Yesterday on CNN, John Kasich had some empathetic, nice things to say about the caravan of refugees from Central America, and America’s need to have a little perspective on what those people are enduring. I mean that sincerely—it was a moving speech. Watch:
I’ll admit that my first knee-jerk reaction after seeing this clip was to write a post extolling Kasich for having the courage to take a moral stance even though he belongs to Trump’s resolutely immoral Republican party. “Yes,” I would have written, “this is what humanity looks like, regardless of affiliation, and maybe this is the man to restore some sanity to the American right.”
But I can’t do it. I’ve been too bruised by the last three years, and I’ve seen the face of the Republican party too clearly to nurture any idealism. Yes, there are “good” people on the right, but if that schtick was going to work, it would have worked in 2016. Trump is president—and is supported by about 90 percent of Republicans today—because the American right is combative, hostile, and nationalistic. They want to demonize their enemies, whether that means liberals or trans people or Muslims or those poor people in the caravan. They want insults and taunts and conspiracy theories and raw, bullying power from above. They want bigotry, and they want black-and-white answers to complicated problems. They want to exist in a state of perpetual grievance. They could care less about the humanity of Central American refugees, just like they could care less about children being ripped from their parents’ arms at the border, or, hell, about global warming.
Above all else, they want an enemy, and they want a leader who makes the battle lines clear. There’s no room in that worldview for empathy. Empathy is, in fact, the enemy of that worldview.
I won’t pretend to know exactly how this state of affairs came about. Maybe it was the decades of Republican propaganda, maybe it was Fox News, maybe it’s natural instinct and the historical pendulum taking a swing toward fascism. Whatever the case, I know that Trump is the man who identified it, exploited it, and exacerbated it. Trump is perfect—he’s the one they want, and nobody is going to unseat him in their hearts.
What Kasich is attempting here, essentially, is a call to civility. It’s a very Democratic tactic, actually, but the fact is that in 2018, even Democrats are learning that civility gets them nowhere. Sweeping paeans to some mythical American goodness have stopped working on the left, and let me tell you—they’re really, really not going to work on the right.
I love what Kasich tried here, and in a perfect world his message would resonate with his base. But he’s using an old, obsolete playbook, and he’s coming across very naive. If he tries to primary Trump in 2020, the only thing he’ll accomplish is to embarrass himself and shine an unforgiving light on the base desires of the right wing. They know what they want, and the John Kasich Empathy Show ain’t it.