We’re hearing a lot these days about the need to “take the high road” in the political battle against Donald Trump. This has been tried in the past. It failed then, and it will fail again.
Politics is about power. Those who care the most win, regardless how dumb, uncivil or evil they might be. Here’s a little story about nice guys who preserved their dignity and civility on the way to political oblivion.
It was exciting to be a Republican in the early 90’s in Texas. A hopeful new world was being built around global capitalism, and it felt like Houston was in a position to lead. Houston’s Harris County Republican Party was perhaps the flagship Republican organization in the South. Southern states had never experienced two-party politics, so few local Republican organizations had any serious funding or institutional depth. Thanks to an influx of Yankee Republicans and a relentlessly business-friendly atmosphere, Houston possessed a relatively stable, sane local GOP infrastructure, ready to become a leader in the state and beyond.
Betsy Lake, a fairly conventional pro-choice Republican, was elected chairman of the Harris County GOP in 1992. When the very active local chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, reached out to collaborate, it seemed like a no-brainer. What reason could there be to exclude a business-friendly organization for homosexuals from a business-friendly political party looking to extend its emerging heft?
While Betsy Lake was guiding the local party in a sane, civil direction, Steven Hotze had a plan in motion. Hotze is a doctor, of sorts, and a well-known Houston religious weirdo. Building on more than a decade of work by an earlier wave of racist Southern ministers, Hotze had honed a message that might move politically isolated Southern segregationists into a party switch. Having learned to replace “segregation forever” with the language of a “culture war,” Hotze was ready to solve a problem that had puzzled Republican strategists since the 60’s.
Texas Republicans, like Republicans elsewhere in the South, had a problem. At the state and local level they lived under a one-party political system that had been hard-wired from birth toward Democratic dominance. When national Democrats finally broke in favor of the Civil Rights movement in the early 60’s, Southern Democrats rebelled, but only at the top of the ballot. With the exception of a few urban Republican enclaves in big Southern cities, there were virtually no Republicans at the precinct level in the South.
In the secrecy of the voting booth, angry Southerners had long felt free to cast their ballot for a distant Republican Presidential candidate. Thirty years after the Civil Rights Acts, politically active Southerners at the local level were Democrats in the streets and Republicans behind the voting booth sheets. Like a herd of wildebeest, gingerly sniffing the water at the river’s edge, they needed an emotional lure and an organizational bridge to trigger the herd to move.
A focus on prosperity, entrepreneurship, and an emerging global capitalism was not quite enough to foster a party switch from those who’d invested a lifetime in local Democratic participation. Lee Atwater had outlined the problem in a moment of drunken candor in 1981. How do you pivot from activating voters with “N..ger, n..ger,” to more subtle means of stoking their racial fears? Up to the early nineties, Republicans had mostly failed.
A few well-funded Republicans could run statewide campaigns, and Republican Presidential candidates could run well in the South. However, deciding to run for County Judge as a Republican meant breaking with your neighbors and almost certain defeat. Republican dogwhistle appeals were enough to win some voters, but without any local infrastructure, Republicans outside a few Southern cities had no capacity or message to support a candidate for District Judge or County Assessor.
Absent this local infrastructure, Republican campaigns for higher office in the South were unreasonably expensive, leaving them heavily dependent on party-switching from sitting office-holders to establish a beachhead of local support.
When Lake tried to open the local GOP to involvement by gay Republicans, Hotze was ready to strike. Republicans, even in the relatively friendly confines of Houston, had a serious organizational problem. At the precinct level their numbers were thin. Republicans had money and momentum, but few people active in their ranks. In a county with 2 million people, a political organization that could muster just a few hundred activists could overwhelm the local GOP. That’s what Hotze did.
Hotze had worked for years with sympathetic local ministers, training supporters to seize empty precinct chairs. He even recorded a video of step-by-step instructions, which was distributed in churches. Up to that point the bigots had experienced little success, but they had just enough presence in the local party to stage a fight over the Log Cabin Republicans.
The Civil Rights Acts of ‘64-65 had changed the law, not the people. Activists like Hotze found that they could rail against homosexuals in terms no longer acceptable against blacks, and by that method, tap into the same white nationalist fears that had animated generations of Democratic political activism in the South. In 1992, leveraging his new crop of nutty precinct chairs who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, he staged a takeover. In a chaotic, angry showdown, their effort to replace Lake with Hotze as party chairman failed in ‘92, but launched a six-year battle for control of the local party.
Showing up to normally staid party meetings, his activists shouted down speakers and threatened people in the parking lot. Lake and the county’s long-time Republican activists preserved their faith in the system with the understanding that incoherent freaks like Hotze would burn themselves out. As Hotze engaged in a sustained campaign of lies, dirty parliamentary maneuvers, and bare-knuckled threats against the “establishment Republicans,” those Republicans counted on their superior virtues to prevail. They lost every single battle while their enemies grew stronger.
By 1998, it was clear that the fight was over. Lake and her allies had been swept out of power and relegated to the margins. At this point you might imagine that they’d organize some dogged resistance or even switch parties. They didn’t. They were placed in their own polite little reservation, called “United Republicans,” from which they could continue to play at politics as long as they stayed within ideological boundaries set by the whacko-birds.
Their positions and priorities disappeared from Republican politics entirely, as religious fanatics leveraged a new language of bigotry to reanimate the white segregationist monster in the South. What happened in Houston was a microcosm of a movement spreading across Dixie, and then beyond. An optimistic party of business, American power, and inclusion – the Party of Lincoln – quickly degenerated into the party of white racist terror and Donald Trump. Failure has consequences.
After the 2016 Republican Convention, I resigned from my local GOP precinct position in suburban Chicago. A couple of days later I got the inevitable, “let’s have a chat” message from my supervising committeeman. I was braced for an angry confrontation. What I received instead was support. Almost no one in our precinct organization had supported Trump. They were stunned by what was unfolding around them and unsure what to do. She described her own frightening experiences with the radicals inside party and asked, “what do you think we should do?” My answer to her is my answer to everyone else confronting this menace, “Stop being nice.”
Political norms, respect for law, and even simple decency, survive only because people are willing to fight to protect them. Politics is about power, not virtue. Those who can muster the best organization, animated by enthusiasm and commitment, and direct it toward critical leverage points in a fight, will win. They will win whether they are good or bad, right or wrong, violent or peaceful.
Good does not always prevail. Nice guys often finish last. There is no magic in following the rules. If you care about the values being destroyed by Donald Trump and his Republican accomplices, you will either defeat them, be destroyed by them, or get used to living under their boot.
The arc of universe may bend toward justice, but you can starve to death on the floor of a prison cell waiting for it. Passivity in the face of evil is not virtue, it isn’t even civility. Sometimes it’s nothing more than laziness. In a democracy, you will always have the government you deserve.