “Between those two nations you have the power to dominate … and between the two of us we will prevent the problem from happening,” he told an author and historian in 1987.
It is tempting to draw a straight line between Putin’s opportunistic support for Trump and the President’s praise, but his affinity for autocracy extends beyond Russia. He praised Turkey’s President Erdogan in the wake of a scandal in which Turkish security forces beat protesters in Washington, DC. He took a meeting with the Philippines’ murderous President Rodrigo Duterte, whose efforts to fight drug abuse with vigilante killings Trump congratulated. He effectively endorsed the candidacy of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s neo-fascist party. There are clear ideological tenets uniting these leaders with President Trump: xenophobia, illiberalism, and nationalism.
First Principles In Action
There are those who believe that Republicans have protected the country from the President’s worst ideological tendencies. On this point, they are mistaken as well. Instead, the Republican-controlled Congress has sat idly by as the Trump Administration has put the President’s first principles into action and into law.
In the months after taking office, President Trump and his Cabinet moved to shutter government programs aimed at countering white supremacist violence, including the revocation of grants already awarded while President Obama was still in office. Ending these programs came against the advice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which warned of increasing threats from such groups. By the end of the year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had tied 18 murders to white supremacists, more than double the total during the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. When confronted by journalists in the wake of Heather Heyer’s murder at the hands of white supremacist James Fields in Charlottesville, President Trump infamously refused to denounce the extremist groups that had assembled there. Instead, he told reporters that the white supremacist groups included “many fine people.”
More recently, the Trump Administration forcibly separated thousands of minor children, most of them Hispanic, from the custody of their families. They sent many young migrants to detention in tent camps along the Mexican border under the cover of darkness. Others faced filthy conditions and abuse at the hands of caretakers and government agents. The policy inspired enormous protests across the country before a federal judge ruled in June that detained children must be reunited with their families. Unwilling to concede defeat in court, President Trump issued an Executive Order, titled “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation,“ that ended the policy and dared the Republican-controlled Congress to act. Since then, Congress has not acted, the Trump Administration has missed deadlines to reunite the families, and dozens of minors remain in the federal government’s care.
President Trump’s affinity toward foreign authoritarians has also had an enormous impact on the country’s foreign policy since he took office. He rewarded North Korea’s dictatorship with a long-sought personal summit between the Kim dynasty and an American head of state in exchange for a noncommittal pledge to denuclearize. The North Korean government immediately ignored the commitment and instead escalated their nuclear activities. The president has since repeatedly defended Kim and their meeting, saying on one occasion that the two leaders “fell in love.” The summit with Kim Jong-Un was not an isolated incident, as President Trump has also granted controversial audiences to Egyptian President Sisi, Russian President Putin, and President Duterte of the Philippines. Most recently, President Trump has defended the Saudi government against claims that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was involved in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and legal resident of Virginia.
Finally, President Trump has worked to diminish the United States’ traditional alliances with other democratic nations. He has labeled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as “obsolete” and threatened to withdraw the United States from its principal military alliance since 1945. He has also suggested that he would not defend NATO allies from Russian aggression. Whereas both Republican and Democratic presidents have historically encouraged the development and expansion of the European Union (EU), President Trump falsely claimed that the EU “was set up to take advantage of the United States,” and withdrew from trade negotiations with EU officials. Finally, he insulted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak” despite their two countries’ historical and economic ties.
A Growing Force in the Conservative Movement
Racial animus is unfortunately not as incompatible with American conservatism as the President’s critics on the right would like to admit. Even Donald Trump’s own role in merging these ideologies predates his presidency by decades. For example, President George H. W. Bush, often contrasted favorably to President Trump by his conservative opponents, jokingly alluded to Trump’s slanderous claims against the falsely-accused Central Park Five in a laudatory letter he sent to Trump in 1989. President Bush’s son also leveraged racial divisions to gain advantage within the Republican Party, most notably when his campaign pushed a false rumor that rival John McCain had fathered a black child prior to the 2000 South Carolina Republican primary.
Nonetheless, President Trump is expanding the frontiers of conservatives’ willingness to adopt his most controversial first principles. Despite the corresponding increase in racially-motivated violence, the percentage of Republicans who view racism as a “big problem” has declined since 2016. A partisan gap has also emerged within Americans’ favorability toward Russia, as Republicans’ support has more than doubled since Donald Trump began his campaign for the presidency. Republicans are now twice as likely as Democrats to say that America is “too open to people from around the world.” A growing share of Republicans also say that immigrants are less willing to adapt to life within the United States relative to immigrants during the early twentieth century. Finally, a majority (59%) of Republicans say that the country “has already made the needed changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.”
When President Trump began his campaign for the presidency, he enjoyed little support among elected Republicans and few endorsements. His controversial first principles played a role in deterring elected Republicans, some of whom initially condemned his campaign announcement speech for describing immigrants from Mexico as “murderers” and “rapists.” He largely consolidated the Republican establishment’s support before his election, however, and remaining critics within the Republican Party are on track to leave Congress, both voluntarily and through electoral defeat in the 2018 midterm elections. The Republican officials that remain in elected office in Washington are now fully committed to the President, his agenda, and his ideology. That ought to worry us all.