In a recent newsletter from The Atlantic, Tom Nichols echoed a frustration of my own. He wrote that, in his lifetime, he’d seen” polio defeated and smallpox eradicated. Now hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead—and still dying—because they refused a lifesaving vaccine as a test of their political loyalty to an ignoramus.”
Ever since 2016, a significant percentage of my posts have revolved around the reality (or actually, the unreality) of that political loyalty, and my inability to understand what–other than racial grievance–might account for it. Study after study, however, has confirmed that it is, indeed, racism that explains support for Trump and the MAGA movement.
The Guardian recently published an article building on that research. The author began by commenting on President Biden’s forceful condemnation of Trump and MAGA, and as he noted, that attribution was correct —so far as it went.
The deeper, more longstanding threat, however, was articulated by historian Taylor Branch in a 2018 conversation with author Isabel Wilkerson recounted in Wilkerson’s book Caste. As they discussed how the rise of white domestic terrorism under Trump was part of the backlash to the country’s growing racial diversity, Branch noted that, “people said they wouldn’t stand for being a minority in their own country”. He went on to add, “the real question would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”
Whiteness is the deeper threat because championing whiteness is what makes Trump powerful. People forget that Trump was not particularly well-regarded before he started attacking Mexican immigrants and signaling to white people that he would be the defender of their way of life. In the months before he launched his campaign, he was polling at just 4% in the May 2015 ABC/Washington Post poll. After stirring the racial resentment pot, his popularity took off, growing exponentially in a matter of weeks and propelling him to the front of the pack by mid-July 2015 when he commanded support of 24% of voters, far ahead of all the other Republican candidates.
Of course, Trump’s discovery of the power of racism is nothing new. (That’s why the Right doesn’t want accurate history taught in our schools.) The author quoted George Wallace’s epiphany: “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes – and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about n—–s – and they stomped the floor.”
People who’d dismissed Trump as a loudmouth buffoon “stomped the floor” when he began talking about (brown) Mexicans and Muslims.
The article reminded readers of Wallace, Nixon’s “southern strategy,” and the fact that David Duke–an “out and proud” Klansman–had attracted the support of 44% of Louisiana’s voters when he ran for the U.S. Senate.
The good news is that the proponents of whiteness do not command majority support. The original Confederates themselves were in the minority and represented just 11% of the country’s white population. People who enjoy majority support have no need to unleash fusillades of voter suppression legislation in the states with the largest numbers of people of color. Yet, from the grandfather clauses of the 1800s to the restrictive voting laws passed last year in the south and south-west, we are seeing an unrelenting practice of trying to depress and destroy democracy by engaging in what the writer Ron Brownstein has described as, “stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change”.
It’s one thing to confirm that a majority of Americans aren’t racist. It’s another thing to ensure that the people in that majority turn out to vote. As the author says,
In order to defend democracy and win the fight for the soul of the nation, two things must happen. One is to make massive investments in the people and organizations working to expand voting and civic participation. Coalitions like America Votes Georgia and Arizona Wins played critical roles in bringing hundreds of thousands of people of color into the electorate, helping to transform those former Confederate bastions.
We also need to “name and shame” the numerous political figures who are appealing to racist sentiments in order to turn out their supporters. Too many liberals shrink from calling out those who are trafficking in racism–it seems so uncivil. But racism is also uncivil–and far more dangerous.
To ultimately prevail in this defense of our democracy, we must clearly understand the underlying forces imperiling the nation, name the nature of the opposition, and summon the majority of Americans to unapologetically affirm that this is a multi-racial country.
This is a test, and we cannot afford to fail.