Most Republican leaders sat in shameful silence after President Trump told four women of color in the House of Representatives—three of them born in the U.S—to “go back” to the “crime infested” countries they came from. When called on his racist rhetoric, Trump doubled down and dialed up the volume, accusing these elected officials of hating America and again inviting them and anyone else like them to leave. His followers picked up on his cue, chanting “send her back” after Trump slammed Rep. Ilhan Omar at a political rally.
Trump’s racist rants and policy pronouncements aren’t just a glimpse into his id; they’re part of a strategy for inflaming his supporters against perceived threats from “the other”—people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people and “socialists”—in order to win elections. And for the right-wing political machine that has embraced him, that’s the key to their real endgame, which is to maintain and increase the access to power that they’ve gained since Trump came into office. That power is apparent in Trump’s massive tax cut for the wealthy, in the administration’s aggressive moves to overturn regulations that protect individuals, communities, and the environment, and in the judges they hope will gut the federal government’s constitutional authority to act on behalf of the common good.
This is not to say that Trump’s racism is not heartfelt. Decades of evidence suggest that it is. But Trump also apparently believes that his campaign tirades against immigrants put him in the White House. And he has clearly decided that he can win re-election by fully embracing that strategy. That’s why his administration has embraced cruelty as official policy, even to the point of stealing babies from their parents—and perpetuating conditions that are traumatizing and, yes, killing children.
For Trump, it’s a playbook for winning. For those who see themselves as pious or otherwise respectable Republicans, what could be worth all the horror and humiliation?
Groups from every corner of the conservative movement are enjoying the fulfillment of long-held wish lists, which is why right-wing leaders—including Trump’s evangelical cheerleaders—will do anything for him, and tolerate or actually cheer anything he says or does, no matter how base or cruel.
Recall that when Trump jumped into the presidential race, it wasn’t as a movement conservative. His candidacy was an ego-stroking power trip that followed the demagogic path cleared by right-wing authors, radio hosts and TV pundits who had primed millions of Americans to resent “illegal aliens” and “political correctness” and not to trust the “liberal media.”
Trump likes to believe he’s the genius who created the conditions for his own victory. It’s true that he brought the strongman bombast his followers love, but the conditions for his success were created by a massive infrastructure of think tanks, media outlets, and political organizations funded for decades by right-wing foundations and wealthy conservatives. Alongside and overlapping that movement is the Religious Right, which spent decades building its own infrastructure and effectively taking over the Republican Party from the bottom up.
Trump’s advisers know where power resides in today’s GOP. When Trump picked Mike Pence as his running mate, he simultaneously signaled the two most important Republican power blocs that had previously been suspicious of him—Religious Right leaders and the Koch brothers’ political networks. And when Trump pledged to turn over the selection of Supreme Court justices to the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, he won allegiance both from activists eager to ban abortion and reverse progress toward LGBTQ equality—and from those eager to further weaken the power of unions and reverse decades of progressive regulation and court rulings.
Which is how we got to where we are today, when white evangelical Christians are the most unapologetic and unquestioningly loyal defenders of the “anointed” Trump, no matter what he says or does or who he hurts. In return, they’re getting the Supreme Court of their dreams and an executive branch that is advancing its anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ policy agendas.
And when Mick Mulvaney, elected to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave, is using his power as White House chief of staff to push executive branch agencies to more aggressively reverse regulations that might inconvenience corporations. One advantage of authoritarian governments for those on the inside has always been the power to plunder.
Then there’s the assault on the judiciary. The harmful judges that Trump and Mitch McConnell are putting in lifetime positions on the federal courts are being counted on by his supporters not only to reverse Roe v. Wade and marriage equality and landmark decisions upholding separation of church and state, but also dismantle the administrative state and undo the New Deal and Great Society programs by returning us to a 19th century state-rights-focused interpretation of the Constitution that would drastically restrict the authority of the federal government to regulate corporate behavior.
Trump’s personal goals for his presidency may focus on self-aggrandizement, self-enrichment, and reversing any step taken by the Obama administration. But the right-wing movement’s more audacious goal—to reverse much of the legal and social progress of the past century—depends on keeping Trump in the White House and continuing to pack the courts with judges chosen for their youth as well as their ideology so as to extend Trump’s influence for decades beyond his time in the White House.
Republican leaders and prominent conservatives have apparently made the shameful and cynical calculation that the goal of achieving their turn-back-the-clock agenda is so worthwhile that if achieving it requires creating a brutal humanitarian catastrophe, or undermining constitutional checks and balances, or poisoning our political culture with racist and nativist rhetoric that energizes violent bigots and white nationalists, so be it.