“Obama elected president as racial barrier falls,” the New York Times headline thundered the morning after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Like many, I doubt I’ll ever forget those days. There was a wild, almost giddy, sense of wonder at what had happened. I remember trying to process the fact that America had just elected an African American as president: it was a physical, electric sensation of joy.
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It transcended the person and the politics of Barack Obama himself. Whether one liked the man’s politics or not, the fact of his election spoke to something much larger. It spoke to a sense of possibility; to a promise long unfulfilled that color and birth didn’t represent destiny; that maybe, just maybe, those long centuries of racial injustice, racial hatreds, and racial hierarchies, could one day be consigned to the past.
Of course, in the cold light of day, all of that was far too simplistic. Racial progress, historically, provokes vicious racial backlash. The emancipation of the slaves, and the post-civil war Reconstruction of the South, was followed by White Redemption and the nearly century-long embrace of Jim Crow, of lynch mob-law, and of rigid segregation.
Today, eight years after Obama’s extraordinary electoral victory, Donald Trump is stoking a racial violence, a seething, bubbling, street-violent animus last whipped up so overtly by a presidential candidate in 1968, by the segregationist George Wallace.
Trump has repeatedly re-tweeted, thus endorsing, White Supremacist tweets, launched a vicious verbal assault on Mexican-Americans, made sweeping anti-Muslim statements that, if one were to substitute “Jew” for “Muslim,” would not have been out of place in early Nazi propaganda, and has, in the process, racked up endorsements from a who’s who of white nationalists and neo-fascist groups.
It’s not that that animus hasn’t long been there; it’s just that, since the civil rights era, politicians have calculated that subtlety wins out over naked bigotry, that it’s somehow more palatable to the great mass of middle-of-the-road voters. Hence the rise of what came to be described as “dog whistle politics,” a coded appeal to racial hatreds that could be heard and clearly understood by those it was aimed at while being plausibly denied when politicians were publicly called out for it.
Neither party can claim to have been immune to this. On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton, for example, despite his great popularity amongst African American voters and his reputation as a post-segregationist, liberal Southern governor, sought to shore up his conservative credentials with tough-on-crime policies and welfare reforms that disproportionately impacted black Americans.
But, by and large, once the national Democratic Party broke with its southern segregationist wing and embraced Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights agenda in the mid-1960s, it was the GOP, employing what Richard Nixon termed “the Southern Strategy,” that utilized race-resentment politics in the crudest, most personal, of ways. After all, millions of white Americans were largely unreconciled to the civil rights revolution, and for a party willing to pander to their bigotries, there were rich electoral pickings to be had.
In 1980, Reagan stoked up white suburban economic resentments against the welfare state by talking of “welfare queens,” who were allegedly living high-off-the-hog at taxpayer expense. The subtext was clear: black women were scamming white taxpayers.
In 1988, GOP strategists created the Willie Horton ad, used to brutal effect by George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign against Democrat Mike Dukakis. Horton, an African American, had been furloughed from prison under a program approved by Dukakis in his capacity as governor of Massachusetts. He escaped while on furlough, and went on to rape a white woman. The ad campaign shamelessly played to racial fears. Yet it didn’t use overtly racist language, allowing the Bush campaign to deny they had intended to stoke racial animus.
More recently, GOP Senators and Congressmen have repeatedly lambasted Obama for being the “food stamp president,” continuously playing to the idea that a black president is presiding over vast handouts to black constituents. Of course, they haven’t said it in so many words, thus giving them the margin needed to deny that their comments had anything to do with race.
Time and again, a slew of GOP figures around the country have questioned Obama’s legitimacy as President, arguing, arguing, despite any evidence to back up their claim that he was born in Kenya. That this “birther” movement – championed by Trump for the past eight years – didn’t explicitly denounce Obama for his blackness was beside the point; to those it was aimed at, the message was clear: The GOP was challenging a black man’s standing, his qualifications to be President. It was, if you like, scoring racial points on the down-low.
What has GOP leaders like Paul Ryan in such a tizzy the past few weeks is that their presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has shed even the pretense. There’s no dog whistling anymore; instead he’s bellowing his racism into the nearest bullhorn. When Trump declared that a judge trying a civil lawsuit against his now-defunct “Trump University” was biased against him because he was “Mexican” – Judge Curiel is actually from Indiana, though of Mexican lineage – and then added insult to injury by also announcing that Muslim judges would be biased too, he shredded the dog-whistle play-card that the GOP has used to such effect for decades. There’s no deniability, no matter how flimsy, to a statement like this, and the longer it goes on the more the GOP will come to be seen as an explicitly racist party.
Some GOPers seem to fear this will cost them electorally; others seem to have a more existential fear: that it won’t cost them electorally, and that the dog whistle politics they for so long championed as a strategy rather than an ideology will now pull the country into a whirlpool of strife and bitterness.
The GOP’s grandees don’t really know how to respond to this. Some, like Senators Lindsay Graham and Mark Kirk, have, to their credit, announced they can no longer stomach the racial and religious bile at the core of the Trumpian message. Others, like Ryan, have tried to have it both ways, incoherently saying that they renounce the racism but support the candidate. And still others, like Newt Gingrich, have tried to minimize the whole fuss by ascribing Trump’s venomous statements to the rookie mistakes well-meaning 'amateurs' make when scaling the political heights. That, to me, is the most disingenuous of all the responses .
The great question now is whether a majority of the twenty-first century American electorate is willing to go down this dark road with Trump. Can the demagogue successfully play off one racial and religious group against another in this diverse, polyglot nation? Can he ride and stoke the anger and hatreds of enough Americans to win the presidency?
If Trump does, he will have befouled us all. His candidacy is already a stench. His presidency, his throwing of the full weight of the federal government behind the politics of race-and-religion-baiting, would have the potential to be an ongoing pogrom.
Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and author, whose most recent book is The House of Twenty Thousand Books. He is the founder of the Voice of Poverty project.