E.J. Dionne: History will notice which Republicans distance themselves from Trump

Josh Lawson, chief counsel for the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement, left, hands Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th congressional race, a document during the fourth day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th congressional district voting irregularities investigation Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh, N.C. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

Washington • In 1964, Nelson Rockefeller, then the governor of New York, rose before the Republican National Convention to condemn “extremists” who had “no plan and no program to keep the peace and bring freedom to the world.”

Amidst the boos and catcalls from right-wingers on the floor, Rockefeller denounced those who "spread distrust," "engender suspicion" and "encourage disunity."

“There is no place in this Republican Party,” declared this stalwart of GOP progressivism, “for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice, such fabricators of fear.”

You wonder what Rocky would make of a President Trump and the movement he has nurtured. And you sure wish someone like Rockefeller were around today to call his party back to reason and tolerance.

The events of recent days ought to try the consciences of Republicans who know that extremism and hatred are wrong. Many in the party acknowledge — usually in private — that the president they have continued to back has rooted his political appeal in vicious attacks against his opponents and a free press. He has invented crises for the purpose of stoking dread and horror. And he targeted minority groups (immigrants especially) to harvest political support.

In the meantime, the party as a whole has abandoned the embrace of civil rights and voting rights that had been, from the Lincoln era to Rockefeller's time, the GOP's calling card. Mimicking the segregationist Democrats of the past, Republicans have of late used the unfounded specter of voter fraud to justify voter ID laws and other measures squarely aimed at impeding access to the ballot box by African-Americans and the young.

So there was a delicious irony to last week's unanimous ruling by the North Carolina Board of Elections that it was a Republican candidate for Congress, Mark Harris, who found himself accused of massive voter fraud. As a result, the board threw out the district's 2018 election results and called a new election.

In 2017 Trump named a presidential commission that scoured the country for instances of in-person voter fraud that might justify the party's voter suppression efforts. It was such a bust that the commission itself had to be disbanded just eight months later.

Impeding voting rights needs to be called what it is: an act of extremism. It is radically anti-democratic to keep your opponents from voting. Where are the Republicans who will speak out loudly and clearly against what their party has done in so many states that they controlled?

An even more startling development was news that police in Maryland had arrested Christopher P. Hasson, a lieutenant in the Coast Guard and a self-identified white nationalist. The authorities said he stockpiled weapons and drew up a list of liberal politicians and commentators whom he hoped to kill. His catalog of targets included, among others, the House and Senate Democratic leaders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (whom he called "Sen blumen jew"), and MSNBC commentators Joe Scarborough, Ari Melber and Chris Hayes.

Even if many Republicans have no problem these days labeling nearly all Democrats "socialists" based on the self-descriptions of a few in the party's ranks, it's obvious that no one should call out the entire GOP for the plotting of a fanatical would-be assassin.

One can, however, ask all responsible Republicans to deplore right-wing fanaticism and to take the threat of homegrown white nationalist terrorism as seriously as they do terrorism inspired from abroad. It is entirely fair to imagine that the GOP (and, especially, the president) would have a lot more to say if Hasson had been, say, a Muslim.

And it is important to examine the public statements of the president himself, his efforts to divide the country, and his constant demonizing of all those who oppose him.

Let's go back to Rockefeller's words: Day after day, Trump truly is a hawker of hate, a purveyor of prejudice, and a fabricator of fear. Prejudice and fear are at the heart of his invocation of national emergency powers to build his wall, an abuse of authority that ought to horrify all who proudly call themselves "constitutional conservatives."

The good news is that Republicans will soon have an opportunity to tell us who they are. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a vote this week on a measure rejecting Trump's emergency declaration. The House is virtually certain to pass it. The Senate, by law, will be required to take it up.

It's not too much to say that history will notice how many Republicans choose to separate themselves from Trump's extremism.

E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He is a government professor at Georgetown University, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio and MSNBC. He is most recently a co-author of “One Nation After Trump.”

Twitter, @EJDionne.