Donald Trump’s assertion that four progressive Democratic congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” was racist and xenophobic. On Tuesday evening, the US House of Representatives rejected it as such, voting 240 to 187 for a resolution that “strongly condemns President Donald Trump’s racist comments that have legitimized and increased fear and hatred of new Americans and people of color.”
The condemnation of Trump should have been unanimous. And it was, on one side of the aisle. All 235 House Democrats voted for it. But just four Republicans (Will Hurd of Texas, Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania) joined in the condemnation, as did a former Republican who has left the party because of his objections to Trump and Trumpism, Justin Amash of Michigan.
The overwhelming majority of House Republicans, including the party’s key House leaders and ranking committee members, formed the group of 187 that rejected appropriate and necessary criticism of the president. In so doing, they identified themselves and their party with Trump’s racism and xenophobia. This was a choice—a definitional choice. It delighted Trump, who tweeted: “So great to see how unified the Republican Party was on today’s vote concerning statements I made about four Democrat Congresswomen.”
The president, with his boundless self-absorption, had reason to be pleased. If and when historians point to the moment when “the party of Lincoln” formally degenerated into the party of Trump, and all that Trump stands for, they will be hard-pressed to find a better illustration than the night when 98 percent of House Republicans gave racism and xenophobia a pass.
Of course, that degeneration began long ago. This is the party that welcomed Strom Thurmond into its ranks in in 1964. But this is also the party that nominated and elected a liberal African-American, Ed Brooke, as the senator from Massachusetts in 1966, that reelected Brooke and briefly considered him as a vice-presidential prospect. This is the party that, as recently as 2000, ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” and that after the 2012 election published an autopsy that declared that “the RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic or community or region of this country” and called on the party to “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” Less than four years ago, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham ripped into Donald Trump as a disgusting “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot.” Graham said in 2015, “He doesn’t represent my party.” Now, Graham defends Trump’s race-baiting xenophobia, as do the other leaders of the party.
No one should be naive about the ugly politics that many Republicans have been put on display for many years. But that ought not distract us from a recognition of just how aggressively and how completely the leadership of the GOP is now rejecting its historic roots. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy can keep on claiming that “we are the party of Lincoln.” But that is a lie.
The Republican Party was never perfect. No party ever has been or ever will be. But it was on the very issues that are now being so ardently debated that the Republican Party earned a good measure of its initial honor. The first Republican president was elected in 1860 on a platform that declared, “That the Republican party is opposed to any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”
Abraham Lincoln was a defender of immigrants and the children of immigrants at a time when politicians who subscribed to a so-called “Know-Nothing” ideology employed xenophobic and racist language. He absolutely and explicitly rejected the notion that those who had come to the United States from distant lands might be told to “go back to where you came from.”
Lincoln was an advocate for “a system for the encouragement of immigration.” He was reelected in 1864 on a Republican platform that resolved that “foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.”
This was the language of the Republican Party, “the party of Lincoln,” at its founding moment. History well records that the Republican Party was founded by abolitionists and critics of the spread of slavery. But the Grand Old Party was, as well, a political organization that respected and welcomed immigrants. This was a steady theme of Lincoln, who declared in his July, 1858, address to abolitionists who had gathered in Chicago that it was wrong to divide Americans on the basis of their status as immigrants or the children or grandchildren of immigrants.
Those “whose ancestors have come hither and settled here” must be understood as “our equals in all things,” explained Lincoln, who argued that Americans did not need to trace their roots to those who were present on July 4, 1776, in order to be fully American. Recalling that opening lines of the founding document—”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”—Lincoln argued: “That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”
With their votes on Tuesday, 187 Republicans, the overwhelming majority of the party’s House caucus, signaled their willingness to unplug that electric cord, disconnecting themselves from everything that is good about the American experiment and from all that was honorable in their own party’s history. They chose loyalty to Donald Trump and the divisive politics of his miserable presidency over the heritage of the Republican president who taught that “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”