By the time Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi announced in 2007 that he would not seek reelection, he had already fallen from the top. He became the Senate Majority Leader in 1996 when Bob Dole stepped down from the position to focus on his campaign for the presidency. Lott served in the role, with two brief interruptions of Democratic control, until he lost the confidence of President George W. Bush and was replaced by Bill Frist in 2003.

Looking back, the precipitating incident seems like small potatoes, and he would eventually claw his way back to the number two “whip” position in the Senate Republican caucus. Lott’s fall from grace occurred at a December 5, 2002 centennial birthday celebration for Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Thurmond was an institution unto himself, having continuously represented South Carolina in the Senate since 1954, Before that, he served as the governor of the Palmetto State from 1947 to 1951. In 1948, during his time as governor, he ran for president as a third-party Dixiecrat candidate and carried his home state as well as Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Thurmond’s career was defined by two major events. The first was President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces in 1948, which caused Thurmond to challenge him for the presidency. The second was President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ending Jim Crow in the South. That inspired Thurmond to switch his allegiance from Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

This history was beginning to fade into the past by Thurmond’s 100th birthday and, while not exactly “woke” on racial matters,  he was no longer a proponent of segregationism. Lott’s mistake was to honor Thurmond’s racist past.

At issue are three sentences in Mr. Lott’s tribute last Thursday to Mr. Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who ran for president in 1948 on a Dixiecrat platform opposing ”social intermingling of the races.” With Mr. Thurmond by his side, Mr. Lott, Republican of Mississippi, said:

”I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Immediately, there was a widespread cry of “what the fuck?” Exactly what problems was Lott referring to in that tribute? How could you interpret it any other way than as an argument that black civil rights had been a negative accomplishment.

Lott tried to explain it all away as just his effort to say nice things, as is fitting for a tribute. But the damage was done.

…Mr. [George W.] Bush played a role in Mr. Lott’s departure. He was sharply critical of Mr. Lott’s comments in a Dec. 12 speech in Philadelphia, saying they were not in keeping with party principles. And while the White House maintained publicly throughout that Mr. Lott need not resign his post, advisers and other Republicans close to the administration, including Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, sent a steady stream of signals that Mr. Lott should go.

He tried to hang on, but by December 20th it was clear he could not avoid being the first Senate Majority Leader in history to be ousted by his own colleagues.

Facing the collapse of support from his Republican colleagues, Senator Trent Lott today abandoned his effort to remain Senate Republican leader, clearing the way for the White House’s preferred successor, Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee.

As late as Thursday night, Mr. Lott insisted he would stay in power. But by this morning, he concluded that he could not quiet a racially charged furor that Republicans feared would damage their party and threaten Mr. Bush’s agenda in Congress.

It might seem a bit quaint to think of Republicans worrying that openly espousing segregation will harm their political fortunes or agenda. But we’ve just seen a sort or reprise with the reaction to Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama’s embrace of  “white nationalism” which has played out over several months. For whatever reason, Tuberville has steadfastly resisted the idea that white nationalists are racists, preferring to call them simply “Americans” or “white Americans.”

To be honest, a think the senator just isn’t very bright. From the beginning he has alternated between arguing that white nationalist Trump supporters are simply patriotic Americans (“My opinion of a white nationalist … to me, is an American”) and arguing that the Democrats are lying about widespread white nationalist support for Trump, including in the military.

Responding to criticism of his comments, Tuberville said Thursday at the U.S. Capitol that he had been trying to refute the notion that all supporters of former President Donald Trump are white nationalists.

“Democrats portray all Trump people as white nationalists. That’s what I was saying …” Tuberville said. “There’s a lot of good people that are Trump supporters that for some reason my Democratic colleagues want to portray as white nationalists. That’s not true.”

Early on Tuesday, his thinking remained muddled:

“Listen, I’m totally against racism,” he said. “And if the Democrats want to say white nationalists are racist, I’m totally against that too. … My definition is, racism bad.”

And then some clarity finally arrived.

“White nationalists are racists,” Tuberville told reporters, after earlier exchanges with reporters in which he continued to insist that was a matter of opinion, a position that echoed his comments from an interview the night before.

It seems like a lot of effort and thrashing around on the Alabama senator’s part, spanning several months, only to arrive back at where every decent person began. White nationalists are by definition racists, and that’s a bad thing. But Tuberville didn’t get to a sane place on his own. He was pushed by his Republican colleagues in the Senate, including the leadership.

Even fellow Republicans were reluctant to defend Tuberville’s CNN interview.

“I am not sure exactly what he was trying to say there,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chamber’s minority whip, told CNN. “I mean, I would just say that there is no place for white nationalism in our party.”

Asked about Tuberville’s comments during a news conference Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t comment directly but said, “White supremacy is simply unacceptable in our military and in our entire country.”

What Trent Lott did was a lot more forgivable even if the literal meaning of his words was worse. Lott flubbed an attempt to honor Thurmond’s long service which was a bit of a challenge considering the unsavory elements. Did he accidentally say what he felt in his heart? Perhaps, but maybe not. In any case, it was three sentences and it wasn’t repeated. He paid the price and didn’t complain. By contrast, Tuberville has repeatedly made the same appalling defenses of white nationalists despite many opportunities to reconsider.

Now, unlike Lott, Tuberville is a backbencher who has no leadership position to lose. All he lost here is some face. And he’s also gained by winning the loyalty and respect of our nation’s worst racists who now see him as a champion.

I’m modestly encouraged to see it’s still possible for the Republican leadership to rebuke white nationalism. I’m not sure how much longer that will hold.

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