AUGUSTA — As a lifelong Republican, I am concerned about the future of my party. As has been said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In 19th-century America, immigration fear was fueled by the Know-Nothings. The targets were mostly German and Irish immigrants. Political opportunists whipped up public prejudice, calling the newcomers filthy, drunks and carriers of disease. Around 1920, we witnessed a similar phenomenon here in Maine, where the Ku Klux Klan warned of heathen French Catholics flooding in from Quebec. Then fast forward to the 1930s, when the Nazi Party encouraged anti-Jewish hysteria, claiming they were responsible for all sorts of calamities. One poster plastered over Poland stated as fact that Jews were carriers of typhus and were responsible for the spread of disease. None of this was true and the authors knew it. The end result speaks for itself.

Of course, nowadays, we think of ourselves as much more enlightened – but are we? Unfortunately, the purveyors of nativist hatred are still out there. And likely they’ve been out there all along. But what’s different right now is that hateful speech has been normalized by some of our leaders. And that bothers me in particular because much of it comes from people in positions of power in my own political party.

Last week, the duly elected vice chair of Maine’s Republican Party, Nick Isgro, posted on the party’s official Twitter account that unvaccinated immigrants pouring into America were carrying diseases and putting U.S. citizens at risk.

Now, Nick Isgro is a bright guy. Surely he knows that his wild suggestion that immigrants spread communicable disease here has been universally discredited by public health professionals and anyone else with an eighth-grade science education. But Isgro lashes out nonetheless, taking a page from the “fear the immigrant” playbooks of Paul LePage and our current president. LePage was the one who gave us immigrants as carriers of the “ziki fly,” among other things. And President Trump … well, fill in your own greatest hits of religious and ethnic bigotry.

This kind of rhetoric is so wrong for so many reasons. Demonizing whole groups of people and cultures has almost always led to really bad things historically. For those who exploit the politics of division, not inclusion, it is “us versus them,” along the way obliterating the concept of “we.”

But what disturbs me today and makes me mad as hell is how the Republican Party is handling this. As with Trump and LePage, once Isgro said what he did, the response from state Republican Party and elected officials has largely been crickets. Outside of Sen. Susan Collins, my former colleagues Mike Thibodeau and Thomas Saviello, and Senate Republican leader Dana Dow, where is the outrage? Party Chairwoman Demi Kouzounas says nothing. The Republican State Committee says nothing. Other elected and appointed Republican officials say nothing. Why? Fear of rocking the boat? Hoping things will just blow over? I don’t know. But I do know this: If we don’t speak up, our party will be increasingly viewed as the party of intolerance, of not-so-subtle racism … in short, the party of “bigoted Mainers.”

Now, I know many if not most Republican state elected officials. These are good people with good hearts who believe that all people are created equal, and they largely walk that walk in their personal lives. But it is time for them to speak up, and for two reasons. First, it is absolutely the right thing to do. Secondly, continued silence by leaders of our party will be appropriately punished by a majority of Mainers at the ballot box. And we will have earned it.

I became a Republican because of its basic principles of personal responsibility, limited government and fiscal conservatism. When people think of our party, I hope that would be what comes to mind – that we are the party of center-right conservative principles. Now, though, that message is being drowned out by a few voices of Know-Nothing 2.0. We can’t remain silent and let that happen.

Sure, we need to have a big tent. But if we don’t condemn bigotry when we see it, that tent isn’t going to be holding many people much longer.

 


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