The Trump Administration’s washing its hands of responsibility for the rise in race-based violence and rhetoric in the US ignores its role in stoking tensions in the first place.
Ugly is a relative concept. The contenders’ sharpish exchanges were things of beauty compared with President Donald Trump’s recent racially charged Twitter diatribes.
Trump told the so-called “Squad” – Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib – to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”. All the Squad members are women of colour; all are US citizens; all were born in the US bar Omar, who was 10 when her family arrived in the US, having fled the civil war in Somalia and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
Trump damned congressman Elijah Cummings, whose majority-black district includes more than half of Baltimore, by association, describing the city as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess … no human being would want to live there”. For good measure, he labelled Cummings, who chairs the House oversight committee that’s investigating the administration on several fronts, a “racist”. Earlier this year, Trump made similar comments about another African-American congressman, John Lewis, and his Georgia district.
Some conservatives were appalled. Fox News host Chris Wallace: “Infested? It sounds like vermin. It sounds subhuman. These are all six members of Congress who are people of colour.” Anthony Scaramucci, who served as Trump’s communications director for 11 chaotic days in 2017, said, “That mantle of leadership requires him to be as far from racism as possible.”
And former Ohio governor John Kasich, who sought the Republican nomination in 2016, said, “Every day, you shake your head. I’ve never seen this kind of behaviour and rhetoric. And, frankly, I’ve never seen so many people just ignore it. There’s a culture of silence in the party.”
Kasich isn’t quite right. Rather than say nothing, a number of Republicans defended Trump, arguing that he was simply drawing attention to the grim state of many Democrat-controlled cities. Some urged him to make it a campaign issue, something he shows every indication of doing.
“It wouldn’t hurt the President to go and make a point of taking on big-city Democratic governance, to talk about what’s gone wrong in American cities,” said William Bennett, secretary of education in the Reagan Administration. “It’s a totally real issue.”
This has an echo of the thesis, developed by some white conservatives and black progressives, that the African-American community’s allegiance to the Democratic Party works to its detriment, because the party knows it can count on winning the vast majority of the black vote and, once in office, there’s not much to be gained by prioritising issues affecting the African-American community. From a narrow and cynical electoral perspective, it makes more sense to curry favour with white, middle-class swing voters. A similar argument has been advanced in New Zealand with regard to Māori and the Labour Party.
Revelling in disunity
Although there have been and still are heavily Democratic cities that are poorly governed, even corrupt, Trump’s “urban hellhole” theme and the Republican defence of it are essentially bogus.
Cummings’ district, for instance, is in the upper half in terms of median income and includes Columbia, which consistently makes the top 10 on CNNMoney’s list of the best places to live in the US. The 10 poorest states in the US – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina and West Virginia – are mainly rural and, with the exception of New Mexico, strongly Republican.
Second, Trump’s portrayal of cities, including New York and San Francisco, as crime- and rat-infested suggests his attitude to women isn’t the only respect in which he’s several decades behind the times.
“To those who study cities for a living,” wrote Griff Witte in the Washington Post, “Trump’s words seem outdated, a relic of a period in the 1980s and early 1990s when urban America seemed to be in terminal decline.” In fact, as a result of the structural shift in the US economy from manufacturing to information, demographic changes and declining urban crime rates, “cities are safer, more prosperous and more attractive relative to suburban and rural America than at any time in recent decades”.
Third, the notion that Trump cares about urban decay and poverty is laughable. One of Baltimore’s biggest landlords is Kushner Companies, a private enterprise founded by the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner Jr stepped down as chief executive when he and wife Ivanka went to work in the White House in early 2017. The company owns almost 9000 rental units in Baltimore in 17 complexes that have been cited for hundreds of code violations.
At the very least, Trump’s predecessors in the White House paid lip service to the convention that they were the president of all Americans, not just those who voted for them. They also, at the very least, went through the motions of being “unifier-in-chief”. Trump, however, revels in disunity, and the fault line along which this divide-and-rule strategy proceeds is race, specifically white America’s fear of being swamped by a demographic tide.
The source of this fearfulness was brought into sharp relief by a recent Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data that found the most common age among white Americans is 58. For African-Americans, it’s 27; for Hispanic-Americans, it’s 11. To put this in a political context: in the 1980 election in which Ronald Reagan trounced sitting president Jimmy Carter, whites accounted for 88% of votes cast; in 2016, that figure was 70%. Reagan and Trump won an identical share of the white vote – 57% – but whereas Reagan won the popular vote by almost 10%, Trump lost it by 2%.
Speaking of Reagan … if we needed reminding that Republican racism didn’t begin with Trump, we got it earlier this month when the Atlantic revealed a 1971 phone conversation between President Richard Nixon and then Governor of California Reagan in which the latter described leaders of African countries as “monkeys … still uncomfortable wearing shoes”.
The revelation prompted some journalists to revisit the patron saint of Republicanism’s attitudes and behaviour. What they found wasn’t pretty. Nixon could have saved them the trouble. As Kyle Longley, professor of history and political science at Arizona State University, wrote in the Washington Post: “Nixon understood racial politics as the root of Reagan’s appeal, noting how he played on the ‘emotional distress of those who fear or resent the Negro and who expect Reagan somehow to keep [the Negro] in his place’.”
Stirrings of racism
In the 1968 election, Alabama Governor George Wallace, running as an independent, won five states – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi – and 13.5% of the popular vote, making him the most successful third-party candidate in modern US history.
Wallace was a “Jim Crow” Democrat. The term refers to state and local laws enacted by Democrat-dominated state legislatures in the Deep South during the reconstruction period following the US Civil War with the aim of preserving segregation and black disenfranchisement. The laws were enforced until the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
That in turn led to the demise of the Jim Crow Democrats and left supporters of Wallace and his ilk without a political home. The Republicans were quick to provide one.
In a 1981 off-the-record interview that didn’t come to light until 2005, Lee Atwater, a legendary practitioner of the dark political arts, explained how they went about it: “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘n****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘n****r’ – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like ‘forced busing’, ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff.” (“States’ rights” was code for enabling states to ignore federal laws, such as the Civil Rights Act, and revert to segregationist practices.)
The previous year, Reagan, the Republican presidential candidate, had appeared at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, an event long associated with white supremacism. “I believe in states’ rights,” declared Reagan, adding that he intended to “restore to the states and local communities those functions that properly belong there”. In fact, despite his thumping election victory, Reagan was unable to bend Congress to his will.
Those were different times. When Carter called out Reagan – “You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of racism and the rebirth of code words like ‘states’ rights’” – he was harshly criticised by the mainstream media and forced to state for the record that his opponent wasn’t a racist.
A circular firing squad
Although Trump, typically, claims to be the “least racist person you’ll find anywhere in the world”, the mainstream press is increasingly applying the duck test: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.
On the other hand, astonishingly and depressingly, Trump is far more brazen in his race-based rabble-rousing than Republican leaders dared to be four decades ago. As historian Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his landmark 2017 essay The First White President, “Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed.”
Wallace’s daughter, 69-year-old Peggy Wallace Kennedy, discussing her father’s electioneering style, said: “The two great motivators at the rallies were fear and hate. There were no policy solutions, just white middle-class anger.” She could’ve been talking about Trump’s redneck rallies. Wallace acknowledged the link between her father and the current President of the United States: “I saw Daddy a lot in 2016. Unfortunately, it does look like the 60s now. I hope we don’t go back, but it looks like we are slipping … That seems to be where the top is taking us.”
After the mass shootings in the first week of August, the scrutiny of Trump’s rhetoric intensified. The motives of the killer of nine in Dayton, Ohio, were unclear at the time of writing; the killer of 22 in El Paso, Texas, a 21-year-old white man, reportedly told police he wanted to shoot as many Mexicans as possible. (At least six of those killed were Mexican nationals.)
The El Paso gunman was presumed to be the author of a manifesto posted on the internet shortly before he entered the Walmart with a legally obtained semi-automatic assault rifle. The four-page screed included the line, “I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion,” and a disclaimer of sorts, insisting his opinions were formed before Trump ran for president.
The impressive – in numerical terms, at least – field of Democratic presidential candidates suspended their circular firing squad to sheet home blame. Julian Castro, a former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and a Cabinet member in the Obama Administration, said, “Anybody who has the ability to see and hear what the President has been doing … knows that division and bigotry and fanning the flames of hate has been his political strategy.”
“[Trump] stokes racism in this country,” said former congressman Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso native. “It does not just offend our sensibilities – it fundamentally changes the character of this country and leads to violence.”
As usual, Trump’s defenders either kept their heads down, sought to muddy the waters or attempted to convey outrage and empathy without shouldering the slightest responsibility. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, for instance: “We must speak clearly to combat evil in any form it takes. What we saw yesterday was a heinous act of terrorism and white supremacy.”
Given the right’s manifest reluctance to acknowledge, let alone confront, the threat of home-grown, white-nationalist terrorism, this could be regarded as a decent effort on the part of a notorious hardliner. However, “speaking clearly” would’ve involved some discussion of gun control, and in the 2018 election cycle only one candidate for office received more money from the National Rifle Association than Cruz.
After initially blaming this “crime against all humanity” on mental illness, Trump swallowed hard and added white supremacy to his list of suspects, along with the internet and video games.
Earlier, Trump declared that “hate has no place in our country”, which must have come as a surprise both to those he has denounced in incendiary terms and the alt-right hate merchants whom he has encouraged and emboldened.
Asked if he was concerned that his “go home” attacks on the Squad were being seen as racist, and had been adopted and repeated by white nationalists, Trump replied, “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.”
At a rally in Florida in May, Trump summoned up the spectre of an invading alien horde advancing on America’s southern border and asked, “How do you stop these people?” Someone in the audience responded to the cue: “Shoot them!” Trump chuckled. “That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that statement,” he said, which got a big laugh.
A November 2018 ABC News investigation found multiple criminal cases, mainly involving white men, in which Trump’s name or rhetoric was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault. A prime example is the so-called “Maga bomber”, Florida resident Cesar Sayoc, who was this week sentenced to 20 years in jail for mailing explosive devices to 16 Trump critics, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
US Naval War College professor Tom Nichols’ tweet at the time of Sayoc’s arrest is worth repeating, because it admirably conveys the utter irresponsibility of political leaders pumping out inflammatory rhetoric while ignoring the obvious reality that their words will have consequences: “No one in politics or wingnut media made this guy send bombs. Period. What they did instead was superheat the political environment and flood crazy bullshit into the information space so regularly that unhinged guys like this think they’re being patriots by sending bombs.”
Sayoc’s lawyers portrayed their client as a rather pathetic individual: a Fox News and Trump tweet-addicted, steroid-gobbling gym bunny living in a van plastered with Trump posters. “In this darkness, Mr Sayoc found light in Donald J Trump.”
In other words: The Donald made him do it.
This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.