After George W. Bush left office with the economy in crisis and the Iraq War widely acknowledged as the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history, Republicans began a desperate rehabilitation campaign—not to restore his image, but to salvage their own. Bush? We never liked him anyway, they said, the evidence of eight years of worshipful support notwithstanding. Searching for some grounds on which to make this absurd claim, they said he wasn't a real conservative because he didn't cut spending. So their hands were clean.
When Donald Trump leaves office, either in 2021 or 2025, Republicans will go through the same charade. The "Never Trump" crew, they'll insist at that point, didn't consist of a few hardy intellectuals and writers, but instead included nearly every Republican. The occasional note of discomfort they express today ("I wish he wouldn't tweet so much") will be retroactively transformed into a full-throated rebellion, one that was no less courageous for the fact that it never actually happened.
But here in the present, support for Trump among Republicans is nearly universal; when he told British newspaper The Sun that "a poll just came out that I am the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe," he may have been displaying his particularly fantastical brand of narcissism (presidential opinion polling was not developed until the middle of the 20th century), but he was speaking an essential truth, that few Republicans aren't on Team Trump.
But when the time comes for them to pretend they weren't, another part of that Sun interview is the kind of thing that will figure prominently:
I think what has happened to Europe is a shame.
Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame.
I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it's never going to be what it was and I don't mean that in a positive way.
So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad.
I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn't exist ten or 15 years ago.
"Losing your culture." This is precisely the language that white nationalists and neo-Nazis use to describe the harm they think is being done to America by the presence of non-white people. And as it should be amply clear by now, as much as he may complain about illegal immigration, Trump has just as much a problem with legal immigration, particularly since it brings to America significant numbers of people who aren't white.
There really is no more need to debate whether Donald Trump is a racist; he put that question to bed some time ago. While ordinarily it's far better to focus on what a person does and says than what lies in their heart, Trump seems intent on not letting too much time pass before he says or does something to remind you of his poisonous beliefs. Whether it's calling immigrants "animals," saying that white supremacists are "very fine people," or complaining that too many immigrants come from "shithole countries," he has made amply clear that he regards anyone who isn't white with suspicion, contempt, or both. This isn't even the first time he has talked about the threat to white "culture"—last August he lamented the removal of Confederate monuments by tweeting, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments." What do you mean "our," kemosabe?
With his unapologetic embrace of nativism, Trump is pulling his party even further to the right than it used to be. You'll recall that the standard Republican line for some time has been, "I support legal immigration; it's just illegal immigration I want to stop." But as Ron Brownstein pointed out, three-quarters of House Republicans just voted to slash legal immigration by 40 percent. It's almost as though that line wasn't sincere!
When Trump starts talking about how Europe is being destroyed by immigrants, one is reminded of why Steve Bannon saw him as such a perfect vehicle for the clash of civilizations Bannon was hoping to bring about, between white Christians on one side and everyone else on the other. Trump may not have had Bannon's well-thought-out vision, but his impulses take him to the same place. It's not surprising that just before Trump arrived in England, Bannon was there to meet him with a collection of populists, nationalists, and hard-rightists from the continent, all seeking his wisdom on how they too might spin tribalistic hate and fear into political gold.
Unfortunately, far-right, anti-immigrant movements are seeing increasing success in Europe, in places like Hungary, Poland, and Italy. But interestingly enough, Americans as a whole are actually becoming more pro-immigrant. A recent Gallup poll found that a record 75 percent of Americans say that immigration is a good thing for the country, a number that includes 65 percent of Republicans.
The real change, though, is happening among Democrats. Twenty years ago, members of the two parties were similar in their views about immigration, but over the last decade or so, Democrats have become increasingly pro-immigrant. For instance, polling from the Pew Research Center shows that in 2003, 47 percent of Democrats said immigrants "strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents," while 46 percent of Republicans said the same thing. In their latest poll on the topic, 42 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement, but the number of Democrats agreeing had increased to a remarkable 84 percent.
That shift predates the Trump presidency, but he seems to be accelerating it. Yet at the same time, Republican officeholders have followed Trump to increasingly dark places in both policy and rhetoric when it comes to immigration. When the nightmare of his presidency is over, many of them will say that they never agreed with any of it, and they want their party to be a big tent where everyone is welcome. They might even get away with it.