It’s All About Race

I’ve been working my way through the numerous books–both the physical ones and the ones on my Kindle–that have been piling up on my nightstand, and I’ve just finished How Democracies Die. It’s a book that has generated a lot of discussion, for obvious reasons. The two scholars who wrote it in 2018, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zimblatt, have spent their academic careers focusing on the ups and downs of democratic governments around the globe. That focus has allowed them to draw conclusions about the normative elements that serve as guardrails protecting democratic institutions, and about the signs  warning of democratic collapse.

There’s a lot to absorb from the book’s copious descriptions of democratic failures in a wide variety of countries–and the authors make no bones about the reality of the threat to American institutions posed by Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. It’s all pretty grim–and entirely persuasive.

That said, I was particularly struck by one of the book’s central observations–probably because it confirms my strong belief that support for Trump/MAGA is almost entirely rooted in racism.

About halfway through the book, the authors identified two democratic norms that are essential to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. In other words, acknowledging the legitimacy of one’s political opponents, and “forbearing” to abuse or over-use institutional weapons like the filibuster or Mitch McConnell’s legal but shockingly undemocratic theft of a Supreme Court seat. Extreme polarization erodes those norms; as they write, when societies sort themselves into political camps whose world-views aren’t just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain.

When the authors analyzed what had allowed America’s politicians to sustain basic democratic norms for a period running roughly from the collapse of Reconstruction through the 1980s, they came to a very troubling conclusion–that during that time period, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” To the extent that America operated with bipartisanship and experienced reduced polarization during that extended time period, those outcomes “came at the cost of keeping civil rights off the political agenda.”

In the final paragraph of Chapter Six, they write

America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.

That paragraph confirms what a growing body of research has verified–and what any semi-sentient observer can see. The election of Barack Obama unleashed the overt expression of formerly-suppressed hatreds. It seeded the growth of White Christian nationalism, the huge reaction against anything seen as “woke,” the efforts to de-legitimatize efforts at inclusion–and explains the utter inability of most reasonable, non-racist Americans to understand the animus and fury of the MAGA movement.

That paragraph explains so much–as does a sentence in the final chapter, in which the authors concede that it is “difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities give up their dominant status without a fight.”

Even a cursory look at the current crop of GOP nominees up and down the various state ballots shows them publicly expressing opinions that would have been met with horror not all that long ago. Anti-Black, anti-Semitic, homophobic…meanwhile, the numerous Republican campaigns expressing hostility to immigration from the south hardly bother to veil their racism.

It’s been a long time since the Civil War. It’s been a long time since the South was able to dismantle Reconstruction. These days, the country’s accelerating social and demographic changes are making it increasingly difficult to maintain the dominance of White Christians. It’s the recognition of–and hysterical reaction to– that reality that explains Trump and MAGA. How Democracies Die warns us of the way that movement threatens not just social peace/tolerance, but the continued operation of America’s democratic institutions.

I keep thinking about that slogan “The South will rise again.”

It did. It’s now called the Republican Party, and How Democracies Die documents a lesson we have yet to learn: the persistence of this country’s deep-seated racism poses an existential threat to human decency, civic equality and the continuation of American democracy.


Using The Jews

The sudden concern over anti-Semitism being expressed by far-Right politicians is jarring to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the GOP fringe’s historic hatred. When Christian Nationalists suddenly express a desire to “protect” their Jewish neighbors, it’s not just disconcerting–it’s ominous.

Granted, there has been a sharp and troubling rise in anti-Jewish incidents, and there are good-faith efforts to address that phenomenon. Even those good-faith efforts can be misplaced; as Congressman Jerry Nadler explained in the Washington Post, despite being an observant Jew, a strong supporter of Israel and a member of Congress who has spent a career fighting antisemitism, he voted against the recent Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.

I voted against it, as did several other Jewish members of Congress. While I support the sentiment expressed by its sponsors, this bill does nothing to fight antisemitism in any meaningful way. Instead, it merely tinkers with definitions and could ultimately make investigating antisemitism on campuses more difficult in the future. In addition to trampling the free-speech rights of students and professors, this bill was disingenuously designed to split the Democratic caucus and score cheap political points.

Nadler’s final sentence refers to the fact that the far Right’s sudden, pious concerns over anti-Semitism are anything but good-faith. As the New York Times recently reported, several of the prominent Republicans who have labeled campus protests “Leftist anti-Semitism” have mainstreamed anti-Jewish rhetoric for years.

Debate rages over the extent to which the protests on the political left constitute coded or even direct attacks on Jews. But far less attention has been paid to a trend on the right: For all of their rhetoric of the moment, increasingly through the Trump era many Republicans have helped inject into the mainstream thinly veiled anti-Jewish messages with deep historical roots.

The conspiracy theory taking on fresh currency is one that dates back hundreds of years and has perennially bubbled into view: that a shady cabal of wealthy Jews secretly controls events and institutions contrary to the national interest of whatever country it is operating in.

The current formulation of the trope taps into the populist loathing of an elite “ruling class.” “Globalists” or “globalist elites” are blamed for everything from Black Lives Matter to the influx of migrants across the southern border, often described as a plot to replace native-born Americans with foreigners who will vote for Democrats. The favored personification of the globalist enemy is George Soros, the 93-year-old Hungarian American Jewish financier and Holocaust survivor who has spent billions in support of liberal causes and democratic institutions.

The linked article provided a number of examples, including Trump’s 2023 email to supporters containing “an image that bears striking resemblance to Nazi-era cartoons of hook-nosed puppet masters manipulating world figures.” The Times review found that just in the last year some 790 emails from Trump to his supporters invoked Mr. Soros or “globalists” conspiratorially, a meteoric rise from prior years, and that House and Senate Republicans increasingly used “Soros” and “globalist” to evoke anti-Semitism, “from just a handful of messages in 2013 to more than 300 messages from 79 members in 2023.”

The lengthy Times article provides numerous other examples. An equally in-depth article in The Guardian is titled “Campus protest crackdowns claim to be about antisemitism – but they’re part of a rightwing plan.” The article acknowledged the legitimate discomfort of Jewish students on campus, but noted that it has been used to justify “a powerful attack on academic freedom and First Amendment rights that long predates the student encampments – part of a longstanding rightwing project to curb speech and reshape the public sphere.”

The pro-Palestine movement has also provided cover for the right to expand its attack on protest – a project advanced significantly after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020….Alongside this effort to tar protest as terrorism, the right is seizing on the emotions inflamed by Israel’s war to make headway in a longstanding offensive on education. Over the past several years, the GOP has sought to meddle in the academic freedom of universities, which they allege are indoctrinating students into “woke”, leftwing ideology. This is perhaps most dramatic in Florida, where, in a bid to control access to history and information, Governor Ron DeSantis has all but remade the public liberal arts college New College in his image, and has introduced the Stop Woke Act, curtailing what teachers can teach on topics of race and gender.

I’d love to believe that Rightwing politicians like Indiana’s Jim Banks have suddenly awakened to the dishonesty and danger of anti-Semitism, but Jews are clearly being used as a convenient tool in their ongoing attack on an open society–and like most Jews, I know that I am only safe in a truly open society.


Forget The Dog Whistles

This political season, the racism is blatant and unembarrassed. For those of us who had naively thought America was emerging from that particular form of mental illness, the willingness to appeal for votes on the basis of bias–the number of MAGA political commercials identifying the candidate as an “out and proud” bigot–has been astounding.

And heartbreaking.

Here in Indiana, gubernatorial candidates have accused each other of–gasp!–sympathy for Black Lives Matter, which they insist has called for the killing of police. That accusation has been repeatedly debunked–but interestingly, none of the rebuttal ads have defended the organization. Mike Braun, who has been the target of most of those accusations has responded with ads highlighting his support from law enforcement organizations–not by defending the organization against a nasty and purposeful lie. The linked article from the BBC traces the origin of that lie to (where else?) Fox News, and reports on the response from Black Lives Matter:

“We’re targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police,” the statement reads. “We seek a world in which ALL Black lives matter, and racial hierarchy no longer organizes our lives or yours. This is a vision of love. As Black survivors of White supremacy, our hearts go out to all victims of violence.”

Attacks on Black Lives Matter are, rather obviously, thinly-veiled efforts to paint all Black folks as murderous beasts–and a message to bigoted voters that the candidate making the accusation is one of them. But it isn’t simply the sudden willingness of MAGA candidates to shed any pretense of civility and/or anti-racism. It’s also the creepy identities of those providing the candidates with funds and other support.

Turning Point USA has been in the news several times; it is a far Right advocacy organization that has most recently been identified as a major supporter of Bernie Moreno, the MAGA nominee for U.S. Senate in Ohio.

Moreno wrote that he was “honored to be endorsed by Charlie Kirk and Turning Point Action.” Moreno said that “[f]ew have done more to fight back against the radical left than they have,” and he looks “forward to working with them to defend for our America First conservative values in the US Senate.”

In 2023, Kirk repeatedly featured Moreno as a guest on his popular podcast and consistently promoted Moreno’s candidacy to his 2.9 million followers on X. At the end of 2023, Kirk donated the maximum legal amount of $5,000 to Moreno’s campaign through the Turning Point PAC.

At the same time, Kirk, known for his embrace of fringe views and conspiracy theories, launched a sustained attack on Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy. At a December 2023 convention hosted by Turning Point USA, Kirk said that King “was awful” and “not a good person.” Kirk’s critique extended not just to King himself but to the civil rights movement itself. “We made a huge mistake when we passed the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” Kirk declared, trashing the legislation that outlawed segregation in public places and many businesses.

In his convention speech, Kirk blasted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an effort to “re-found the county” and “get rid of the First Amendment.” He criticized courts for enforcing the law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. “Federal courts just yield to the Civil Rights Act as if it’s the actual American Constitution,” Kirk complained.

The article continue with a description of Kirk’s continued and highly publicized crusade against King, against the MLK holiday, and against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And this is the man and organization from which Moreno “proudly” accepted endorsement.

Turning Point’s crusade against King and the civil rights movement did not appear to impact his relationship with Moreno. On March 14, 2024, Turning Point Action donated $100,000 to the Buckeye Values PAC, Moreno’s Super PAC.

Nor is there any remaining question of Moreno’s own racial opinions:

Moreno himself has also had controversies involving racial issues. When he launched his campaign for Senate, Moreno floated the idea of reparations for white descendants of Union soldiers that were killed during the Civil War. “They talk about reparations. Where are the reparations for the people, for the North, who died to save the lives of Black people?” Moreno said. “I know it’s not politically correct to say that, but you know what, we’ve got to stop being politically correct.”

Bottom line: Every voter casting a ballot for a MAGA Republican this year is either explicitly endorsing racism or indicating that the voter does not consider the “out and proud” racism of the MAGA movement to be disqualifying.

They’re no longer hiding behind dog whistles.


Never Thought I’d Live To See This…

One of the dubious benefits of living a long time is that you live through really striking cultural and institutional changes. During my lifetime, I’ve seen changes I consider very positive–the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, an internet connection to virtually all of human information, ease of global travel…I could go on and on.

But I’m also around to see the backlash to all of that. And even weirder, I’ve lived to see a Republican Party that once rabidly opposed Communism and “the evil empire” embrace authoritarianism and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

A while back, I shared a folk song from the Sixties  that made fun of the John Birch Society and its habit of seeing “commies”  under every bush. (“If mommy is a commie then you’ve got to turn her in.”) Back then, the political Right was focused–frequently far too focused–on the dangers of totalitarianism and authoritarianism and government control of the economy.

If you had told me back then that the GOP would “evolve” into a party of pro-Russian apologists, I’d have asked you what you were smoking. But here we are.

A recent discussion at Persuasion was titled “When Hatred of the Left Becomes Love for Putin,” and contains the following observations:

According to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will quickly end the war in Ukraine if he is elected, by refusing “a single penny” of aid and effectively forcing the country’s capitulation to Russia. The statement, which followed Orbán’s meeting with Trump last month, is a stark reminder of the extent to which the Trumpified GOP is becoming the anti-Ukraine party, a far cry from early bipartisan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression. And while opposition to aid to Ukraine doesn’t necessarily entail support for Vladimir Putin—common rationales include that the United States must focus on domestic problems or on the more dangerous threat from China, or that Ukraine can’t win and prolonging the war only means more death and suffering—Putin-friendly themes have been increasingly prominent on the right. At this point, pro-Putinism is no longer an undercurrent in right-wing rhetoric: it’s on the surface.

Granted, not all Putin-lovers are similarly motivated.

For some, their hatred of the American left overrides any feelings they have about Putin. Others are more ideological: they oppose the Western liberal project itself. Untangling these different strains is key to explaining why so many on today’s right embrace views that, until recently, would have gotten them branded Kremlin stooges by other conservatives.

The article references Tucker Carlson– his recent, adoring trip to Moscow and his fawning interview of Putin.

The interview was a two-hour lovefest in which Putin and his lies went unchallenged except for some polite pushback on Evan Gershkovich, the American journalist held in Russia on phony spying charges. Then, Carlson topped this with gushy videos extolling the wonders of the Soviet-built Moscow subway and of Russian supermarkets.

And it cited an article from the Federalist published the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Author Christopher Bedford, former head of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a prolific contributor to right-of-center media, not only bluntly stated that “a lot of us hate our elites far more than we hate some foreign dictator” but admitted finding a lot to admire in said dictator—for instance, Putin’s unapologetic defense of Russia’s “religion, culture and history,” while Western elites denigrate and apologize for theirs.

Today’s GOP has abandoned even the remnants of genuine conservatism; today, the party is hysterically “anti-woke”–a cult focused on culture war efforts to return straight White Christian males to social dominance.

It’s hardly news by now that many American right-wingers see Putin’s Russia as the antithesis of Western “wokeness.” This is especially true with regard to sexual and gender norms: I noted the beginnings of this trend in 2013, when several right-wing groups and conservative pundits praised a Russian law censoring “propaganda” of homosexuality. Discussing the phenomenon recently in the context of the GOP’s anti-Ukraine turn, David French pointed to such examples as far-right strategist Steve Bannon’s praise for Putin’s “anti-woke” persona and Russia’s conservative gender politics, or psychologist Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that Russia’s war in Ukraine was partly self-defense against the decadence of “the pathological West.”…

The article notes that, for some Republicans, pro-Putin rhetoric indicates a radical rejection of liberalism, even the classical  liberalism of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It quotes the “near-panegyric” to Putin in a 2017 speech by Claremont Institute’s Christopher Caldwell at Hillsdale College, and notes that both Claremont and Hillsdale are “intellectual hubs of Trumpist national conservatism.”

Read the entire essay. This isn’t remotely the GOP of my youth…..and it’s scary.


The “Great Replacement” Fixation

I first encountered the “Great Replacement” theory when I read about the neo-Nazi, “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville. The marchers–bearing tiki torches–reportedly chanted “Jews will not replace us.” (Those chanting were subsequently called “very fine people” by then-President Donald Trump.)

Since I never watch Fox News, I’d missed Tucker Carlson’s full-throated endorsement of that particular conspiracy theory, but as time as passed, I’ve come to understand its roots, and the reason it appeals to White Americans terrified by the prospect of losing cultural dominance. America’s demographics are changing, and it is probable that Whites will be a minority population within a few years. Meanwhile, legal and cultural changes have allowed women and minority folks–Blacks, Jews, Latinos, LGBTQ+ citizens–to become more prominent. Television anchors, elected officials, movie stars and various other celebrities  increasingly come from groups that have been previously marginalized.

It’s no longer possible to ignore these changes.

The result is a palpable panic on the part of those Whites–mostly men, but also some women–who believe that their rightful place in society has been usurped. And that fear of replacement, that realization that they will need to share status with people they disparage, requires a villain. It can’t simply be an accident that “those people” are gaining in numbers and influence. It must be a plot!!

Jamelle Bouie recently wrote about Elon Musk’s obvious fascination with and belief in the “Great Replacement Theory.” Musk recently elevated a slick propaganda film pushing the theory on X (formerly Twitter), confirming the devolution of that site into a cesspool of far-Right anti-Semitism and racism.

Musk is especially preoccupied with the racial makeup of the country and the alleged deficiency of nonwhites in important positions. He blames the recent problems at Boeing, for example, on its efforts to diversify its work force, despite easily accessible and widely publicized accounts of a dangerous culture of cost-cutting and profit-seeking at the company….

Is diversity the problem at Boeing, or is it a shortsighted obsession with maximizing shareholder value at the expense of quality and safety? Musk, a wealthy shareholder in various companies — including his own, Tesla, which is being sued by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for allegedly allowing racist abuse of some of its Black employees — says it’s diversity.

Bouie goes on to discuss Musk’s “current obsession” with the “great replacement,” the far-right accusation that liberal elites are “deliberately opening the southern border to nonwhite immigration from Mexico, South and Central America in order to replace the nation’s white majority and secure permanent control of its political institutions.”

The “great replacement” was part of the centerpiece of Tucker Carlson’s message to viewers during his time on Fox News. It is touted by a number of anti-immigrant, white nationalist and white supremacist groups. It was featured prominently at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, where neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us.” And it has inspired at least four separate mass shootings, including the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh (11 killed), the 2019 Christchurch shootings in New Zealand (51 killed), the El Paso shooting the same year (23 killed) and the 2022 supermarket shooting in Buffalo (10 killed).

It should go without saying that the “great replacement” is idiotic. There is no “open border.” There is no effort to “replace” the white population of the United States. Racial diversity is not a plot against the nation’s political institutions. And the underlying assumption of the “great replacement” — that, until recently, the United States was a racially and culturally homogenous nation — is nonsense.

Not only does acceptance of the theory require people to ignore inconvenient facts, it rests–as Bouie points out–on a fundamental fallacy: that racial and ethnic identity also and inevitably translates into political identity. In other words, it assumes that Blacks and Latinos will always vote for Democrats.

I think Bouie has identified the most consequential flaw of today’s GOP.

Republicans used to understand that politics is the art of addition–that winning a political contest requires reaching out to independents and others–including minorities– who haven’t previously voted for you. Instead, MAGA Republicans are doubling down on subtraction; not only do they fail to reach out to members of minorities who might consider supporting their candidates (the Black community, for example, is overall fairly socially conservative), they are even doing their best to expel “RINOs” –including anyone who dares to criticize Trump– from what has become a defensive cult.

The irony is that the GOP is hastening the day when a replacement will actually occur–the replacement of the GOP with a sane center-Right political party.

A large enough defeat in November will speed that process.