GOP can't excommunicate King and ignore Trump playing to white supremacy and racism

Hypocrisy, it is said, is the compliment that vice pays to virtue.

Republicans certainly proved that to be true by condemning and punishing Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingConstitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency Democrats need someone in ‘the Ojeda lane’ Pence on push to remove Omar from committee: Steve King saw ‘consequences’ MORE (R-Iowa) for his white supremacist remarks but failing to denounce Trump for using white supremacist messaging to build support for a wall at the southern border.

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King asked last week, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilizationc—chow did that language become offensive?”

On Sunday, Trump tweeted a column lamenting the loss of white dominance of America written by Pat Buchanan, the former communications director for President Ronald Reagan. “America as we have known it is going to cease to exist . . . The Democratic Party is hostile to white men, because the smaller the share of the U.S. population that white men become, the sooner that Democrats inherit the national estate.”

Congressional Republicans, imitating Captain Louis Renault in the movie "Casablanca," in effect responded: We are shocked — shocked — to find out that white supremacy and racism is going on in here. Just as Captain Renault ordered “round up the usual suspects,” the Republicans stripped King of his House committee assignments without condemning Trump’s Buchanan tweet. 

Make no mistake, King, who has a long history of white supremacist comments, deserves to be punished — and should have been long ago.  

But even finally punishing King may not protect Republicans from the taint of Trump’s messaging. King, after all, is just a congressman. Trump is both president and the leader of the Republican Party.

Is there really a difference between King’s defense of white supremacy and Trump tweeting to his tens of millions of followers a column mourning its loss? And, of course, Trump built his political career on making distinctions based on race, sometimes directly and sometimes through dog whistles and retweets. 

Trump gained national political traction with his racially themed “birther” campaign against America’s first black president. During the 2016 campaign, he retweeted a white supremacist with the twitter name “@WhiteGenocideTM,” which was linked to a website with a pro-Adolf Hitler documentary, and had its location as “Jewmerica.” He accused a federal judge of bias because of his Mexican heritage and used a bigoted image of Muslim wives to attack a Muslim Gold Star mother.

As president, Trump insisted that there were some “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan at the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. He relentlessly accused black NFL players who demonstrated against police brutality of a lack of patriotism. He continually uses stereotypes of Native Americans to denigrate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren set to announce plan for universal child care: reports Barack, Michelle Obama expected to refrain from endorsing in 2020 Dem primary: report Booker seeks dialogue about race as he kicks off 2020 campaign MORE (D-Mass.) as “Pocahontas.” Trump has failed to even condemn King, stating “I really haven’t been following it.”

A few Republicans have criticized Trump for his past remarks, for example, then Republican Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUnscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration MORE (R-Wis.) called Trump’s attack on the federal judge — accusing the judge of bias because of his Mexican heritage — a “textbook definition of a racist comment.” But generally in the face of Trump’s appeals to racial bias, Republicans stand around with their hands in their pocket, trying not to make eye contact, like bystanders at a beating who are afraid to intervene. 

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After Trump’s Charlottesville remarks, many senior Republicans — the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senator says Republicans didn't control Senate when they held majority Pence met with silence after mentioning Trump in Munich speech Mark Kelly's campaign raises over M in days after launching Senate bid MORE (R-Ariz.) a notable exception — failed to call him out directly. Instead, they courageously issued boilerplate remarks that nowhere mentioned Trump. Typical was Sen. Robert PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP Green New Deal stunt is a great deal for Democrats Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal MORE (R-Ohio), who said, “we must all condemn hatred and white nationalism.”

Trump’s racial appeals and white supremacist messaging are a grotesque departure from the conduct of any president in living memory. That’s why the sacrifice of one congressional scapegoat will be insufficient to cleanse the president’s taint from the Republican Party.

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.