House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) got a preview Wednesday of what his life will be like if he becomes speaker next year: a fresh barrage of questions about Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). The pair spoke at a white nationalist conference in February, an event that seemed to shock even former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and McCarthy so far won't commit to keeping them off congressional committees as repudiation.
The lawmakers' associations are a bad look for the GOP, whatever their insistence that their appearance at the conference didn't mean they share the white nationalists' views. It will become an even bigger focus of Democratic and media attention if Republicans win a House majority in November. But it also speaks to a larger debate between the left and the right that is only gaining in importance.
We are in the midst of a discussion about whether and how important national institutions, even the American founding, can be separated from the racism that was prevalent for much of our history. An increasingly vocal subset of the American left is effectively arguing this cannot be done.
That argument deserves serious conservative pushback, and the nationalist strand on the right at its best offers a robust defense of America's nationhood, sovereignty, heroes, and institutions. Making those arguments will at times require courage in the face of unfair accusations of racism. But this defense cannot be allowed to degenerate into apathy toward, or, worse, embrace of genuine racism.
If McCarthy and other mainstream Republicans want to be able to credibly push back on "wokeness" and popularized versions of critical race theory, with their expansive definitions of racism, they cannot tolerate or ignore actual racial animus in their own ranks. These left-wing trends will only grow in popularity if conservatives embody the caricature progressives would draw of them by declining to recognize the immorality of racial hatreds in all places and times, including Congress in 2021.
America's history with race, like that of other great countries, is complicated. Oversimplifying it in either direction does not help us move forward. The woke and the white nationalist need each other. Conservatives need neither of them.