In the town hall debate in St. Louis on Sunday night, Hillary Clinton made an appeal to those reasonable Republicans who have been turning away from Donald Trump. Many Republicans and independents have said Trump is unqualified to serve as president, Clinton said, part of an apparently ongoing effort to reach out to Republican voters disillusioned with Trump.
Pointing out that Trump has hardly solidified support with respectable members of his own party may be good politics, but it’s a grave disservice to the American people. After all, one might be led to believe that those moderate, reasonable Republicans are unlike Trump in key ways. But the truth is that Trump didn’t come from nowhere.
Trump is the most obnoxiously bigoted candidate to run for president on a major party ticket in generations, but his actual positions and beliefs are not that far out of the Republican mainstream. Many of the defectors turning away from Trump’s cause hold positions that are in effect, if not in expression, as disturbing as Trump’s. And any attempt to mitigate that truth - however well-intentioned or politically calculated - is a mistake.
In the wake of a swirling controversy over Trump’s misogynistic comments from 2005, a number of prominent and influential Republicans have rejected his candidacy and attempted to distance themselves, their political legacies and their electoral futures from the increasingly toxic candidate.
But Clinton and her party owe it to the American people to make the connection between the candidate and the party crystal clear.
One of the more notable Republicans to reject Trump after his 2005 comments became public was Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. It’s not hard to see why Chaffetz may have turned on Trump: Chaffetz has made no secret about his designs on a greater role in the House GOP this year. In January, his bid for the House Republican leadership fell through, but there’s no reason to think his ambition for higher power has waned. Further, Chaffetz is a representative from Utah, a state that may go to Clinton this year in a remarkable upset that has much to do with the state’s Mormon population’s distaste for the bombastic, vulgar Trump.
“I’m out,” Chaffetz said. “I can no longer in good conscience endorse this person for president. It is some of the most abhorrent and offensive comments that you can possibly imagine.”
Yet, Chaffetz isn’t in much of a position to seize the high road on Trump’s comments on women - especially in light of the implication of sexual assault contained in the candidate’s hot-mic recording.
Chaffetz got a good amount of attention over the past few years by going after Planned Parenthood with a vengeance. The Republican has used misinformation and flawed data, and he has pontificated in hearings to cut down or eliminate federal funding for the organization. (One of Planned Parenthood’s services is to help victims of sexual assault with advocacy, educational campaigns and counseling.)
Chaffetz is in no way alone in his assault on Planned Parenthood and the services it provides to women. Ohio Governor John Kasich (Republican), whose long-standing opposition to Trump has registered to some as a tacit endorsement of Clinton, is no friend to women’s health either.
“We’re not gonna fund it,” Kasich said of Planned Parenthood while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire in early February. A few weeks later, he signed a bill that defunded Planned Parenthood in Ohio to a dangerous degree. It was already illegal to use taxpayer funds for the organisation’s reproductive health services, but Kasich went a step further and ensured that access to sexual assault services, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and other basic women’s health services would not receive support from his state’s government. He also instructed one young woman concerned about campus sexual assault to avoid “parties where there’s a lot of alcohol”, and claimed the gender wage gap is easily explained by missing experience and skills.
And yet: “Our country deserves better,” Kasich said after Trump’s comments became public. The women of Ohio deserve better, too.
While he hasn’t explicitly rejected Trump yet (in a Monday morning release he simply said he’ll no longer defend Trump), House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has somehow assumed a noble role in media and political discussions of the Republican response to their standard-bearer’s latest scandal. The “reluctant” supporter of Trump was described as being in an impossible position by CBS in June and as a “weary martyr” in BuzzFeed this month. His decision Monday to stop actively working to elect Trump and focus on the House races instead indicates he is delicately trying to thread the needle between rejection of the toxic Trump and the need to get out the vote to preserve the Republican congressional majority.
But this kind of glorification of Ryan leaves aside his own regressive record on women’s rights — as recently as September, the speaker refused to allow funding for Planned Parenthood as a rider to a bill to treat the Zika outbreak in Florida.
And Ryan’s policy positions that go beyond reproductive health are also problematic and dangerous for the country. On Saturday, Ryan made remarks at the Wisconsin County Fair. (The speaker had disinvited the presidential candidate the night before and had addressed “the elephant in the room” at the beginning of his planned remarks on Republican policy.) But while Trump wasn’t in attendance, the policies Ryan proffered weren’t particularly intelligent or substantive.
“All of these rules and all of these regulations that come from these unelected bureaucracies that don’t know our communities, they don’t know our people, they don’t know our businesses, all of that has to go through Congress,” Ryan said. “It has to go through Commerce for approval before it goes into effect.”
In other words, Ryan believes that the best solution to regulations is to put them through the onerous and wrenching process of congressional approval before implementation — effectively stopping the regulatory process cold and allowing businesses to do whatever they want with few checks.
But as much as Ryan wants the GOP to be the “party of ideas”, his own are thin and irresponsible, and those of his compatriots are not much better. The vice-presidential nominee, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, tried to stop refugees from war-torn Syria from coming to his state; congressional Republicans have tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act over 50 times, which would effectively strip health insurance from millions of Americans; and one of House Republicans’ priorities coming into session last September was to reverse restrictions on Confederate flags flying at military cemeteries.
And “ideas” here can be seen through the lens of Trump himself. Despite the contortions the GOP is twisting itself into to distance the party from the candidate, he’s not an outlier in many of the things he says. Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric is infused with the racial biases that his party has adhered to since Richard Nixon first used the term in 1968; his comments that women should face “punishment” for abortions are in line with Texas Republicans’ push for the same thing in 2012; and his promises of mass deportations for illegal immigrants are fully in line with GOP orthodoxy as recently as last year. In short — this is not new. It’s just being said by a candidate whose polling negatives have reached the tipping point.
Trump’s candidacy didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s just a vulgar rendering of the Republican Party’s reactionary record. When Democrats reach out to “reasonable” Republicans, they should keep in mind that there’s a reason Trump was able to attain his party’s nomination.
Eoin Higgins is a journalist and historian from Western Massachusetts.