I’m here to praise Trump, not to bash him. More specifically, I want to acknowledge how the president is doing good things for our country, even if the transformation he’s enabling is painful to endure.
Trump’s response to the terrorist attack in Charlottesville on August 12 has been clarifying in the most salutary way. In a presidential first, he asked Americans to consider that the victims of the attack may have been complicit in it. Why? Because the attacker was a white supremacist, not a Muslim. Muslims are offered no such excuse.
Like iodine or castor oil — those old pre-snowflake medicines that made healing hurt —the president’s words are disgusting. But we also need to consider how they bring us closer to excising that old American tumor of white supremacy.
The president doesn’t have much talent or inclination for governing, but, as his supporters loved to remind us back in 2016, he does excel at enunciating what other right-wingers in the grip of identity politics are content to leave in the dark recesses of their semi-conscious brains.
The president hasn’t made the Republican Party a bastion for racists, he’s simply outed the racism that has driven the party’s ugly soul since Barry Goldwater proudly cast his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a while for the liberal Republicans, without whom the bill would not have passed, to leave the GOP.
Those dinos were eventually dubbed RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — and kicked out. And it took a while for the Dixiecrats to drift over to the Republicans and take their place. The Dems were different then, too: Louisiana’s congressional delegation in 1964 was 100 percent Democrat, and every one of them voted against the courageous legislation pushed by President Lyndon Johnson, a fellow white Southern Democrat from neighboring Texas.
Since Nixon concocted his race-tinged “Southern Strategy,” the one that Ronald Reagan put to such good use, Republicans have tried to earn the votes of working-class whites (especially the gullible rubes down South) while giving them little back besides carefully crafted lip service to their biases. It’s done with a wink and a hasty exit line. Timing is important and so is geography — Reagan, for example, announced for president in Philadelphia, MS, a town associated with the notorious 1964 disappearance and murder of civil rights workers.
With Trump, the hoods are off. The lip service is no longer carefully crafted. As we learned from the president’s clumsy trio of responses to the terrorist murder of an American citizen, Heather Heyer, on August 12, the GOP standard bearer — who is not only disapproved of but virulently disdained by half the country — feels that there are “very fine people” in the white supremacist movement.
These people are, of course, the “basket of deplorables” correctly identified by Hillary Clinton in September 2016. Conservative media howled back about the “elitism” of people who want the rich to pay more taxes and give working people better lives. They tried to guilt-trip Democrats, the party that has traditionally represented working people, for being prejudiced against them — the white ones, that is. And thus we got this odd narrative that white working people (the racist ones, anyway) are the only working people deserving of compassion and, to use the most snowflake term of all, “sensitivity.” It hurts racist white people’s feelings to be called racist.
Trump knew this before Clinton called out the deplorables for what they are. Rushing to defend racism, he had this to say on the campaign trail: “It’s the oldest play in the Democratic playbook,” he said in an attack on Clinton. “She lies and she smears and she paints decent Americans — you — as racists,” he went on, having, the day before, called Clinton a bigot. “It’s a tired, disgusting argument. And it’s
so totally predictable.”
The unifying rhetorical thread of Trump’s rise was the bogeyman of “political correctness” which is now more clearly than ever just a right-wing swear word for belief in racial and gender equality.
Until this week, some Republicans could still try to keep the trunk with the K.K.K. robes and swastikas hidden away, but their president has made clear who his core constituency is and how desperately he feels the need to pander to it. The rest of us need to be sure not to make the mistake of thinking Trump is the problem, or that the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville are the problem, when these are merely the most public faces of the problem.
America’s “silent majority,” I believe, is anti-racist, but the GOP’s silent majority needs racism to fuel their identity politics like a junkie needs opioids. Compare today to 1984, when Jesse Jackson won the Democratic primary in Louisiana, over two major white contenders. The state was still overwhelmingly comprised of registered Democrats in those days. What has happened since then?
The majority of Republicans today think that higher education is actually bad for America. They don’t believe in science.They don’t like Obamacare, above all because of the man who engineered it and for whom it is named. But they like most of what it does). Most chilling of all, they would agree with postponing the next presidential election if Trump wanted that to happen.
This demographic is clearly dumber than it was 20 years ago. What can be the cause? Not Trump, though he is the beneficiary of their ignorance. He’s the president who asks not what he can do for his constituents but what his constituents can do for him.
Enriched from a lifetime of cheating his workers and customers alike, he doesn’t need much in his golden years — just fawning, pathetic, undemocratic subservience, a constant stream of sycophantic worship on the scale that Kim Jong-un’s ego also requires. Trump is deeply pissed off that Americans won’t suck up to him like North Koreans suck up to their great leader. But some Americans do — about 30 percent of us, according to the most recent data from the president’s favorite poll.
No matter how small the number of do-or-die loyalists shrinks to, Trump won’t stop repeating what he said earlier this month: that his base is “bigger and stronger than ever before.” And the hard core will believe him, because they’ve been trained to do so.
The causes of his base’s inability to comprehend facts, and of their longing for a strongman “commander in chief” in lieu of democratic leadership, are twofold. One is their uncritical faith in their own media. Ever since Fox News blasted onto the air in 1996 with its promise of “fair and balanced” news coverage, right-wing media consumers have been the most uncritically accepting of whatever claptrap their masters feed them.
Fox News loves to cite its high audience share, but it exists only because non-conservative media consumers draw from a wider array of information sources. In the past few years, a proliferation of rightwing websites has pushed the envelope into the realm of fake news (a term that actually meant something before Trump beat it into a formless pulp).
But the biggest reason for his base’s unconditional loyalty is the validation that comes with his letting them know that, in his mind, anyway, their racism is OK. They will love him forever for this. This is what he meant when he said he would be their “voice.” They’re not “politically correct,” and neither is he. But Trump didn’t invent the rhetoric his base loves to hear. He was just the first rich TV celebrity to mouth it. His barking of racist appeals is awkward, yes, but his base is just tickled pink to see a big shot give voice to their bigotry. It’s almost like being on TV yourself! “Duck Dynasty” got canceled, but who needs it now that the White House is a 24/7 “reality” TV show?
Where did Trump get his rhetoric? From seasoned racist dog whistlers, many of them Southern. It’s why he’s suddenly taken up the cause of the Confederate monuments. The slippery-slope fallacy he invoked during his Trump Tower press conference on Tuesday, was an echo of rhetoric a couple of months ago from the mouth of our own deplorable Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser.
Nungesser: ““They will not rest until every name is changed that had anything to do with slavery. So I guess they’ll be going after the Washington Monument and tearing down the White House because it was built with slaves.”
Trump: “I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
It’s pointless to try to explain — to Trump’s base, and probably to the president himself — the difference between men who owned slaves but also made significant contributions to the formation of our country and men who did nothing historically significant besides trying to break up the United States and destroy the idea of democracy so that the richest among them could buy and sell human beings.
This is because it’s become an article of faith with them that the Civil War was actually not about slavery. Ask Bossier City State Rep. Thomas Carmody, who said as much when he tried to prevent us from taking down our Confederate monuments way down here in New Orleans. It’s a classic “Big Lie” strategy, one that lets them have their cake and eat it, too — to revere a racist regime while claiming not to be personally racist yourself.
Trump’s sudden embrace of Confederate monuments explains everything. It outs his fantasies of absolute power masquerading as some kind of high-minded ideal. Southern Historian Edward Ayers has pointed out how the coupling of the Confederate flag with the Nazi swastika at this year’s white supremacist rallies exposes the lie that the Confederacy could be a symbol of grassroots democracy standing up to a despotic central government. Of course anyone who’s read past the first page of a history of the C.S.A. knows this, but the right wing media bubble carefully shields Trump’s base from a “politically correct” history of American conservatism, a creed that owes so much to Confederate ideology and nostalgia for Dixie.
There’s something especially annoying about Northern conservatives, like Maine Governor Paul LePage, pandering to the Confederate nostalgia created by Jim Crow. They have no idea what it means to the people of the South finally to be tearing down statues of the tyrants who wrecked our society for a hundred years.
A Marist poll showing that most Americans want the monuments to remain reveals the same willingness to ignore what actual Southerners want if it interferes with the Gone with the Wind fantasy they mistake for history. They want us to remain under the boot of Robert E. Lee because it’s, in Trump’s words, it’s “beautiful” to imagine the South as that romantic place of backwardness and despotism. It inflames their own fantasies of absolute power and a snazzy uniform.
The spectacle of an invigorated white supremacist movement with Trump at its head is horrifying to many, but we should really be happy that the hoods are off. The Republican Party is now forced to choose between its higher ideals (letting rich people run everything at the expense of everyone else) and the dark ugly id of its core voters, men and women who would be lowly Democrats, like the rest of us, if they weren’t so fired up by opportunities to vent their racism.
One good effect of Trump’s leadership, then, is the isolation and exposure of the dwindling number of American racists, and their concentration in one major political party, the GOP. Yes, the conservative media establishment, over a couple of decades, has created more racists, but Trump has brought them into the harsh light of day by making them comfortable with open expression of their reprehensible views.
I am cautiously optimistic that the proliferation of active anti-racists at least matches the growth in new racists. This is the happier side of the story. Trump seems to be bringing more anti-racists out of the woodwork than racists, as every major Confederate monument demonstration this year has shown.
As a white Southerner, I’m immensely proud that the people of New Orleans — including many white ones — united to bring down our Confederate monuments this year. And in light of what happened at Charlottesville, New Orleans deserves special praise for removing its Confederate monuments with virtually no spasms of violence.
While monument removal began before Trump became president, I believe the commitment to anti-racism (among white people) has been emboldened by the spectacle of Trump’s campaign and fluke victory.
Our prominence as the first major city to remove these monuments is fading from daily press coverage. We can be sad about losing our place in the limelight, but we can also be deeply glad that other cities, emulating our example, are pulling down racist monuments all over the country — and all over the South. That’s right: the South!
The Trump phenomenon feeds off rural counties everywhere, but Southern cities are blue country. The urban South’s rejection of old South mythology and ideology illustrates the shift from the North/South regional divide to the urban/rural one.
In states like North Carolina, whose legislature did manage to pass protections for Segregationist monuments, city dwellers have taken matters into their own hands, by personally tearing down the statues that Jim Crow put up. In Durham, as in New Orleans, white people joined with their black neighbors and committed themselves to racial equality.
Geaux Durham! New Orleans is with you.
White supremacists, under their “Make America Great Again” caps, will bus into our cities and try to keep us from exercising our sovereignty, even killing some of us, as they did in Charlottesville, but we will outnumber them. We will tear down their beloved symbols and express our faith in freedom, equality, and in each other. We will continue to govern ourselves in spite of the obstacles this temporary president throws in our path (mostly just words, anyway, since he’s better at dysfunction than despotism).
Most important, we will be here when they are gone. We are enduring an ugly and embarrassing transformation, but the disgrace of Trump and his disciples will enable us to achieve things we’ve been working on for generations. Maybe we needed Trump to wake us up and make us realize how sick we really were. But a more perfect union will be our reward.
C.W. Cannon’s latest novel is “French Quarter Beautification Project.”
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.