In modern turbine airplanes, when something goes wrong it
triggers a chime in the cockpit and a flashing light to get the pilots’
attention, along with a message that describes the problem. Problems that are
serious but that aren’t yet life-threatening present an amber caution light and
single chime. If a problem is serious enough, triple-chime sounds and a red
warning light flashes. The chimes continue and the lights flash until the pilot
presses the button to cancel the alarm. Sometimes, when things get really bad,
the messages are generated so fast that the chimes are going off continuously.
Over the last week leading up to the Resurgent Gathering in
Atlanta, that has been the case for the Republican Party. Warning lights have
been flashing, one after another, for days on end. Last week began with a
discussion about President Trump’s tweets
about Baltimore. The tweets were widely interpreted to have racial overtones
and, whether that was the president’s intention or not, it put a predominantly
white party in the awkward position of explaining to 38 million black Americans
why Donald Trump is not a racist.
The president’s tweets were not problematic only for their
effect on race relations. On August 2, Mr. Trump tweeted that Kim Jong Un “has
a great and beautiful vision for his country” and called the North Korean
dictator “a friend” despite North Korea’s launch of two short-range missiles.
The president further tweeted that “these missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore
agreement” although he conceded “there may be a United Nations violation.”
Outside of Twitter, last week also gave us the abortive John
Ratcliffe nomination to replace Dan Coats as director of national
intelligence. Ratcliffe is a Republican member of the House Intelligence
Committee, but otherwise had scant qualifications for the top intelligence post
except for the fact that he seemed to have caught Trump’s attention with his
questioning of Robert Mueller. With public opposition to the nomination from
Democrats and little, if any, support from Republicans, President Trump withdrew
the nomination on Friday, less than a week after he had made it.
Yet another caution chime is the building wave of Republican
retirements for 2020. On Thursday, Rep. Will Hurd, the sole black Republican in
the House, announced
his retirement. Hurd was a frequent critic of Donald Trump, including
saying that Trump’s tweets were “in essence telling someone because you don’t
look like them, that you are not American,” but said on ABC
News that he plans “to support the Republican nominee.”
More than his differences with Donald Trump, Hurd may be
worried about re-election. His 23rd district in Texas, with a majority Hispanic population, is a swing district
that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2018, Hurd won by less than 1,000
votes, a half percent margin.
Hurd isn’t the only Republican stepping down in 2020. Rep.
Martha Roby (R-Ala.) and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), two of only 13 House Republican
women are retiring next year. The announcement of Rep.
Kenny Marchant brings the total of retiring Texas Republicans to four. The
two women won their last elections by comfortable margins, but Marchant was re-elected
by only three points.
Republicans are retiring for a variety of reasons, but many of those reasons can be traced back to the Trump Administration. Whether the Republicans are personally opposed to Trump or not, many can read the writing on the wall for 2020. In 2018, Republicans lost 60 percent of women and 78 percent of nonwhite voters. Recent polling suggests that 2020 may be worse among both women and minorities, driven largely by his racial tweets. The 2018 Republican losses were presaged by a similar wave of retirements.
The amber cautions turned to a red warning with the El
Paso mass shooting. The murder’s manifesto mirrors President Trump’s
rhetoric on immigration is only the most recent incident on a growing list of white
supremacist and right-wing violence. While there is no evidence that Mr.
Trump directly incited the attack, it is credible that his speeches
and tweets contributed to the racially-charged political climate that
apparently inspired the shooter. In a clear warning sign, a supporter even
mentioned shooting illegal immigrants at a Trump
rally in Florida back in May.
As I write this, the president is drawing criticism from
both sides for his failure to quickly condemn white supremacy after the El Paso
shooting. Despite calling the murders “an act of cowardice” and a “hateful act,”
the president waited until today, two days later, to specifically condemn the
ideology behind the attack.
Earlier today, President
Trump did acknowledge the racist motive of the El Paso shooter, saying, “The
shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online, consumed by racist hate. In one
voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
In an airplane, when these warning and caution chimes go
off, the proper response is to “identify, cancel and call for the checklist.”
The pilots identify the source of the problem by looking at the message that describes
the condition that generated the alert. Then they press the master warning or
caution button to cancel the chime and flashing light, acknowledging that they
see the problem. Finally, the pilot addresses the problem by calling for the
appropriate checklist or memory item for that issue. The problem in today’s GOP
is that too many are ignoring the flashing lights and chimes that are warning
them of problems.
Often, when there is a serious problem, the stack of alert
messages on the screen gets long. A major problem can spark many associated
problems in related systems. In many cases, the root cause of the problem is
revealed in messages that are near the bottom of the stack since the warning
computer posts messages in the order that they occur. An honest appraisal of
the current state of the Republican shows that many problem indications can be
traced back to President Trump.
Despite all of these things happening over the last week,
there was almost no mention of them by the Republican speakers at the Resurgent
Gathering. When elected Republicans spoke about the president, it was in
glowing terms. One example was Georgia’s Rep. Doug
Collins, who said, “The thing I say about this president is that this
president is the same on the stage as he is off the stage.”
“He has big ideas that come all the time,” Collins continued.
“His ways, at times, can offend people and grate on people. They’re not used to
somebody who just comes out and, a lot of the time, just speaks truth. If you
hit at him, he will hit you back. I think some people are understanding that now.”
There were hints that some Republicans see that there is a
problem. A speaker from the Heritage For America commented, “Some people say
the election will be a referendum on President Trump, but that’s defeatist
talk.” Reading between the lines, if Donald Trump was a popular president, a
referendum on his administration would be a good thing for Republicans and
would not be seen as “defeatist.” Likewise, Grover
Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, while praising the Tax Cuts and Jobs
Act of 2017, remarked that one of the easiest things that President Trump could
do to lower taxation and help the economy would be to end the tariff war.
The most direct acknowledgment of the warning chimes was
from the Washington
Examiner’s David Drucker. Drucker pointed out that while some Republicans
look past Trump’s behavior because of his policies, others are being driven toward
the Democrats, noting their complaint that, “if one of his rallies is on tv
that I can’t watch it with children in the room.” Far from the common
assumption that President Trump is assured a landslide in 2020, Drucker said
that the Trump campaign is working toward another Electoral College victory
with a popular vote loss, but warned, “The election could go either way as of
“As I like to tell Republicans,” he added, “there’s no telling what can happen
if Democrats nominate someone who is likable, trustworthy, and not under FBI
In airplanes, 12-step programs and politics, the first step is admitting that
you have a problem. So far, most Republicans have been unwilling to take that
step. Admitting that you have a problem doesn’t mean that the flight will end
in a crash. I’ve experienced engine failures, hydraulic failures, and a
multitude of other problems, but I’ve always returned to earth safely. Very
often it isn’t the fact that you have a problem that leads to disaster but the
fact that the problem is ignored.
There is no emergency checklist for dealing with the
Republican 2020 problem, but there are several options. The most obvious one is
for Republicans to rein in Donald Trump. This might also include taking his phone
away or convincing him to let staffers prescreen his tweets. At the other end of
the spectrum is replacing Trump with another candidate for 2020. Neither of
these options would be easy.
The bottom line for Republicans is that, if they want to win
in 2020, it will require more than just pointing at Democrats and yelling, “Socialist!”
in a manner reminiscent of Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Republicans have 15 months in which to build a positive case for why voters
should return them to power. It is also 15 months in which Donald Trump’s
tweets and public comments will be threatening to undermine their argument.
Ignoring that problem won’t make it go away.