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The Party of Malice – The Atlantic

You knew it was coming.

As soon as former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley emerged as the main threat to Donald Trump in the battle for the Republican nomination, it became inevitable that she would be targeted by him. Any front-runner would do the same thing. But Trump did it with his typical touch.

Last week Trump reposted on his Truth Social account a conspiracy theory that Haley, who was born in South Carolina, was not qualified to be president because her parents, born in India, were not U.S. citizens at the time of her birth. In fact, the Fourteenth Amendment establishes that any person born on American soil is a citizen of the United States and therefore can serve as president.

Last Tuesday, Trump decided to ratchet up the racism a few notches. On Truth Social, he wrote this about his former ambassador to the United Nations:

Anyone listening to Nikki “Nimrada” Haley’s wacked out speech last night, would think that she won the Iowa Primary. She didn’t, and she couldn’t even beat a very flawed Ron DeSanctimonious, who’s out of money, and out of hope. Nikki came in a distant THIRD! She said she would never run against me, “he was a great President,” and she should have followed her own advice. Now she’s stuck with WEAK POLICIES, and a VERY STRONG MAGA BASE, and there’s just nothing she can do!

By Friday the former president of the United States was referring to Haley as “Nimbra.”

There are two things to know in order to understand what’s unfolding. The first is that Haley’s given name is Nimarata Nikki Randhawa. She has gone by Nikki since she was a child—a local newspaper referred to her as Nikki when she was 12 years old and she had a role in a production of Li’l Abner; and she dropped her maiden name when she married Michael Haley in 1996.

The second is that this is a bigoted game that Trump is well versed in. In 2011, Trump was the chief promoter of the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore ineligible to serve as president. (I called out Trump in the pages of The Wall Street Journal at the time he did this.) He later implied that Obama was a Muslim and dubbed him “the founder of ISIS.” As recently as a few months ago, Trump, in blaming both President Joe Biden and former President Obama for Hamas’s attacks on Israel, highlighted Obama’s middle name, Hussein, as he has done many times before.

In 2020, Trump did something similar with Kamala Harris, saying in a press conference that he had “heard” that Harris “doesn’t meet the requirements” to be president. Trump has perfected the just-asking-questions posture that promotes conspiracy theories without quite vouching for them. (Harris was born in Oakland; her mother was from India and her father from Jamaica. The source of Trump’s claim was John Eastman, who wrote a crackpot essay in Newsweek challenging Harris’s eligibility and who now faces nine criminal counts in Georgia’s election-conspiracy case.)

In 2016 Trump, in his heated primary battle with Ted Cruz, referred to Cruz by his first name, Rafael, a common name in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries and among people of Latin American descent. (Cruz’s father is Cuban.) Trump raised questions about Cruz’s eligibility to be president, and accused Cruz’s father—based on a National Enquirer story—of associating with Lee Harvey Oswald not long after Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

Trump, also in 2016, engaged in a racist attack on Gonzalo Curiel, a district court judge presiding over a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. Trump called Curiel a “hater” who was being unfair to him because the judge is “Hispanic,” because he’s “Mexican,” and because Trump wanted to build a wall on the southern border. (Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.) Paul Ryan, then-speaker of the House, rightly said that Trump’s claim was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump also expressed doubt that a Muslim judge could remain neutral in the case.

During his presidential announcement speech in 2015, Trump signaled the path he was going down. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. 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.”

The Washington Post, citing the Congressional Research Service, reported that very few undocumented immigrants “fit in the category that fits Trump’s description.” But one person who does fit in this category is Trump himself. New York District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over the civil case brought by E. Jean Carroll against Trump for defamation, said last week, “The fact that Mr. Trump sexually abused—indeed, raped—Ms. Carroll has been conclusively established.”

IN HIS FIRST RUN FOR PRESIDENT, Trump had awful rhetoric; this time around, he has worse. His words are fascistic. Trump is repeating like an incantation the claim that illegal immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” He has referred to his opponents, whom he sees as his enemies, as “vermin.”

Since the first day Trump stepped on the presidential stage, and in some cases since long before then, he has stoked grievances, resentments, and fears. He has targeted Mexicans; Muslim and Syrian refugees; Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans; and Black Americans, including the Central Park Five and the Black prosecutors who have filed charges against him. As Michael Steele, the first Black man to chair the Republican National Committee, put it, “If he can race bait it, he will. These prosecutors, these Black people are coming after me—the white man.”

“When it comes to race, Mr. Trump plays with fire like no other president in a century,” the New York Times reporter Peter Baker wrote in 2019. “While others who occupied the White House at times skirted close to or even over the line, finding ways to appeal to the resentments of white Americans with subtle and not-so-subtle appeals, none of them in modern times fanned the flames as overtly, relentlessly and even eagerly as Mr. Trump.”

No president in living memory, and no major political leader since George Wallace, has said and done things that stir the heart of white supremacists—of David Duke, Richard Spencer, Nick Fuentes, and the Proud Boys, among others—as powerfully as Trump does. But his appeal is hardly limited to them.

Trump’s rhetoric is resonating with the majority of Republicans. Nationally, Trump has a massive lead over Haley and DeSantis—more than 50 points and climbing. After losing the Iowa caucus in 2016, last Monday Trump won it by 30 points, carrying 98 of 99 counties. Eighty-two percent of Republicans across the country agree with Trump’s “poisoning the blood” rhetoric. In addition, two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers said Biden did not legitimately win the presidential election in 2020. And about two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers said they would consider Trump to be fit for president even if he were convicted of a crime. No previous nonincumbent presidential hopeful has ever been in so dominant a position at so early a stage of the race. For Republicans, there is Trump, and there is really no one else. Nikki Haley may do well in New Hampshire; there’s a slight possibility she may even win there. But after that comes South Carolina and Super Tuesday. By then, and maybe before then, Haley will exit the race and announce her endorsement of Trump.

THIS IS NOT THE REPUBLICAN PARTY I once knew. Ronald Reagan was a formative president for me; I cast my first vote for him and I later worked in his administration. He was generous toward all immigrants, even those who had crossed the southern border illegally.

In his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, for example, Reagan said, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.” In 1986, Reagan signed landmark legislation that granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants. And in remarks at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, in 1984, Reagan said:

We call ourselves a nation of immigrants, and that’s truly what we are. We have drawn people from every corner of the Earth. We’re composed of virtually every race and religion, and not in small numbers, but large. We have a statue in New York Harbor that speaks of this, a statue of a woman holding a torch of welcome to those who enter our country to become Americans. She has greeted millions upon millions of immigrants to our country. She welcomes them still. She represents our open door.

All of the immigrants who came to us brought their own music, literature, customs, and ideas. And the marvelous thing, a thing of which we’re proud, is they did not have to relinquish these things in order to fit in. In fact, what they brought to America became American. And this diversity has more than enriched us; it has literally shaped us.

When George W. Bush was running for president in 1999, the then-governor of Texas—speaking to a nearly all-white audience in Sioux City, Iowa—emphasized compassion toward illegal immigrants.

“I want to remind you of something about immigration,” Bush said. “Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. There are moms and dads who have children in Mexico. And they’re hungry.” He added, “They’re going to come to try to find work. If they pay $5 in one place and $50 in another place, and they’ve got mouths to feed, they’re going to come. It’s a powerful instinct. It’s called being a mom and being a dad.”

Bush, unlike Reagan, didn’t champion amnesty for illegal immigrants when he was president; instead he offered a pathway to citizenship for those who met a set of requirements, including paying a fine, making good on back taxes, learning English, and waiting in line behind those who had followed the law. At that point the base of the Republican Party was already moving in an anti-immigrant direction—  comprehensive immigration reform was defeated by a revolt among Republicans in 2007—but its leaders were not.

For many of us who worked in the White House for President Bush, as I did for seven years, one of our proudest moments was when he visited a mosque six days after the attacks on September 11, 2001. The purpose of the visit was to quell anti-Muslim bigotry and violence.

During his visit, Bush gave a speech in which he said, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.” America’s 43rd president added this: “Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must not be intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.” And finally there was this: “This is a great country. It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with [Muslim] leaders who feel just the same way I do. They’re outraged, they’re sad. They love America just as much as I do.”

Reagan and Bush were following in the tradition of Lincoln, the greatest Republican and the greatest president America has produced. He was a supporter of immigration throughout his political career, considering it a “source of national wealth and strength.” Lincoln despised nativism and was contemptuous of the “Know Nothing” party, which was anti-slavery (at least the Northern wing was) yet ferociously anti-immigrant.

“When the Know-Nothings get control, [the Declaration of Independence] will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics,” Lincoln wrote in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed. “When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

In his July 10, 1858, speech, Lincoln argued that recently arrived immigrants who were not descendants of the early colonists—German, Irish, French, and Scandinavian— could yet feel a connection with America. Citizenship was not based on racial, ethnic, or religious identity; it was based on the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence. In an extraordinarily elegant and profound passage, Lincoln said:

If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

The Republican Party, at its founding and at its best, was capacious, generous in spirit, welcoming to foreigners. It was conservative, and it was compassionate.

Today’s Republican Party has laid waste to those sensibilities. Donald Trump took a party that, by the time he first ran for president, was increasingly inward looking, fearful, and uncharitable, and he made it cruel, xenophobic, exclusionary, and bigoted. It is the party of malice.

I hope my former party will one day be reformed. For now, it needs to be defeated.


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