When something outrageous happens in the US, such as acts of mass murder or cruelty or racism, politicians and even members of the public tend to distance themselves from it by portraying them as irrational and inexplicable aberrations, commonly using the phraseology of “This is not who we are”. I have mentioned before how such a statement is deeply disingenuous. Given the long and deep history of racism, genocide, and violence in the US, to act as if such acts are contrary to wholesome values that have always been upheld cannot be justified. It would be better to say “This is not who we should be”, because rather than smugly adopting a mantle of righteousness, such a sentiment is at least aspirational and recognizes the need for improvement
When it comes to racism, it is always hard to gauge the mood of the country. That racism exists is undeniable. The real question is how wide and deep it is. Opinion polls are not helpful in this regard because people are unlikely to answer honestly. But with Donald Trump, we may have on our hands a natural experiment that can provide a better gauge.
Trump is clearly running for re-election on a nakedly racist platform, especially since he has no achievements to show (other than a tax cut for the rich and for corporations) or even any coherent legislative agenda. His campaign in 2016, with his opening statement categorizing undocumented immigrants as rapists and murderers, consisted of xenophobia laced with racism. But now that he has broadened his attacks to include native-born African-Americans and Hispanics and legal immigrants of color, the racism has been brought front and center.
Should Democrats focus on Trump’s racism and campaign that such a blatant racist should never be elected to high office? Or should they focus on economic issues such as health care, student debt, living wage, better working conditions, and the like. They can and should do both, of course, but there may be a fear among some of the Democratic candidates that focusing on his racism may just motivate the racists to come out in greater strength and numbers. Also the idea that elections are won and lost on the economy has become a truism, reinforced by the Bill Clinton campaign mantra of “It’s the economy, stupid!” in his winning election campaigns.
There is no question that the state of their personal economy weighs heavily on people as they vote. But to what extent does it overwhelm issues of morality and justice? That is hard to disentangle. But in this election, the question facing Trump supporters should be whether they are willing to overlook his open racism. The fact that Barack Obama won two elections quite comfortably is a marker that even if racism is pervasive in the US, there exists a majority of voters for whom a candidate of color is not a disqualifying factor. So that is one benchmark. The question is whether Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has stripped away that veneer of accommodation and brought enough of people’s latent racial prejudices to the surface that many of those who were willing to vote for Obama will now be willing to vote for Trump.
Thanks to commenter John Morales, I became aware of this op-ed written by Mia Love, the only black Republican female congresswoman, who lost her re-election bid in 2018. She expresses the ambivalence faced by Republican voters as they try to weigh how much Trump’s racism should play in their decision. She starts with the usual distancing disclaimer about Trump’s attacks on the four congresswomen
Let me be clear: these attacks do not reflect the views of the majority of the Republican Party, nor any Trump supporter that I know. [My emphasis-Mano]
Having been the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, representing Utah’s 4th district from 2015 until this year — a 97 per cent white district — I have a unique perspective.
My district was home to many strong supporters of President Trump and his administration. My own husband is among them.
These people love his policies. They love his economic record, his peace-through-strength foreign policy, his “America First” stance on trade, and his choices for judicial appointments.
They don’t love racism.
These are the same people who elected me, a black woman of Haitian descent.
President Trump must be crystal clear about the fact that he does not condone racism.
Despite the insinuations from Democrats to the contrary, there is no question that within the mainstream of the Republican Party, racism is unacceptable. [My emphasis-Mano]
The GOP is the party that ended slavery. It is the party that I represented in Congress.
The real debate is about whether President Trump’s comments themselves qualify as racist.
I personally believe the comments were racist.
The real question is whether those highlighted sections are true. The next election will be a referendum on racism. If Trump should win re-election, then the racist mentality of Republicans, and indeed of the country, can no longer be denied and Love’s statement that “there is no question that within the mainstream of the Republican Party, racism is unacceptable” would be shown to be false.
As much as we may deny it, such a result would show that this is really who we are.