Going into the 2018 midterms, voters said, the United States was “divided.” It was, quite literally, the only thing they could agree on. Where does all this division come from? Hard to say. But I’d wager that the Democrats’ focus on health care wasn’t to blame:
No, I suspect this ever-deepening, maybe-bottomless chasm between right and left is kept wide open by a president who thrives on collapse. The White House couldn’t get its shit together to promote a “unity” message; instead, Trump set the tone with xenophobic attacks on migrant caravans and, in the final push, an ad so racist that even Fox News pulled it (after letting it air during Sunday Night Football, of course).
The idea is that this focus would energize his white base — while clearly driving others away.
So let’s talk about that base. Ever since Hillary Clinton delivered the “basket of deplorables” soundbite, the media has been at pains to describe their politics with the utmost empathy and euphemism. But time and again, these voters have signaled their crippling fear of demographic change, and Trump feeds that fear with conspiracist propaganda warning of imminent white genocide. From day to day, though, you almost wonder who’s leading whom: Trump knows racists love him, and he amplifies their worst ideas, and then they love him more, and he needs more racist material to inject into the discourse. The nature of the feedback loop may allow us to (inaccurately) view Trump’s racism as part of his electoral con and not who he truly is. Thus the endless variations of spineless phrases like “racially charged.”
The difference, however, is well beyond moot. Were you to somehow see every racist thing Trump has said and done — going back many decades — as a disingenuous, calculating ploy to win over resentful white people, the outcome is the same: Racists, up to and including mail-bombing suspect Cesar Sayoc, consider him one of their own. His policies reflect their ideology, his cruelty their cruelty. He could be a source of this hate, or the mirror that reflects this back; either way, they are in sync. As Alex Pareene writes in HuffPost, “the only appeal the conservative movement has left is white panic.” Trump has fully absorbed this state of affairs, and that is far more relevant than his personal views.
So, as we move past the midterms and start the countdown clock on 2020, how should progressives battle racism on the other side of the aisle? Can they bluntly and effectively spell out this contempt for people of color while being more than a voice of moral outrage?
Consider Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s tactic in a debate against his Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis (emphasis ours):
First of all, he’s got neo-Nazis helping him out in the state. He has spoken at racist conferences. He’s accepted a contribution and would not return it from someone who referred to the former president of the United States as a Muslim n-i-g-g-e-r. When asked to return that money, he said no. He’s using that money to now fund negative ads. Now, I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.
It was a dead-on accusation. DeSantis couldn’t wriggle away from it by talking about his one black friend or how he admires the Latino community. At issue was not DeSantis’ (glaringly obvious) racism — it was his unwillingness to renounce racist support.
Hillary wasn’t wrong, in 2016, to draw attention away from Trump and toward his toxic coalition — no one insulted by the “deplorables” comment was going to vote for her, anyway — but she bungled the hit by dismissing these people as trollish assholes when she might have warned us what they were after. Her Nevada speech on the threat of the alt-right was front-loaded with redundant proofs of Trump’s own racism rather than a call to challenge systemic racism, or any vision of how she might do so as president. She spoke as if Trump were cozying up to a weird online fringe that was, in fact, already helping to steer his campaign.
Similarly misguided were those who, after the deadly Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, combed the archives for Trump’s worst anti-Semitic remarks. Once again, you could spend a month’s worth of op-eds mulling the sincerity of his dog-whistling on George Soros and the (((globalists))) — and remember that “sheriff’s star“? — but at the end of the day, all you’re going to have is a Jared- and Ivanka-brokered tweet denouncing violent attacks on the Jewish community. The relevant fact here is that Trump, before and after the massacre, echoed the anti-Semitic rhetoric that motivated the alleged killer to act. Who cares if he believes it or not? I’m not sure he knows himself. But he knew that people wanted to hear it.
And as dangerous as Trump’s spoken bigotry is, it pales in comparison to his racist policies. Establishment Democrats have been essentially useless in combating it: They have no problem condemning his hateful words, but they’re awfully squeamish when it comes to dismantling the police state brutally enforcing those ideas. We’re rightly offended to learn that a racist robocall went out to Georgia voters on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp — though he can quickly distance himself from the group that made it while continuing, in his current position as Georgia’s secretary of state, to brazenly disenfranchise black voters who pose a threat to his ambition, hoping in private that turnout is widely depressed.
To haggle over who is or isn’t explicitly racist and how we define that term is to be dragged into the far right’s identitarian game and ignore the living consequences of leaders courting the racist vote while installing the safeguards for white minority rule. We can’t “gotcha” our way out of cultural quicksand, and besides, this isn’t a reactionary movement that feels shame.
Nor are its adherents punished for these views — DeSantis and Kemp claimed close victories last night along with literal neo-Nazi Rep. Steve King. Unapologetically calling out racism is, by itself, not a winning strategy, as it can actually be a selling point for the most regressive voters. And that’s something to keep in mind for 2020: Rehashing Trump’s long record of disgusting racial commentary will endear him to the toxic sectors of the electorate, and it certainly won’t cause him to abandon the mantle of white supremacy.
But racism isn’t a “feeling,” the domain of “snowflake libtards” — it’s a fact. Our focus (and attacks) ought to be on the tangible manifestations of discrimination: gerrymandering, voter suppression/intimidation, police violence, heartless immigration laws and a prison-industrial complex that one hopes will someday be remembered as the empire of atrocity it is. We may not know what’s in Kemp’s “heart” — but we know that his voter suppression along racial lines is precisely what empowers white supremacy in America. Systemic, institutional racism is racism.
Still, we have to fight on both fronts — the symbolic and the practical — without giving an inch on either. The direct line between the rhetoric and the hostile, anti-democratic government it craves must be drawn and redrawn. It’s absolutely appropriate to judge our would-be senators, governors, mayors, representatives, council members and presidents by the company they keep, the endorsements they carry and the creeps handing them cash.
When racists vote their chosen figurehead into office, they’re bound to ask for something in return.