“Independent. Loves military. Carries pocket constitution everywhere,” says Ben Domenech of Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen U.S. soldier who gave a stirring anti-Trump speech at last week’s Democratic convention. “Great job GOP.”
It’s rich, this sarcastic congratulations, coming as it does from a guy whose odious think-tank-welfare publication, The Federalist, published an article titled “Donald Trump Was Not Wrong About Muslim Immigration” not three weeks before Khan’s speech; tweets about “killer Muslims”; has backed Ted Cruz’s call for draconian surveillance of “Muslim neighborhoods”; alleged that the “goal” of advocacy group CAIR is to “create American Molenbeeks,” referring to the Brussels district where several of the Paris attackers lived; and has generally expended far more energy stigmatizing Muslims and encouraging Islamophobia than opposing the same. On issues of Islam, terrorism, and immigration, as on literally every other issue, The Federalist is a right-wing red-meat factory like any other, just with crass provocation (mostly) swapped out for pseudo-intellectual hand-waving—Breitbart for people who could, on their third guess, tell you who Edmund Burke was.
Not long after Domenech sent his tweet, Republican operative Patrick Ruffini sent one of his own: “We look forward to welcoming Khizr Khan at the 2020 Republican convention.” Ruffini’s tweet reflects a confidence among conservative elites that, following what will probably be a resounding electoral defeat for the overt racism of Donald Trump in November, the Republican party will simply be able to revert to the polite racism of Domenech’s Federalist without much trouble. Managing this reversion will be the principal project of conservatism’s myriad hacks and agitators and fabulists in 2017, in the same way that providing ideological cover for the intransigence and backlash of the early Obama era was their project in 2009.
The work has actually been going on for a while now. Before his marvelous self-own of an avatar inspired a very good meme, Dan McLaughlin (a.k.a. the Baseball Crank) was just another propagandist tasked with fomenting and excusing the more acceptable forms of Trumpism’s ignorance and vitriol. Since Trump began his march to the GOP nomination, though, McLaughlin has been perhaps the most shameless champion of a truly absurd and relentless effort to deny the existence of any connection whatsoever between Trump and the conservative movement—to ascribe all of his faults and offenses to his secret liberalism, to blame his rise on the media, to wax paranoid about his motivations for running. To the Baseball Crank, Trumpism is the “opposite” of the Tea Party, Trump’s “base” is “all liberals, all day long,” and his flirtation with white supremacists is proof that he’s “still a Democrat at heart.” Widespread conservative support for a know-nothing proto-fascist billionaire narcissist is simply “an attempt to remake the Republican Party in the mirror image & likeness of the Democrats.”
This may have started as simple denial or a doomed strategy to undercut Trump during the primary, but now it serves a clear purpose as the conservative establishment prepares to disassociate the movement from what will in all likelihood be a humiliating defeat at the polls. Trump secured the nomination by doubling down on various strains of the white resentment that animates the modern GOP—xenophobia, conspiracism, law-and-order demagoguery, bloodthirsty warmongering—and a Trump presidency would surely see his token departures from conservative orthodoxy (e.g. his protectionist streak) swiftly emended as the party’s corporatist donor base and K Street power brokers reassert themselves in a GOP-controlled Washington. He is a thoroughly conservative and thoroughly Republican candidate. But because—and only because—a majority (however depressingly slim) of Americans find the coarse and vulgar way he articulates the conservative worldview distasteful, he must be defined as something separate from conservatism altogether, so that future GOP campaigns can exploit the same antipathies, to the same reactionary ends, in more tactful ways.
And so yesterday’s laughably delusional Baseball Crank tweet is tomorrow’s right-wing media talking point. Ninety-plus percent of Republican voters, at the urging of ninety-plus percent of Republican officeholders, will cast a ballot for an unabashed racist in November, and we will be told, in the immediate aftermath and for years to come, that this tells us absolutely nothing about who Republicans are and what they stand for. Ted Cruz’s self-serving convention speech will be mythified as a clarion call for conservative principles, and the near-universal boos and condemnation from party leaders it received will be forgotten. Trump’s nomination will be blamed on a split field and open primaries, ignoring the reality that he won more closed primaries than anyone, won among registered Republicans in every open primary he won, and regularly led in head-to-head polling matchups with his rivals throughout the primary calendar. Tom Cotton will publish a ghost-written book called Perfecting Our Principles or some shit, tightrope-walk his way to a notional rejection of Trump that preserves the core elements of his ethno-nationalist appeal, and be rewarded with the 2020 GOP nomination for it. No, Khizr Khan probably won’t speak at the convention, but the Patrick Ruffinis of the world will successfully stage some comparable feints towards a kinder GOP, and the Ben Domenechs of the world will applaud them, even as the party approves a platform just as far to the right as this year’s. And then, lucky us, we’ll get to find out how effective all this revisionism has been.