Upon being handed the moral high ground, it’s tempting to pull up the ladders and keep it all to yourself. That was the case this weekend when some on the left and in the mainstream media were less than gracious toward the numerous Republican senators who stood up and condemned racism in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Specifically, some did not afford the two Hispanic Republican senators—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—much grace after the duo stood up against racism. Rubio publicly urged President Trump, who hemmed and hawed for days before finally condemning white supremacists by name, to call the car-ramming into counter-protesters a terror attack, and Cruz issued a statement saying that “The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate.”
Instead of congratulating them, The New York Times’ Eric Lipton tweeted, “Sorry to be cynical, but most of all Rubio and Ted Cruz to me seem mostly to be doing a tremendous job of posturing for 2020.” (Cruz responded, saying: “Gosh, you’re right. Because Nazis & the Klan have such love for Cuban-Americans. If only we worked for a paper that shilled for Stalin…”)
Lipton suggests that Cruz and Rubio are playing politics, but one could argue that what they have done is more a profile in courage than it is a profile in pandering.
The notion that Donald Trump will lose a primary or retire in 2020 is a dicey proposition. Even a weak incumbent like Jimmy Carter was able to fend off the challenge of a Kennedy. Besides, why would anyone suspect that calling out racism is a shrewd way to position yourself to win a Republican primary? Last time I checked, Donald Trump won the GOP nomination and the White House. He did not do this by running as a kinder, gentler Republican. A compassionate conservative he is not.
Which brings me to the second reason that criticizing Rubio and Cruz is a bad idea. If you believe that the goal is to create a better, fairer America (not simply to help Democrats corner the market on virtue), then we should be in the “addition business.” Here, Lipton is in the “subtraction business.” He wants to deprive Cruz and Rubio of the opportunity to get on the right side of history.
Isn’t it better to reward good behavior? If your goal is beat back the forces of white supremacy, wouldn’t you want as many allies as possible? Isn’t it likely that, in the future, people will be more inclined to risk alienating some percentage of their supporters if they anticipate mainstream media praise (rather than an attack) for doing so?
Instead of incentivizing good behavior, we currently have a situation where Cruz and Rubio are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They’re not alone. This is what is called a wedge issue, where conservatives have been presented with nothing but bad options. They are told that, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” However, when they choose to speak out, they not only alienate some percentage of their supporters (with little chance of winning over any Democrats), they are also told that it is too late or that it is not enough to denounce racism, the KKK, and Nazis—that instead, they have to denounce their president.
Most amazingly, sometimes they are told they should remain silent—that they should not speak out against racism.
Not to conflate Republicans with whites (because not all Republicans are white—or vice versa) but The Root is saying: “White people, now is NOT the time to differentiate yourselves as the ‘good white.’ It’s not always about you.” The author of the post literally defines speaking out about what happened in Charlottesville as “white privilege.”
That is creating a lose-lose proposition. If you remain silent, you are tacitly endorsing racism. But speaking out earns you no carrots—and possibly a few sticks.
Again, putting aside the compelling moral reasons to condemn racists, condemning people who are ostensibly on “your side” (and it’s fair to say that both sides have unseemly supporters) doesn’t make strategic sense unless there’s some payoff—unless you’re going to get some credit. Depriving Republicans of the opportunity to get on the right side of this issue might be smart politics for those who believe the long-term demographic trends will eventually punish this sort of behavior, but it doesn’t help America heal.
There’s a reason tribalism is rampant today: It works. A Bolshevik slogan once advised, “No enemies to the left.” Another political maxim advises, “You can’t make friends of your enemies by making enemies of your friends.” If you ever wonder why politicians stick with their teams—as despicable as some fringe supporters may be—it’s because the incentives are all perverse.
A message to those who actually want to stop the alt-right: It may be exciting for the left to finally have actual Nazis to punch, but don’t fall prey to the temptation to lump your adversaries in with the real deplorables.