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There comes a point when even the most indulgent listener must doubt whether political figures deserve the benefit of the doubt. Ron DeSantis, that means you.
In what should have been a celebratory interview after his victory in the Republican primary for governor of Florida, DeSantis seemed spooked by the upset win of Democrat Andrew Gillum, the black mayor of Tallahassee. DeSantis called Gillum “charismatic,” and an “articulate spokesman” while also warning that he was too left for Florida. “I watched those Democrats debate,” he said “and none of that is just my cup of tea, but he performed better than the other people there, so we gotta work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction.” So far, so good. But then DeSantis added “The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases bankrupting the state.”
He could have said “mess this up.” In our rude era, he could even have said “screw this up.” But he chose the word “monkey.” His spokesman says those taking offense are crazy to imagine that he intended a dog whistle. Maybe that’s true. I hope it is. A couple of years ago, I suspect I would have vehemently insisted that it was so. But I’m no longer so sure. I live in Virginia, where Republicans have actually nominated alt-right friendly Corey Stewart for the U.S. Senate. I’ve seen the Republican Party look down and kick the dirt as President Trump has poked his stick into one sensitive racial issue after another. Picking fights with black NFL players over the national anthem is a dog whistle that all of us can hear. Tarring all immigrants with MS-13, ditto.
Well, Republicans counter, there’s no purchase in criticizing Trump. See what became of Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and Mark Sanford? We don’t approve of Trump’s cruel and dehumanizing language, but what good does it do to criticize him? If we speak up, we’ll just be replaced by a Trumpier Republican. Thus does cowardice masquerade as pragmatism.
What if an opportunity arises to make a point about racial harmony that doesn’t even involve Trump? Consider the proposal floated earlier this week by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after the late John McCain. You would have thought this was a no brainer. Senator Richard Russell was a segregationist Democrat who helped filibuster civil rights legislation and signed the Southern Manifesto. Here was an opportunity for Republicans to withdraw the honor from a Democrat who didn’t merit it in favor of one of their own, who did.
How did Republican members of the Senate respond? Senator Richard Shelby (R. AL), himself a Democrat until the convenient year of 1994 when Republicans took control of Congress, was sentimental about Russell. “Senator Russell was a well-respected man from the South and up here too,” said Shelby said, adding that he was “a man of his time. If you want to get into that you have to get into George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and all of our — most of our Founding Fathers, maybe with the exception of Hamilton,” he said. “It’s easy to prejudge what they should have done.”
Georgia Senator David Perdue, a Republican mind you, sprang to Russell’s defense in an even more surprising way. “This was an icon in the United States Senate. He was Lyndon Johnson’s close adviser. They did the Great Society together. So, people would criticize Richard Russell for maybe being on the wrong side of the integration movement, but my goodness he turned around and got the school lunch program done. He did that himself.”
Actually, the school lunch program was passed in 1946, long before Russell’s filibuster of the civil rights act. And it wasn’t an act of beneficence by Uncle Sam. It was a way to dispose of the surplus food that other government programs, namely farm subsidies, had created. But never mind the historical error, focus on the fact that a supposedly conservative Republican is praising Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society! Is it any wonder that their budget has exceeded the fondest wishes of Barack Obama?
Great swaths of Republicans are not just biting their tongues about Trump, they are convinced that his white nationalist path is the right one.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana didn’t want to insult McCain’s memory, but suggested that they find another way to honor him.
Maybe they will, but do they recognize how they have dishonored themselves?