Let me introduce you to a few Donald Trump supporters, men and women whom I met randomly, in line at the First Baptist Church, in Sparks, Nevada, yesterday evening. I wasn’t looking for cranks or fanatics. I was simply asking people to talk to me about whom they were voting for in the caucus and why.
Meet Gene A., retired supervisor at a sugar factory. (Gene was quite comfortable advocating mass murder, but in true coward’s form he didn’t want his last name used, in case his words could be traced back to him.)
What did Gene think about Trump’s calls to “temporarily” bar Muslims from entering the country?
“They’d be happier in their own country where they can pray the way they want. They’re not here in America to do any good. They’re here to do evil.”
Would he expel all Muslims from America?
“Absolutely. You can’t tell the good from the bad, so you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’d give ’em a choice—a trench on one side or a ticket out of here.”
Are you talking about execution?
“Absolutely. That’s what they do to us in their countries. I’d give ’em a choice: Get out of here or else.”
At his words, a lady sitting nearby gave a thumb’s up, and murmured her agreement.
* * *
Meet Gene and Margo Perkins. Gene is a retired carpenter.
Gene: “They ought to register all Muslims. The Muslims, or ISIS, or whatever you want to call them, they should be screened.”
Did Trump’s comments, last Friday, about executing terrorists by shooting them with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood bother him?
“Not really. What are they doing over there? No difference. He’s giving them mercy. Shooting them, not cutting their heads off, not killing women and children. You fight fire with fire. The Bible says if they don’t want to conform to what society is like, get rid of them. What did God tell Joshua? Get rid of every man, woman, child and beast. If the Lord says it’s okay, he has the final say-so.”
Margo: “I like what he stands for. I want to bring our country back. I want us to honor and respect our country. I want us to love our country and be proud of it. I want to bring God back into our country. He loves our country so much. He loves our country.”
What did she think of barring Muslims from America?
Before Margo can answer, Gene interrupts: “You’d be standing there cheering, just like I will.”
* * *
Meet the 55-year-old, gray-bearded man, in a cap, jeans, and a long, untucked, blue-flannel shirt, who owns a moving company and was attending a caucus for the first time.
Did he approve of Trump’s comments on Muslims?
“I don’t believe he meant the Muslim religion. He just meant people from that country. Eastern countries.”
* * *
Meet 35-year-old Whitney Vaughan, elementary-school teacher.
Did she agree with the comments of some of her fellow Trump supporters at the caucus that Muslims should be killed?
No, she didn’t.
Did it bother her that they were saying this and that she was caucusing with them?
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. A lot of people are very angry with Muslims right now. That’s what it boils down to.”
* * *
Twenty years ago, I covered the US Taxpayers Party convention, in San Diego, held concurrently with the GOP convention that was then nominating Bob Dole as presidential candidate. I was a young journalist, attracted to fringe stories, and there was nothing more fringe than the Taxpayers Party. At that convention, one could find adherents to every conspiracy theory under the sun; one could hobnob with racial bigots and shoot the breeze with religious extremists.
Today those views and, quite possibly, many of those same people, are capturing the GOP from the inside. This is the bile now surging up out of the Grand Old Party’s base, drawn to a candidate who, with his venomous statements on Muslims, Mexicans, demonstrators who speak out against him, and anyone else who disagrees with him, gives a nod and a wink to their assorted bigotries. This is the reductio ad absurdum end-point of the party’s endless pandering to Tea Party bigots, to birthers, to gun-toting militias, and other zealots.
When Trump calls for the summary execution of terrorists using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, or when he says that he wants to punch a protester in the face and longs for the days when you could send a heckler out on a stretcher, he speaks to this audience directly. They love him not despite his over-the-top rhetoric but because of it.
Donald Trump is bringing out of the woodwork every crank in the country, and, in the process, racking up an extraordinary line of electoral victories. His latest success, in the Nevada caucus, takes him into the Super Tuesday elections with vast momentum. Absent a huge political effort, there’s a better-than-even chance he will now be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
And yet the GOP leaders, the grandees of one of the country’s two largest political parties, and thus some of the most influential voices on the planet, have remained paralyzed in the face of this frontal assault on the universalist democratic premises that this country supposedly revolves around.
I have, in recent weeks, as I have covered Trump’s rise, been thinking frequently about history. In particular, I have been pondering the story of Julius Caesar, the Roman populist and demagogue, who appealed to the resentments of the downtrodden, who sought to make a dictatorship backed by popular will and the fury of the mob, and who eventually crossed a Rubicon—a point of no return, beyond which he posed a fundamental challenge to the political system out of which he had emerged. Realizing the danger he posed, the political leadership decided he had to be destroyed. Decimus Brutus, Servilius Casca, Cassius Longinus, Minocius, Marcus Brutus, all finally turned on him. Caesar was eventually taken down, in the most brutal of manners, on the Ides of March, the bloodied body of the would-be tyrant left lying in the streets of Rome.
Of course, despite the Trumpian rhetoric about bullets in pigs’ blood and smashing the faces of opponents, we like to think we are more civilized today. In place of daggers, we destroy our political opponents with the finely honed speech, the sweeping analysis, the withdrawal of party funds and institutional access. We write damning editorials and organize protests and acts of non-cooperation. There are many ways a political party can shut down an upstart.
And yet, within the GOP today, as one Rubicon after another is crossed by Trump and his nascent movement of thugs and fanatics, none of that is happening.
Where are the GOP’s Brutuses, the Cascas, the Longinuses, the Minociuses today? Where are Senators John McCain or Lindsay Graham or Susan Collins? Where is ex-president George W. Bush? Where is ex–presidential candidate Mitt Romney? Where is New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, or California’s ex-governors Pete Wilson and Arnold Schwarzenegger?
These men and women know what Trump is. They have to understand what is at stake here. They have to see that Trump and his followers have now crossed fundamental Rubicons, embracing such antidemocratic, such thuggish views—the mindset of the pogrom, the death squad, the race-and-religion war—that they now represent an absolute and existential threat to the Republic.
And yet not one of these political figures have come out and said they will dissociate themselves from a Trump candidacy—that they will vote for, and campaign for, anyone but Trump. Not one of them has said that democracy comes before party. Not one of them has dared to use the “F” word, calling Trump out for the fascist that he so clearly is.
The Republicans use historical imagery and historical references liberally. They trot out the text of the Second Amendment, for example, whenever anyone posits even minimal forms of gun control. They wax poetic about the Constitution when it comes to arguing against universal healthcare or for the rights of states to set their own voting-access requirements, leading to the mass disenfranchisement of poor African-American voters. Yet in the 2016 electoral season, none of them have mentioned the crossing of the Rubicon. It is an historical allusion that seems, entirely, to have escaped their attention. Not one of them has said that Trump and his supporters are using the language of the early Nazis, conditioning the public to think of race- and religion-baiting as the norm, and casual violence as the default response to disagreement.
In his victory speech yesterday evening, Trump announced that “we’re going to get greedy for the United States. We’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to make America great again.” It is the language of Lebensraum. “You know, I love the country. I love the country. We’re going to have our borders nice and strong. We’re going to build the wall. Mexico is going to pay for the wall. It’s going to happen. They’ll be very happy about it. They’re going to be thrilled to be paying for the wall.” It is the language of the arm-twister, the gangster-extortionist.
Perhaps this is the moment of the fools and the vipers, when dumb and harmful ideas take center stage. Perhaps this is the moment of men such as Gene A., at the First Baptist Church in Sparks, glorying in the triumph of his political hero.
“I’ve got the perfect solution for peace between Jews and Palestinians,” Gene told me, shortly after asking me if I was Jewish, and shortly before he told me that Hitler was wrong to kill the Jews, because they were intelligent, but that it wouldn’t have been that bad if he had chosen to focus his killing impulses on Muslims instead. “We bring all the Jews to America and all the Muslims to Israel. And if they don’t like that, let them kill each other.”
What did Gene Perkins think about Trump’s idea of beating up protesters? He, personally, wasn’t about to beat someone up, but if the nonviolent heckler did end up getting harmed, well, it was probably his own fault. “Does he have responsibility for incitement? It’s a two-way street, guy.”
The Ides of March are fast approaching. The greatest question facing the Republic today is that of whether the GOP can find a way to take down their Rubicon crosser.