Sen. Roger Katz is a good person and a good Republican

Senator Roger Katz - Gabor Degre | BDN

Senator Roger Katz – Gabor Degre | BDN

Republican State Senator Roger Katz wrote an op-ed in the MaineToday newspapers over the weekend that is absolutely stunning. Not only did he publicly reject the presidential nominee of his party, but he didn’t pull a single punch in denouncing the worst aspects of Donald Trump and his campaign.

Other Maine Republicans have previously attempted to distance themselves from Trump, but most have done so by disparaging the businessman and reality TV star’s conservatism, claiming that he’s not consistently far-right enough on taxes or health care or trade. Matthew Gagnon, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center and a columnist for the Bangor Daily News, is a prime example of this approach.

These critiques willfully and ridiculously sidestep the racism, bigotry, cruelty and hate that are at the heart of Trump’s campaign. It would be like criticizing Pennywise, the demonic clown from Stephen King’s It, for making sub-par balloon animals rather than, you know, murdering children.

Katz confronts the most important issues head-on:

The formula is all too familiar: a populist orator recognizes the sometimes legitimate fears and economic anxieties of a dissatisfied population and offers a simplistic diagnosis of a complex problem: it is “their” fault. We lived through it here in Maine in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan rose to power by blaming a poor economy on the Catholics — those Franco-American heathens swarming over the Canadian border — along with the few Jews and blacks they could identify in their spare time.

This kind of scapegoating reached its most horrifying pinnacle, of course, in Europe before and during World War II. Charismatic but demented leaders skillfully tapped into the worst of their national psyche to blame Jews in terms that portrayed them as barely human. The rabble-rousing vitriol spoken in their native languages brought out the worse in their countrymen, and we all know what followed.

Sadly, it is hard not to see the parallels with Donald Trump.

According to Trump, Mexicans are rapists and murderers and unqualified to sit as judges, even if they were born here. Anyone identified as a Muslim, no matter how long they or their family may have been here, can’t be trusted and must be “watched.” Spy on their places of worship, make them register with the government, enforce a loyalty oath or leave the country — all ideas so chillingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany that it should make our skin crawl.

And he doesn’t stop there. Go read the whole thing right now, if you haven’t already.

Katz also refuses to countenance the mealy-mouthed responses to Trump from some of Maine’s other more-moderate Republicans.

Some nationally prominent Republicans, while speaking critically of Trump, still tepidly endorse him, reserving final judgment to see if “he can get back on message” or “stop making these mistakes.” I just don’t understand that.

What they are really saying is that Trump will have their support if he will just agree to listen to his handlers, stop speaking his true feelings, and stick to the teleprompter. That makes no sense to me — as if a disciplined speech can whitewash his vitriol.

That can’t be read as anything other than a clear rebuke to Maine’s senior U.S. Senator, Susan Collins, who has said she disagrees with Trump’s tone, but thinks he can reform himself and still leans toward voting for him.

While Collins recently said that Trump’s dark and divisive speech to the RNC made her more likely to support him, Katz warns that this kind of rhetoric will “empower others to come out of the woodwork and spew their own dark vision of America.”

Katz’s op-ed is also a challenge to the two-faced approach by politicians like Rep. Bruce Poliquin (although he hasn’t pretended to be a moderate since at least his 2010 gubernatorial run) who have gone to ridiculous lengths to avoid discussing Trump publicly and with the media, but have praised the racist candidate when speaking to Trump-friendly conservative audiences.

“I do not understand why more Republicans have not been willing to also speak up,” writes Katz. “Considering a Trump presidency shouldn’t be about party loyalty or political ideology. Instead, it’s become a question of who we are — and who we want to be as Americans.”

This op-ed isn’t a politically-calculated move by Katz, at least not on the basis of any personal, short-term gain. He won his last race with 72% of the vote and is expected to hold his seat easily this cycle. If he were attempting to distance himself from Trump for practical reasons, he likely wouldn’t have done so in such stark terms, invoking the Klan and Hitler’s Germany to make his case.

It’s not just the tenor but the timing of Katz’s op-ed that makes it so remarkable. It went to print just two days after Trump savaged Mainers from Somalia at a rally in Portland, claiming their community is a haven for terrorists.

Other Republicans have refused to stand up for these new Mainers, or in the cases of Lewiston Mayor Bob MacDonald and Maine GOP Chair Rick Bennett, have lied about and tried to downplay what Trump said. Katz, instead, has used his office and his pen to provide comfort and support to his immigrant neighbors at a time when they need it most.

Some on social media have compared Katz’s op-ed to Margaret Chase Smith’s “Declaration of Conscience,” but that’s actually selling it short. Smith’s 1950 speech, while withering in her assessment of her own party, was also laced with jabs and false equivalencies aimed at the administration of Democratic President Harry Truman.

Katz is both bolder and more focused in his critique than Smith. His words will have less of an impact than hers, but only because he holds a less lofty office.

With his declaration, Katz is carrying on not just the relatively recent legacy of moderate New England conservatives who stood apart from (if not always against) the racist “Southern strategy” that created the modern GOP, but also the values that Mainers like Israel Washburn, Hannibal Hamlin and William Pitt Fessenden held to when they helped to found the Republican Party in the middle of the 19th Century.

His is a threatened species. Even centrists like Collins have floated out on Tea Party and now Trumpist tides, leaving Katz alone on shore.

He may be the last real Maine Republican.

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.