Greg Billings stood in the cold outside the National Republican Club on Tuesday, holding a photo of current House majority whip Steve Scalise and, just behind his left shoulder, Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke. “Is this your GOP?” Billings’s sign read. Somewhere inside the club Scalise was due to meet with Republican donors.
“Those type of people having access to power is disturbing to me. I don’t like people with those connections making policy decisions,” said Billings.
News that the third-ranking Republican in the House addressed a group of white supremacists in 2002 broke in late December; since then we’ve learned that the Louisiana representative also voted multiple times against declaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, and tried to squash a resolution apologizing for Louisiana’s role in slavery. Regarding the first revelation, Scalise claims not to have known he was addressing a room full of racists. Civil-rights advocates, lawmakers and even several conservative commentators have called for him to step down or at least demonstrate some commitment to racial equality. So far, other GOP leaders are standing by him.
How shocked, and how outraged, should we be by the “Scalise episode,” as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called it? Milbank offers little of either emotion, claiming that it is really “an occasion for some pride, and an indication of how much progress has been made in marginalizing the hateful, even in conservative politics and even in the Deep South.” Milbank sees the Scalise episode as evidence of a “transformation,” which seems to mainly hinge around the fact that these days fewer lawmakers are giving speeches to white supremacist groups.
That’s all well and good; it’s also an absurdly low bar to which to hold our elected representatives. If it’s hard to muster shock and outrage towards Scalise, perhaps it’s because the decision to keep him in a leadership position reflects values the GOP routinely asserts in its policies. Is it really surprising that a figurehead of the party that actively seeks to deny health insurance to a disproportionate number of black Americans, deport as many immigrants as possible, and strip away the right to vote once rubbed shoulders with white supremacists?