Friday, June 3, 2016

Can Americans Dare to be Honest about Trump?

In the spring of 1900, the populist demagogue Ben Tillman of South Carolina took to the floor of the United States Senate to glory in his state's recent violent return to White supremacist rule. Along the way, he prodded his northern colleagues for their hypocrisy. He claimed that they, alike with White southerners, would do whatever was necessary to maintain White supremacy:
We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it...The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do."
As the United States rang in the twentieth century waging a brutal war of conquest against Filipino freedom fighters, a sitting U.S. senator could stand in the center of national power and boast of the murders that secured his political power.

Nearly half a century later, much had changed. It was 1947, and the Senate was refusing to seat one of its recently reelected members. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, a racist populist beloved by many Whites in his home state, was accused of obliquely urging his supporters to employ violence to ensure Blacks did not vote in the election. While the Senate dithered, Bilbo went home to Mississippi to die of cancer later that year.

The racist violence that Tillman could boast of with impunity in the halls of national power at the beginning of the century had become, by mid-century, grounds to refuse a Senator his seat. Bilbo was disciplined for whispering in Mississippi what Tillman had shouted in Washington. In the aftermath of World War Two and the Holocaust, explicit racism was fast going out of style.
George Wallace: The face of the so-called "white backlash"
By the height of the civil rights movement, southern senators were much more likely to resist civil rights legislation with defenses of a colorblind constitution than with claims of Black inferiority. They hastened to say that they desired opportunity for all, deplored violence, and merely wanted to uphold the American tradition of limited government. Even George Wallace, the man who is remembered as the embodiment of "white backlash" in the mid-to-late 1960s, often used rhetoric that was more temperate than we might assume. When he ventured north in 1964 and shocked the political establishment with his appeal to Democratic primary voters, he did so with tried and true conservative rhetoric. He warned, for example, of the "unnatural and unhealthy accumulation of power in the hands of an all-powerful central bureaucracy." Wallace certainly appealed to White racism, but he did so in terms that are familiar to us today.

Why does all this matter now?

There was a dramatic amount of racial change during the twentieth century, as the shifting rhetoric from Tillman to Bilbo to Wallace indicates. Much of this change was for the good, and the fortunes of people of color in the United States today are vastly different than a century ago.

The problem is that a certain narrative about that change has become foundational to the story we tell ourselves about the nation. To mess with that narrative is to pick a fight with American exceptionalism. The narrative, in brief, is this: a church-based civil rights movement awakened America's moral conscience and the nation rose to fulfill its highest ideals. Racism as a potent political force was defeated, and Martin Luther King's dream is in reach if we focus on our common identity as Americans rather than emphasizing color. We now live in a society of broadly shared opportunity and racism is repudiated by the vast majority of Americans.

What would happen if some sort of new political development occurred to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that this narrative is fundamentally flawed? What if something happened to demonstrate that racism still has enormous popular appeal? What if new developments strongly suggested that racism is politically potent? Would Americans reexamine the exculpatory story we've been telling ourselves for decades? Or would we choose the path of self-imposed confusion and denial? For many years I've guessed the latter path would be more likely. Now I know.

With the emergence of Donald Trump as a political figure far more powerful than George Wallace ever was, we are witnessing a degree of explicit racism at the very center of national power that we have not seen in many decades. Trump's racist attacks this week against the judge in the Trump University case are just the latest in his long line of racist activity stretching back to the 1970s. To find an adequate precedent for Trump's racist appeals, we arguably need to go back prior to the civil rights era.

What's remarkable about this is that whole swaths of the nation's institutions cannot even describe it. They are compelled to resort to euphemism and obfuscation. Politicians and pundits avoid using hard-edged words like racism not because they are inadequate descriptors of the matter at hand, but because, a priori, one simply doesn't describe contemporary America in this vein. To admit that Trump is running a racist campaign is to admit that America is not what we thought it was. It is to admit that progress has not been as easy, facile, or comprehensive as our national myths tell us.

The reaction of America's media and political institutions to Trump shows just how powerful are narratives of racial progress. We've come to believe that a vast gulf separates contemporary White politics from the segregationist politics of the 1960s. Never-mind that the rhetoric and policy goals of these two movements separated by half a century are often almost indistinguishable. We simply declare this separation to be so rather than enacting it through the hard work of moral reflection and policy change. To engage in serious thought about the meaning of Trump's rise to power would call into question not only these cherished racial progress narratives but the very meaning of the nation, because that progress has been so woven into our sense of what America means in the twenty-first century.

Can Americans bring ourselves to be honest about Donald Trump? Can we recognize in his emergence another chapter in a long tradition of diseased White politics? This is the America we're living in. Trump is a disgrace, but he's our disgrace.

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