The Washington Post
By Tom Nichols
Tom Nichols is a professor at the Harvard Extension School. He is the author of “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.”
February 2 at 11:00 PM
Finally, the GOP is calling out a chief executive for his appalling insensitivity on an issue of race: Saturday, via Twitter, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) decried that chief executive’s “past racist behavior” and said “He should resign.” In twotweets posted on Saturday, Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel listed off what she sees as that same chief executive’s callousness on race, including, apparently, his appearance in a photo, 35 years ago in which one person is in blackface and the other is wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. The conduct that these Republicans denounced clearly deserves condemnation, no matter how or when it occurred.
Unfortunately, they’ve reserved their scorn for one chief executive, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and have held back when it comes to criticizing a chief executive from their own party, President Trump, for his racially divisive statements and public positions. That is naked hypocrisy.
Northam, without doubt, brought this criticism on himself: Friday he released a statement apologizing for appearing in a 1984 medical school yearbook photo “in a costume that is clearly racist and offensive,” saying, “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made.” Then on Saturday, he went before live cameras to say, “I believe then, and now, that I am not either of the people” in the photo in question. A risible, flimsy explanation, unacceptable for anyone, let alone the governor of a state.
Republicans, sensing a relatively rare moment when, for once, the other party had to own a race-relations debacle, joined Democrats in calling for Northam’s ouster. In addition to McCarthy and McDaniel, Virginia GOP chair Jack Wilson called on Northam to step down, saying the governor has “lost the moral ability” to lead. Ever since Election Day 2016, when Trump’s supporters promised he wouldn’t be as awful as his critics — including me — warned he would be, Republicans have longed for a moment when they could at least pretend to gain the high moral ground.
But while Democrats, and decent people everywhere, have a right to demand that Northam step down, Republicans who continue to support a party dominated by Trump can’t be taken seriously on this point.
Trump’s record on race-related issues is abysmal. For years, he fueled birtherism to attack President Barack Obama. He once argued that a federal judge, Gonzalo P. Curiel, couldn’t be impartial in a case involving Trump because, as Trump said, “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” Early in his presidential candidacy, Trump called for a “total and complete ban on Muslims entering the country.” In office, he ruminated on the United States needing more immigrants from places such as Norway and fewer immigrants from “shithole” countries, referencing Haiti, El Salvador and African countries.
Despite polls taken at various times during his presidency that show significant percentages of Americans either see Trump as racist or, at a minimum, someone who has “emboldened” racists, the president still enjoys the support of Republicans in Congress and 78 percentapproval among Republicans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll. For the most part, the party has indulged his race-baiting comments and his crude handling of racial issues. But somehow party leaders, who stand firmly behind him, and a national party that just passed a resolution expressing “undivided support” for him, seems to have no qualms about calling out Northam.
How Northam got all the way to the Virginia statehouse without the yearbook photo being discovered will wind up as a case study in future training for political opposition researchers and for reporters. Regardless of how it happened, it’s fair to view his inconsistent statements and conclude that he never thought he would have to explain any of this until after it became public. That disingenuousness is damning in itself, and if the voters and elected leaders of Virginia decide that this episode disqualifies him from serving honorably in office — it appears they do — that’s their choice. (I happen to agree with them.)
Democrats don’t have completely clean hands on race issues; if nothing else, the Northam episode illustrates that. But when commentators such as David Limbaugh ask if Trump supporters must “forfeit the right to pass any moral judgments” because of their continual excuse-making for him, the only reply is: yes. Criticizing Northam for “past racist behavior” and his present equivocation after more than two years of overlooking an astonishing record of divisiveness reflects little more than a self-serving, morally repellent double standard. There are plenty of good arguments for kicking Northam out of his job. The newfound racial piety of a party that sold its soul to Trump isn’t one of them.