As Donald Trump’s nakedly racist rhetoric feeds the flames of white supremacist violence, and the support he is getting from the Republican party and his base of supporters just adds fuel to the fire, this places some Republicans in an awkward situation. If they continue to support him, will they also be seen as racist? And is it fair to be tarred with guilt by association? Some of them are desperately looking for absolution, that they can still view themselves as good people while supporting a racist president.
Take this article by a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News named Christine Flowers who grasped at a straw thrown by Amy Klobuchar during the recent Democratic primary debate when she said, “There are people that voted for Donald Trump before that weren’t racist, they wanted a better shake with the economy and so I would appeal to them.”
My first thought was how much courage it took for Klobuchar to make that statement. My second thought was that my first thought was tragicomic. Up until a few years ago, I never would have assumed that people could be accused of “racism by association” because they had voted for a particular candidate.
If you belonged to the KKK, you were clearly a racist. If you supported segregation, you were a racist. If you believed that minorities were inferior because of any innate, biological quality, or if you denied that racism existed, you were racist. But to be told that your support for a political candidate branded you as a racist regardless of why you voted for him showed such intellectual mediocrity that I didn’t expect to hear the theory bandied about by mature adults.
But what if you supported someone who still belonged to the KKK? Or someone who still supported segregation? Or believed in the biological superiority of white people? Or denied that racism exists? Or indeed if you supported someone who held any of the other positions that you deemed racist? At what point does a position become so extreme that supporting someone who supports that position taints you too? Can you support David Duke and still claim to not be a racist? Racism is, or should be, toxic. It is not just any other policy difference like trickle down economics or single-payer health care whose consequences may indirectly have racist repercussions.
Just this week, we had the revelation of a 1971 phone call between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon voicing extremely racist views about people from Africa. At that time, they did not speak like this publicly because of the stigma associated with being seen as racist. But there is little difference between what they said thinking it was a private conversation and Trump’s public comments now about ‘shithole countries’, ‘infestations’ and ‘invasions’ of immigrants of color, telling people of color to ‘go back to where you came from’, and the like.
What has happened is that Trump has shifted the burden of proof. His racist rhetoric has got so extreme that if you still support Trump, then you had better be prepared to be considered a racist and get ready to defend your non-racist bona fides. You may think that is unfair but whether you like it or nor not, his words and actions have shifted the burden of proof onto his supporters to show that they are not racist.