Peter St. Onge

What the Republican Party has done to itself

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally Monday aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally Monday aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Mt. Pleasant, S.C. AP

America got the Republican Party it once had this week.

At least for a little while.

On Tuesday, after presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States, Republican leadership rose up against him.

First came the GOP chairs of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the initial three primary states. Then it was Republican senators and representatives, one after another, saying that Trump’s proposal didn’t represent the party they knew.

“This is not conservatism,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said, succinctly and eloquently. “What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for.”

But one day later, a Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies poll found that 65 percent of likely GOP primary voters favored Trump’s ban on Muslims. Less than a quarter of those same voters – just 22 percent – thought it was a bad idea.

A day after that, a South Carolina poll from Fox News showed Trump leading by 20 points in the state. The poll also showed that support for Trump increased eight points – from 30 to 38 percent – after his call for the Muslim ban.

Maybe, Mr. Speaker, this is exactly what the party stands for.

And it’s not at all a surprise.

It’s exactly what people warned would happen when Republicans declined years ago to make the same stands they did this week. It was five years ago, in fact, when GOP leaders decided they liked the idea of a tea party voting surge enough to turn a blind eye on tea party ugliness.

That led to Republicans tip-toeing around, instead of outright condemning, a new wave of Obama-is-a-Muslim speculation. It led to GOP leaders pretending that Barney Frank might not have been called a “homo” and black Congressmen being called slurs at a tea party rally.

It also led to Republicans giving in to the worst of their party on Muslims. Remember in 2010, when a New York developer wanted to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from the site of the 9/11 attacks? Conservatives called it the “Ground Zero Mosque” and helped kill the idea with withering political hostility.

All of which has led to this moment. Instead of Ronald Reagan declaring that “Many people are welcome in our house, but not the bigots,” and instead of George W. Bush standing powerfully with Muslim leaders after 9/11, we have Republican presidential candidates (and not just Donald Trump) advocating different ways to slam the door on Muslims who want to come here.

Make no mistake – each party has long had bouts with its extremists, its ugliness. Each has long tried to find a balance of accommodating but not enabling the crazies in the corner of the tent.

But well before this week, Republicans opted for the short-term ballot gains of turning political disagreement into political outrage. Or they explained away loathsome behavior by calling it voter “anger.”

Donald Trump is simply the manifestation of that.

Now, moderates may flee the party the same way Democrats became Reagan Democrats three decades ago. They might not embrace Obamacare, and they might not trust Hillary Clinton, but they know that Trump – and all he represents – doesn’t represent them.

It’s why state party leaders, even some in North Carolina, are fretting about Trump’s staying power. Here, growing urban centers already are providing more voters who are turned off by the far right. What if moderates also abandon a party that doesn’t represent them anymore?

This week, Republicans realized how far down that road we’ve gone. They stood up, finally, to the man they said didn’t represent the party they lead. But they forgot to look back and see what they were leading.

Peter: pstonge@charlotteobserver.com; @saintorange

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