It’s doing so by presenting a picture of the party to the American people that is intolerant, bigoted and nativist.
It started in mid-June, with Donald Trump’s announcement, when he characterized people coming from Mexico this way: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Mr. Trump has since shot to the top of the polls while advocating the mass deportation of 11 million undocumented workers in America and ending birthright citizenship. He has also argued for a “pause” in legal immigration, with other presidential candidates embracing some elements of the Trump agenda.
Then there’s Ben Carson, who this weekend declared, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.
These issues, combined with the accompanying rhetoric (including from people like Ann Coulter and others on the right), is toxic for the Republican Party. It’s signaling to non-white Americans, including legal Americans, they are not liked nor wanted nor welcomed in the GOP’s America.
Last night a close friend of mine — a legal immigrant, marvelously successful, and a long-time Republican — sent me a note in which he said this: “It’s hard to express just how depressed and depressing I find the current Republican discussions on immigration. I came to this country thinking it was one that welcomes immigrants — especially if you had something to offer by way of talents and willingness to work. Over time I came to believe the Republican Party was truly the party of ‘free markets and free people’. Now I really have trouble believing that.”
The message being sent to voters is this: The Republican Party is led by people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the changing (and inevitable) demographic nature of our nation. The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future. It is a party that is characterized by resentments and grievances, by distress and dismay, by the belief that America is irredeemably corrupt and past the point of no return. “The American dream is dead,” in the emphatic words of Mr. Trump.
This is all quite troubling to those of us who are Republicans and find these attitudes repellant. Thankfully not all the Republican presidential candidates hold such views. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich, and Senator Marco Rubio are dissenters from this outlook. But the two men now leading in the polls – Mr. Trump and Dr. Carson – are appealing to the uglier impulses of our society. They seem intent on pitting American against American. And their words are searing themselves upon the imagination of the American people.
It was said of Lincoln, the first great Republican, that he was “the one man who had quite purged his heart and mind from hatred or even anger towards his fellow-countrymen”; that “in this man a natural wealth of tender compassion became richer and more tender while in the stress of deadly conflict he developed an astounding strength.”
In our time, we could use a lot more Lincoln and a lot less Trump and Carson.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Previously he worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.