With word that President Donald Trump planned to resume his in-person political rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 19, 2020 — that’s Juneteenth, a commemoration of slavery’s end and black America’s biggest secular holiday — it seemed clear the era of Republican dog whistling was finally over.
Tulsa was, of course, site of the so-called ‘race riots’ that slaughtered of hundreds of African-Americans over a two-day period in 1921. That was the height of Jim Crow America, when pogroms like these were sadly unremarkable. This was the symbolism our Republican administration was clearly reaching for, and by now it should not surprise us.
From the moment Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign — in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered and buried in an earthen dam back in 1963 — the GOP has positioned itself as the party of white folk. The symbolism was clear enough from Day 1. It was effective enough to lure white southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats” who fled the Democratic Party during the Civil Rights era) into the once-anathema Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln and The Union. A Trump presidency and the scheduling of this July rally neatly complete the circle.
In light of the protests that gripped American cities in wake of George Floyd’s May 29 killing, we are now free to drop all pretenses. Indeed, it’s time to retire all sorts of presumptions, including the idea that Trump and his white-nationalist “Christian” support is somehow unprecedented. On the contrary: We have been here before.
But first, by all means, let’s also dispense with any and all pearl-clutching from progressives and centrists. Donald Trump understands the nature of his political support and, by now, so should we. To be fair, he’s been remarkably consistent re. the nature of his vision for this country. “Why is it always about race with you people,” his supporters serially countered in pre-Floyd America. Because, as was confirmed in June (which only confirms what the war on drugs and mass incarceration showed us decades before), it’s always been about race.
Let’s further dispense with our vaguely snarky musing on the Trump movement’s signature rallying cry. When he and his followers pledge to “Make America Great Again”, they really do mean to make it white again — or rather, to restore white citizens to their longstanding, “rightful” place of privilege and power in the face of an ever more diverse citizenry and electorate. It’s time to retire this rhetorical question and simply accept it as demonstrable fact.
We can also stop with the lengthy magazine think pieces and earnest video documentaries that explore the economic nature of Trump’s support. Yes, plutocrats love Trumpism. They may indeed be pulling some of these strings. But there is no economic explanation for the white working-class embrace of Donald Trump. And here’s a good rule to follow at all times but particularly in this one: When we perceive our fellow citizens to be repeatedly voting against their own self-interest, we have almost certainly failed to effectively divine that self-interest.
To wit, Trumpism is not an economic movement. It is a white, nationalist, extra-scriptural Christian movement. In four years’ time, it has produced a great many things we can fairly call “unprecedented”. But MAGA isn’t one of them. Going forward, it’s critical that “the rest of us” recognize this.
What’s more, as we’ll establish here, it’s important to recognize this is not the first time white Americans have found themselves on the wrong side of a demographic equation, i.e. trying to maintain political power and privilege in a society where voters of color roughly equal if not outnumber them.
We have indeed been here before. It’s called the Post-Reconstruction South, where the identical demographic situation resulted in the identical political response. To a remarkable degree, the policies articulated by Trump during his campaign and those instituted by his administration these past 40 months are the spiritual godchildren of those initiated by post-Reconstruction southern whites in the late 19th century — for the same desperate and obvious demographic reasons.
No one bothered to ask late 19th century southern white men why they effectively demonized, disenfranchised and, where possible, criminalized black citizens, black voters. No contemporaneous journalists from the agitating north went looking for the economic foundations of Jim Crow. It was obvious to all, north and south, what they were doing and why. Institutional racism was essential and obvious to the white fight for political power in the former Confederacy. The political motivations of white southerners post-1877 had nothing to do with economics, government intrusion, faith, the opioid epidemic, flyover country resentment of coastal elites, etc. It also lasted the better part of 100 years.
And so, in this sense, we should not be surprised that it remains front and center in U.S. politics. It’s about race and power. It has always been about race and power. Not exactly the race of some urban African-American or that of some border Latinx, but rather the so-called white race, “our” race, and its prospects for enduring power in this country. The demography of an immigrant nation has finally caught up to white America, and a lot of them (40 percent by most counts) don’t like it much. It’s time we all accepted this and set about wrestling with it properly.
Diana C. Mutz is one of a growing number of researchers and historians who have already eschewed mealy-mouthed scholarship in favor of more meaningful race-centered scholarship. Her recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on the responses of voters who were interviewed in October 2012 and October 2016, further locking in on those who switched their support from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. She argues these white voters turned to Trump not because their economic situation had deteriorated but because they were increasingly anxious about whether they, as white folk, could retain their dominant social positions in 21st century America.
Other scholars have made similar observations. This is not about socialism or capitalism. A report based on a 2016 national survey concluded the white working class tilted toward Trump fearing “cultural displacement” rather than economic hardship. Three political scientists further argue that the shift represented an “identity crisis” among whites without college educations that was rooted in their fear that African-Americans, Hispanics and immigrants were undermining their position as the majority group, i.e. the group that wields power in a plural democracy.
There are surely economic manifestations of this stance, but the root of the matter remains race-based.
A study published in the May 2018 issue of the journal, Social Forces, asserts that “information threatening the white economic advantage resulted in increased opposition to welfare programs when whites perceived those programs to primarily benefit minorities, but did not affect support for programs portrayed as benefiting whites. These findings implicate racial status threats as a causal factor shaping whites’ opposition to welfare.” Vox has reported on the same dynamic as it specifically related to Trump’s election in late 2017.
After bearing witness to decades of right-wing dog whistles and veiled racial pandering, it’s high time — in light of Trump’s three and half years in power and his desire for more — that those in the center and on the left ditch both their naiveté and the search for economic clues. “Make America White Again” is exactly what the president, the Alt-Right, the Tea Party, the evangelical Christian right, the gun nuts and other members of this coalition (witting and otherwise) are trying to do. Indeed, this is the self-interest that would appear to trump all others.
The American center and left must accept this as a political matter, as distasteful as it may be.
For this much is clear in America today: Having lived through 8 years of the Obama Administration and faced with the prospect of a multiculturalist successor (a female no less!), a massive block of white Americans (largely rural but also suburban) could see their longstanding control of the culture slipping away demographically, politically, economically. As such, they have apparently resolved to do or say whatever it takes to delay, contain or reverse this eventuality — regardless of whether those measures go against their putative, short-term economic “self interest”, their professed love of and admiration for American democracy, or (as the great majority of these citizens claim to be followers of Jesus Christ) the basic tenets of Christian theology.
These so-called conservatives are not interested in the preservation of our particular plural democracy — unless they maintain the dominant voting bloc therein, something they’ve enjoyed for more than 200 years.
Viewed through this Machiavellian prism, their collective response to this demographic shift is perhaps more understandable, if not so palatable. It helps explain why they are willing to support a demonstrably vulgar, norm-breaking, emotionally and intellectually erratic BS artist as their standard-bearer; to junk the free-market economic philosophies they’ve espoused as “conservatives” these past 40 years; to ignore the most basic tenets of their “sincerely held” Christian beliefs; to indeed sacrifice economically in areas like health care, even if dumping Obamacare and restoring the status quo ante means a redistribution of resources upward, away from them; even to dismantle the bedrock democratic processes they’ve rhetorically claimed all these years to revere as “sacred rights and freedoms”.
Surely factions within this white Christian nationalist movement are ambivalent about certain aspects the Trump campaign/presidency (it’s frankly difficult to see where one ends and the other beings). What does unite them, however, is the desire to maintain white, patriarchal, moneyed/corporate control over 21st century American culture, government, economy and foreign policy. They only love and seek to preserve a republic they can control, apparently. Since the early 1880s, and not coincidentally, it just so happens that white America north and south has asserted social control largely through its municipal police forces.
Any America these white nationalists cannot control is a country they’d sooner run into the ground, as in “charge the cockpit or die.” This Flight 93 reference is no idle metaphor but one spelled out explicitly by formerly anonymous blogger, now senior White House aide Michael Anton in an essay he published back in September 2016. It galvanized so many on the right because it spelled out and affirmed the stakes for white Americans so very clearly and starkly.
What Anton might not have realized? We have indeed been here before. Or rather white southerners have been here before. Trump’s increasingly post-Reconstruction-inspired movement has followed that template with alarming consistency.
We recognize today how late-19th century, southern/white voters managed to stem the demographic tide that threatened their control of post-Reconstruction culture, government and economics in the former Confederacy: They systematically instituted Jim Crow, a political stance that hardly proved faddish. It stood as law of that particular land, in those particular states, for the better party of a century (and soon grew to infest much of the federal government apparatus). Look closely. The Post-Reconstruction south is pretty much what Trump and his white Christian nationalist friends are trying to create for the whole of America, today, in 2020, and the means they’ve chosen to achieve those ends together represent a sickeningly grim homage.
Sound alarmist? Well, let’s back up a bit: When Mitt Romney was defeated by Barack Obama in the November 2012 presidential election, the Republican establishment spent a great deal of time and money examining what exactly went wrong — and how the GOP (which had nevertheless already embarked on a highly disciplined and effective effort to pool conservative jurists for spots on the federal bench and pack state legislatures with movement conservatives) might avoid similar electoral rebukes at the national level. Amid this apparent soul searching, the demographics painted for the Grand Ol’ Party a daunting picture: Not only had the Obama coalition of coastals, urbanites and minorities scored consecutive presidential victories but demographers predicted that further maturation of Hispanic voting blocks in particular would soon condemn the GOP and its largest voting block — non-urban white men and women — to permanent minority status when it came to national elections.
The official post-mortem, conducted by then Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus, called for comprehensive immigration reform, something the party clearly viewed as a big-tent enabler. Dubbed “The Growth and Opportunity Project,” the GOP plan was simultaneously a call to broad, inclusive action: In order to survive and thrive, it argued, the Party and its policies needed to better court Hispanic, African-American, female and LGBTQ voters.
“I think it’s about being decent,” Priebus told a National Press Club audience upon unveiling the report in March 2013. “I think it’s about dignity and respect that nobody deserves to have their dignity diminished or people don’t deserve to be disrespected… I think that party leaders have to constantly remind everybody that we can’t build a party by division and subtraction. We can only build the party by addition and multiplication. We get that and that’s going to be our endeavor.”
Note Preibus’ implication here: that the GOP had, up to that point, already engaged in rhetoric and policy-making that turned off or turned away these non-white voters — voters who were already too numerous NOT to court.
What happened then? Well, xenophobia happened. This single issue (immigration) cost House minority whip Eric Cantor and other (more moderate) colleagues their seats in Congress. Then, armed with this issue, Trump happened. It’s hard to imagine any candidate, Republican or Democrat, who so diametrically opposed the spirit and intent of the Growth and Opportunity Project. With help from a polarizing Democratic nominee, a selectively activist FBI director, our new best friends in Russia, and 70,000 voters in three key Rust Belt states, Trump managed to squeak himself into office, Growth and Opportunity Project be damned.
Three years further down the road, we have a sitting GOP president who could not have flipped the script more pointedly. “We can’t build a party by division and subtraction”? Trump believes he can — or rather, he thinks he can govern this way and get re-elected by leaning on page 1 of the Jim Crow Playbook: suppress the vote of your opponents. What of Preibus? Having never quite settled in as the president’s chief of staff, he’s out on his keester and the report he championed has been utterly shelved.
Turns out a huge majority of conservative voters don’t want a big tent, just as Reconstruction-era white southerners didn’t want to participate in a plural democracy, i.e. govern, or engage in the political process, or share control of their culture alongside former slaves or their progeny.
Republican voters have also indicated loudly and clearly that they don’t give a fig for laissez faire government when it comes to industrial policy, or free trade in general, or deficit reduction, or support of democracy abroad. More and more, they view the federal government specifically and government generally as the machinery of their potential undoing. You think it’s a coincidence that modern conservatism is anti-government? “Reducing the size of government” (or, as Steve Bannon calls it, “Deconstructing the administrative state”) is not about limiting government, per se. It’s about removing the checks on their power, white power.
So-called conservative voters who summarily discarded the RNC report have similarly dispatched long-held, Reagan-derived conservative tenets in order to more fully embrace xenophobia/racial scapegoating, religious nationalism, voter suppression and whatever means might be necessary to maintain white, corporate control of government on the national and state levels, and the culture at large.
Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s philosophical mentor, who coined and first defined the word “fascism”, makes the low-tax, anti-labor aspect of this struggle clear: “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
There is no other way to describe what the right wing in this country is trying to pursue, and has been pursuing since 1980.
Many remain bemused by what seems a marked shift in emphasis on the right. The GOP’s doubling down in opposition to the big-tent philosophy proposed by Preibus, for example, is a stance completely at odds with Republican efforts to better court Hispanic voters as recently as the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009). The nation’s demographics have not changed all that much since 2013. Tepid but steady economic growth in the U.S. (pre-Covid 19) continues to mean that immigration from across the Mexican border is way down compared to levels in the ’90s and early Oughts.
Nevertheless, in terms of raw numbers, white Americans will indeed be outnumbered by Americans of color by 2030 or thereabouts, and this is the most salient statistical reality we can cite.
What we’re seeing today from Trump and his extraordinarily white base is what a desperate, would-be minority will do (and can do) in order to maintain its grip on the levers of power. Opponents call their efforts unprecedented but that’s simply not accurate. The last time this was attempted so openly, in America, we called it the Post-Reconstruction south, which led to a longer and more sustained political re-alignment we refer to colloquially as Jim Crow.
This is the America Trump, former advisor Steve Bannon, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Anton, his fellow White House consiglieri Stephen Miller, and the shamefully complicit GOP Congressional delegation are attempting to re-create in 21st century form — a country run by and for Trump’s base of white voters. You can’t maintain a functioning democracy under these conditions, of course. If they persist, our political system becomes something else. And that, my friends, is the problem here.
What does this this New Southern Strategy mean for African-Americans? Removal of the voting franchise wherever possible through gerrymandered districting (at the state and federal levels), reduction in the number polling stations in traditionally black communities, and the continued, active disenfranchisement of former felons, many of whom have been rendered felonious by drug enforcement and incarceration policies (The War on Drugs) that disproportionately target and punish African-American citizens. Even when that stigma was voted out by ballot measure, in Florida, for example, the GOP-led legislature there voted to keep former felons from voting until they had reimbursed the state for court and incarceration costs relating to their legal cases. This is a 19th century poll tax, plain and simple. In the Jim Crow era, the tactics varied: poll taxes, literacy tests, outright physical intimidation. But the goal was identical: whatever it takes to keep the black vote small enough to be inconsequential.
What does the New Jim Crow mean for Hispanics? According to Trump, deportation of any and all undocumented immigrants from the country altogether, thereby stemming this portion of the demographically inevitable. Because so many undocumented immigrants reside in this country with family who are documented, who are citizens, this larger emphasis on deportation will, by design, have a chilling effect on Hispanic participation in public life generally, but especially on voter registration and voter turnout. Including ethnic identification boxes to the 2020 census will, by design, have similar effects; so will the most squalid displays of inhumanity toward would be asylum-seekers on the southern border. Many will simply opt out of the census and the political process, further dissipating Hispanic representation.
[As William H. Frey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a population studies professor at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times in October 2018, inclusion of a citizenship question reduced the response rate among households that have at least one noncitizen individual (Frey cited an in-house Census Bureau analysis based on 2010 survey data). While 7 percent of U.S. residents are themselves noncitizens, 14 percent live in households that include one or more noncitizens. The latter figure rises to 46 percent among all Hispanics and to 45 percent among Asian-Americans, compared with just 8 percent among blacks and 3 percent among whites.]
What does this mean for Arabs and other Muslims seeking visas, refuge in or simple access to this country? Witness Trump’s January 2017 travel ban, the fourth iteration of which was more recently validated by the Supreme Court: Issued in the name of national security from terrorism, it now applies to immigrants or refugees coming from seven specific, predominantly Muslim nations — a grouping that, curiously, fails to include Saudi Arabia, which supplied 12 of the 19 perpetrators on 9/11. But let us not overthink it: Keeping Muslims out of the country is perhaps the surest way bar their eventual citizenship and participation in our plural democracy.
It’s important to point out that all of these measures (even should they fail to pass the muster of judicial review) serve to push the racist and xenophobic buttons extant in Trump’s demographically terrified base. In other words, even if struck down, these measures serve Trump politically.
So, again, let’s stop traveling to Kentucky and Texas and Alabama in search of Trump voters who regret their votes. Like their forebears, they are doing what they have to do to protect their “heritage”, their “way of life” — read: their privilege and power.
Let’s go back again: When the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were adopted after the Civil War, white southerners instantly found themselves in a plural democracy where former slaves and free folk of color represented large and powerful voting blocs. Like today’s right-wingers, white southerners saw this coming. They bloodied Kansas and struck the compromise of 1850 before ultimately fighting a hugely damaging military conflict on home soil — all in the name of resisting abolition and avoiding precisely these demographic realities. [It would appear this “storm the cockpit” mentality pre-dates actual human aviation.]
It’s not clear from period census-taking exactly what percentage of the southern, post-war electorate was black or white (record-keeping on the slave side was spotty and the Civil War concluded exactly between the 1860 and 1870 censi). But this much remains clear: Directly after war’s end, southern state legislatures — the strictly white bodies that had functioned under the Confederacy — quickly passed a series of laws that sought to codify for black citizens a second-class status that white southerners could abide. These so-called “Black Codes” quickly backfired. Northern public opinion combined with Republican majorities in the U.S. Congress resulted in passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which effectively denuded these Black Codes. As a result (and with help from Union troops that, crucially, remained an occupying force in the South through 1877), former slaves truly did assert themselves politically, as their numbers would allow, as southern whites had feared. From 1866-76, former Confederate states sent to Washington, D.C. no less than 17 African-American congressmen.
With the Union army on hand to enforce these new Constitutional amendments, black voters flexed their electoral muscles on the local level as well. Mississippi, for example, sent to Washington during this period two black senators, whose respective elections were then the results of state legislature votes (U.S. Senators weren’t elected directly by state voters until 1913, following passage of the 17th Amendment).
However, another pivotal, razor-close presidential election, in 1876, transformed the political equation yet again. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden finished in an Electoral College tie, throwing the decision into the House of Representatives where a blizzard of vote courting and political bartering ensued. Ultimately, Hayes would prevail but not before he had promised several southern congressional delegations that a vote for him would result in the Federal Government’s withdrawal of Union troops from the former Confederacy.
Demographics in the South did not change overnight, but the balance of power did.
In essence, starting in 1877, white southerners faced the same issue white Trump voters (which is to say, virtually all Trump voters) face today: How to wield power in a plural democracy where one’s longstanding majority voting bloc is, or soon will be, just another minority bloc?
Here’s what white southerners undertook starting in 1877, as part of an effort we might accurately characterize (and recognize) as demonize, disenfranchise and, where possible, criminalize:
• From the moment the Union army decamped in 1877, white paramilitary groups, including but not limited to the Klu Klux Klan, used violence and intimidation to dissuade would-be African-American candidates from seeking political office and black citizens from voting altogether.
• Where vigilante action didn’t produce the desired results, white politicians (mainly Democrats; the Party of Lincoln remained anathema among white southerners until the 1960s) colluded on the local and state levels to institute poll taxes and literacy tests designed specifically to further suppress the black vote.
• Starting in the late 1880s, Southern legislatures — sensing the above measures might never secure the permanent majorities they sought — passed new state constitutions, amendments and electoral statutes that made voting more difficult if not impossible for African-Americans, especially at polling places administered, according to statute, by white folk.
The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were enacted to guarantee African-Americans the full rights of citizenship. Ultimately they did nothing of the kind. Like election of the country’s first African-American president 150 years later, these measures actually prompted a massive cultural and political backlash from southern whites, starting in 1877. Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — designed to redress 90 years of dereliction — makes clear the fervor and durability of that backlash.
Apologists for today’s right wing might see this as so much ancient history, but this is to ignore more than a century’s worth of highly relevant and plenty-current historical fact. African-American citizens of the United States have — since the withdrawal of Union forces from the south in 1877 — been systematically demonized, disenfranchised and criminalized. Yes, mob violence victimized African-Americans for decades, in the form vigilante justice (read: lynchings and other extra-legal killings). But Jim Crow statutes unfairly criminalized black citizens in myriad respects. So-called vagrancy laws, for example, meant that any black male without proof of employment on his person could be thrown in jail, and ultimately farmed out to local industry as free labor, for simply walking down the street, or standing too close to the front-door of a white-owned business. In summarizing the Dred Scott Decision, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney wrote, in 1854, that black men and women “had no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” One Civil War, three Constitutional amendments and 40 years did very little to change this understanding across American South and much of the country.
Indeed, neither did the Jim Crow phenomenon persist solely in the former Confederacy; it grew to infect the so-called north and the entire federal government throughout much of the 20th century. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessey vs. Ferguson decision (1898) gave Constitutional license to segregation euphemized as “separate but equal”, something that persisted in the South unchallenged for another 60 years. President Woodrow Wilson(1913-1921), the first southerner to hold that office since 1867, codified segregation within the federal government and its myriad institutions.
Throughout the 20th century, African-Americans were systematically discriminated against economically, with the blessing of the federal government. Consider the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored entity formed in 1933 as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1935, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board directed the HOLC to assess 239 U.S. cities and draw up “residential security maps” to indicate the level of real estate investment security in each surveyed city. It’s common knowledge that these maps were used by private and public entities for decades afterward to deny loans to people designated as living in black, “insecure” communities, a practice that came to be known — not merely in the south but nationwide — as “red-lining”. We don’t refer to this as Jim Crow, per se, but that’s what it was.
However slow and unfinished, America has made some progress in the areas of race relations and equality before the law. The U.S. Army would eventually desegregate, in 1948. Brown vs. Board of Education, the court decision that attempted to formally desegregate public schools, was handed down in 1954. But Jim Crow happened — and it took more than a century to address, then scrub from the statutory record. No one, not even the most hard-core conservative Republican has ever argued publicly for its reinstitution.
But it’s critical to make note of exactly who and what forced that desegregation, that legal redress: It was the federal government.
This is the subtext of the modern conservative moment in America. It is the even more robust, explicit subtext of Trumpism. “Make America White Again” had indeed been the wink-and-nod distillation of the president’s 19th century campaign messaging. Now that we’ve seen the Administration in action, ask yourself this question: Aside from extra-legal killings (though the killing of unarmed men of color by police comes shamefully close), what exactly distinguishes post-Reconstruction strategy from that of Trump, the Alt Right and the so-far compliant GOP?
When this simile is explored and absorbed, we can begin to identify the post-Reconstruction racial resentments underpinning additional modern conservative philosophies and “causes”.
In the 1870s, wealthy leaders of the so-called Redeemer Movement, a southern faction of Bourbon Democrats with demonstrable ties to the Klu Klux Klan, set out to defund public schools, shrink government, lower taxes for land owners, and generally undercut the rise of black politicians and the black middle class. One of the federal government’s most basic responsibilities is to ensure equal treatment of citizens before the law. Southern white populations saw that equal treatment as a threat to their power and privilege, and so the federal government was fought at every turn.
At the same time, Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge coined the phrase “government schools”, a phrase newly revived by today’s anti-government right wing and euphemized as “school choice”. Prior to the Civil War, the South was largely devoid of public schools. Reconstruction changed all that, to the chagrin of former Confederate Army chaplain and leader of the Southern Presbyterian Church Robert Lewis Dabney, an avid defender of the biblical “righteousness” of slavery. Dabney railed against the new public schools and the unrighteousness of taxing his “oppressed” white brethren to provide “pretended education to the brats of black paupers.”
To those who’ve been following the 21st century school-choice movement, or the GOP’s dogged pursuit of Obamacare repeal (underpinned by the allegation that people of color benefit unduly from ACA programs), or Jeff Sessions’ and Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ attempts to Biblically justify the separation of children from parents at the border: Any of this sound familiar?
Consider Trump’s so-called voter integrity commission? His immigration policies? His travel ban? His calls for “law and order”? His branding of Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization? All serve to suppress or diminish the will of African-American voters, to deport as many Hispanics as they can (whilst driving the remainder from the public square), and to halt altogether any further influx of Muslim populations, full stop. All are aimed squarely at limiting the political participation of voting blocs that, if they weren’t supportive of Democrats in 2013, certainly are now. Politically and economically the Trump Administration outwardly seeks to re-marginalize black voters while adding Hispanics and Arabs to this catch-all bin of political and social pariahs of color.
The argument here isn’t that Trump and the Alt Right and the Tea Party invented these tactics. It says here they are the first to cohere them into a single, national electoral vision — one based largely on the tactics and successes of Jim Crow.
Trump may have lost the popular vote in 2016, but he did win the votes of 60 million Americans. As offensive as Trump’s president campaign was, the outsized electoral response to his post-Reconstruction themes was even more alarming. With 35 years of prep, this bloc of white voters was more than ready to move beyond gestures and dog whistles. Indeed, the legislative aspects of this movement have been well underway for some time, not surprisingly in states where the demographic picture is most stark for right-wingers, like Texas and Georgia, and in battleground states where voters right and left are split right down the middle, like North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Let us be clear: It is surely in the interest of Democrats — whose policies today attract constituencies inclusive of African-Americans, Hispanics and recent immigrants — to register citizens in these states (anywhere really) so they might vote in the largest numbers possible. However, it has never been the stance of a major American political party to shrink the number of voters nationwide. Even prior to Preibus and his 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project, the Republican Party was especially eager to register Hispanic voters. The second Bush Administration viewed Hispanics as culturally conservative and highly religious — potentially the key element in Karl Rove’s “permanent majority”.
Twelve years later that effort has been junked. Since 2008, huge mounts of money and legislative effort have been expended by the right wing to prevent those voter registrations — and to permanently marginalize Hispanics and African-Americans via mechanisms like gerrymandered redistricting tactics and outright voter suppression.
The latter was further enabled by the high court’s 2013 repeal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder), which neutered any federal efforts to contain voter-suppression tactics that might have been in place.
Think of Section 5 as the Union Army in 1877: Literally the day after the Shelby decision was handed down, states across the former Confederacy moved — by already prepared statute — to disenfranchise minority voters who, by dint of GOP political platforms these last 40 years, have indeed become traditionally left-wing voting populations. A 2016 Ohio law recently upheld by SCOTUS obliges the secretary of state to remove citizens from voting rolls, if they have not voted in consecutive federal elections. [Forget for a moment the lunacy of this law in a state where general election voter turnout bounces between 40 percent (in so-called off years) and 70 percent (presidential years). The Ohio law, in practice for only two years, has already disproportionately removed Democratic voters from the rolls, by design. Such efforts on the part of Republican state legislatures continue apace.] That same high court backed GOP-led efforts to hold a key election in March 2020, at the height of a pandemic. It’s plain to see that the Republican establishment is angling to cripple the U.S. Postal Service ahead of the November election, as it sees voting my mail as detrimental to its electoral fortunes. Whatever it takes to keep voting numbers down and maintain its grip on power.
North Carolina reduced the number of early voting stations in 2016. This action, according to the state legislature itself, resulted in an 8.5 percent reduction in early voting by African-American voters, leading to a 6 percent drop in their share of the early vote. Early voting allows people who are poor, work long hours, or have inflexible work schedules to vote before/after they go to work. The state also cut back on early voting on Sundays — a practice popular with black churches. Lawyers for the state admitted in court that this curtailment of Sunday voting was undertaken because early Sunday voters tend to be disproportionately Black and Democratic.
North Carolina also tried to further suppress voting by bringing in a strict voter ID law, which was then overturned in the courts. Republican states have worked hard to implement similar ID laws for voters, which a government study suggests may have reduced the Democratic vote in North Carolina by up to 3 percent. Again, this law tends to affect poor, elderly, and African-American voters because they are less likely to have government-issued ID, such as a driver’s license. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of Americans do not have adequate ID to vote under rules that require ID. In Alabama, which also has a new voter ID law, this is seen mainly to affect the 25 percent of the electorate who are black. In Wisconsin, where Trump won by 22,748 votes in 2016, 200,000 people had been prevented from voting due to voter ID laws. In North Dakota, a 2017 state law removed from the voting rolls any citizen who did not have a valid street address — a move that disenfranchised some 70,000 aboriginal Americans, whose reservations don’t have street addresses.
In other words, long before Trump was elected, Republican Party operatives were plotting to preserve white political power at the expense of people of color. Cynics on the right wonder aloud, “Why is it always about race?” Because, um, it’s always been about race.
People can fall victim to their own propaganda. Maybe some on the right truly believe that Voter ID laws are about combatting fraud, that the Voting Rights Act itself was vestigial in the 21st century, that halts on immigration protect American jobs, that school choice is about exercising personal liberty, that abortion restrictions were designed to better protect the health of mothers…
But I don’t think today’s right-wingers are confused at all by their own rhetoric. Observe the way today’s opioid crisis is being covered by media and meted out in courtrooms. It’s a tragedy by any measure, we can agree. But because it’s a largely white working-class phenomenon, treatment and empathy are presented as the ultimate answers. Similar drug crises centered in black communities have traditionally not been treated this way, of course. Think back (not so far back) to how the crack epidemic (and its largely black user population) was portrayed by media, legislators and law enforcement communities during the 1980s and ‘90s. Suffice to say, for crack addicts in the ‘90s, empathy and treatment were not the proposed remedies. Instead, it was incarceration with mandatory minimums, which resulted in today’s outsized black prison population.
Why is it always about race with you people? Because it’s always been about race with you people.
Abraham Lincoln famously mused that perhaps freed slaves should be transported back to Africa upon their emancipation. Perhaps he foresaw just how difficult it would be for his country to successfully integrate citizens already dehumanized by slavery into the culture at large.
Today there is little talk of deporting African-Americans or banning any new influxes of Africans (unless they’re Muslims, from the Sudan). But in terms of voting rights the last 10 years, we have seen a re-emergence of post-Reconstruction-era disenfranchisement. Today, the Trump administration has publicly and loudly added Hispanics and Muslims to the pool of de-humanized populations it deems unworthy of citizenship, the vote, social services, even the basics of human compassion.
American voters both center and left have somehow managed to look past this reality, pointing out that once the Trump base realizes that manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back, once the health care crisis returns to 2007 levels, once their lives/livelihoods are again at risk, these voters will turn on Trump.
The Covid 19 experience, the president’s behavior during the recent disquiet should disabuse us of this notion. These people will back this champion of theirs to the end. Again we look to history for precedent: Life in the post-Reconstruction south was no bed of roses for the white working class. For the entirety of the Jim Crow period, standards of income, education and social mobility among all but the wealthiest white, southern citizens paled beside those in the more rapidly industrializing north. But white voters in the South didn’t care. What they valued above all — what they still revere as their sacred heritage — was their cultural and political hegemony, their “way of life”. For tens of millions of white voters in America today, that attitude has not changed. Perhaps it has never changed.