Like many Americans, I learned my first real civics lesson watching my mother vote. Unlike many, my first lesson was fairly depressing. I grew up in southern Louisiana, and in the 1991 gubernatorial election David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was running against Edwin Edwards, a three-time former governor who had been charged with bribery and was later convicted of 17 counts relating to extortion and racketeering. Edwards was heavily disliked because of his alleged crimes and because he raised taxes sharply as state revenue fell when the oil industry collapsed. Despite this, many in Louisiana were terrified of what might happen if Duke won the election, and signs and bumper stickers sprang up all over the state with one simple message: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” On Election Day I watched as my mother dutifully went to the polls, voted for every other office, and then tried to vote for governor. She could not. She couldn’t vote for Duke of course. But she also could not overcome her distaste of Edwards.
I thought of this story when I heard that David Duke had endorsed Donald Trump for president and that Trump, inexplicably, said that he did not know anything about Duke. I say inexplicably, because in 2000, when Trump considered running for president with the Reform Party, he declined, because, “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke. … This is not company I wish to keep.” But for the allegedly straight talking Trump, no statement of fact or belief is ever permanent. After Trump received Duke’s endorsement in this campaign, CNN’s Jake Tapper gave Trump three opportunities to renounce Duke’s support. Trump merely said, “I don’t know anything about David Duke, OK, I know nothing about what you’re even talking about with white supremacists or white supremacy.” Tapper again said that he was asking about Duke and the Klan, and again, Trump denied understanding. Later Trump tried to claim that he had not heard Tapper’s question, despite the fact that he was able to repeat Tapper several times.
This is another Trump statement that is impossible to believe. It is simply not plausible that he does not know what the Ku Klux Klan (or white supremacy) is, even if he no longer remembers that he once left the Reform Party because of David Duke.
This election increasingly leaves Americans with the possibility that in eight months we will have two terrible choices for president. On the one hand, there is Trump, who cannot find it within himself to denounce Klan proponents if they support him, and cannot consistently hold to a political position of any importance for more than about a week. On the other hand, there is Hillary Clinton, who in a saner political world would probably already have been indicted for endangering national security by violating the law with regard to top secret documents.
In that scenario, one is tempted to say, “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”
Happily, we are not yet staring into that abyss. It is still possible that Republican voters can wake up from their nightmare and vote for another leading Republican candidate. It is even possible that Democratic voters may feel the Bern and choose Sanders, though, given the undemocratic nature of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates,” even winning the primary election might not be enough for Sanders.
There is also another option, as Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse has reminded us this week. When asked who he would support between Trump and Hillary, he was brief and to the point: “Neither of them.” Later, in an interview on MSNBC he noted, correctly, that the Republican Party is “the party of Abraham Lincoln … not the party of David Duke, Donald Trump … but fundamentally, this party needs to return to its principles of believing in equality under the law and believing in the greatness of the potential of the American people. We believe in limited government. We don’t believe in a bigger Washington.”
Sasse argued, “The American people deserve better than two fundamentally dishonest New York liberals. … So my first hope is that voters in the primaries over the next three weeks are going to make a better choice.” But, as Sasse concluded, the “political party is a tool.” And like any tool, if it breaks, you have to replace it. That, after all, is how the Republican Party began. Lincoln realized the Whig party was broken beyond repair because it could not explain why slavery was fundamentally unjust, so he helped start the Republican Party. If the Republican Party has truly become broken enough to nominate Trump with the support of David Duke, it will be time to find a new tool. Either that, or we might be stuck saying, “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important.”
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