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Trump’s Racist Referendum

The president is America’s foremost fomenter of violence, hatred, and strife.
September 3, 2020
Trump’s Racist Referendum
US President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he makes his way to board Air Force One before departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on September 1, 2020, heading to Kenosha, Wisconsin to meet with law enforcement officials and to survey damage following civil unrest in the city. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The most striking aspect of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is his eagerness to inflame the nerve ends of our racial discontents.

In the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall suggests the roots of this strategy. Trump’s GOP, Edsall opines, has “two overarching goals”: “deregulation and reductions in corporate and other tax liabilities”; and “preservation . . . of the privileged status of white Christian America.”

Trump apologists may bridle. But beyond peradventure, four centuries of racial pathology are again disfiguring American politics. Edsall quotes Robert P. Jones, author of The End of White Christian America, as to why:

America’s still segregated modern life is marked by three realities: First, geographic segregation has meant that . . . most white Americans continue to live in locales that insulate them from the obstacles facing many majority-black communities. Second . . . the overwhelming majority of white Americans don’t have a single close relationship with a person who isn’t white. Third, there are virtually no American institutions positioned to resolve these problems.

For blacks, racism is a lived experience; for whites, empathy is a volitional act limited by individual comprehension. Since the killing of George Floyd was captured on video for all to see, one race-based question has permeated the presidential campaign: What is the shelf-life of white concern over police violence against blacks—and will this hopeful moment of empathy be truncated by violence and disorder?

In the rush of events, America’s racial anxieties become ever more volatile. After police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times, his mother implored: “Everybody, let’s use our hearts, our love, and our intelligence to work together to show the rest of the world how humans are supposed to treat each other.”

But in some locales what followed was looting and vandalism, vigilantism and confrontation. Thuggish morons in Washington, D.C. harassed diners who refused to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter. A teenage Trump supporter and self-appointed vigilante killed two protesters in Kenosha and wounded a third; in Portland, a caravan of Trumpites in trucks fired paint guns and pepper spray at protesters before someone, perhaps an Antifa sympathizer, killed a member of a far-right, anti-Antifa group.

But to invoke the facile sloth of moral equivalency ignores two crucial differences. First, the majority of protests over police violence against blacks have been peaceful. Second, while Joe Biden condemns violence from both sides, Trump targets only protesters on the left, indiscriminately tarring them as anarchists, agitators, looters, and rioters.

Where others see tragedy, Trump seizes opportunity. By strip-mining America’s racial pathology, he means to shift the conversation from his lethal mishandling of COVID19—converting white guilt and defensiveness into an electorally animating rage against the supposedly menacing African Americans who not only despoil our cities, but threaten the serenity of racially homogenous suburbs.

Trump’s aim, quite obviously, is to weaponize white fears of demographic change through simplistic calls for law and order steeped in authoritarian rhetoric and McCarthyesque scapegoating. Black Lives Matter, he trumpets, is a “Marxist organization.” Further, “the violence is fueled by dangerous rhetoric from far-left politicians that demonize our nation and demonize our police. . . . The violent rioters share Biden’s same talking points, and they share his same agenda for our nation.”

“No one,” he warns, “will be safe in Biden’s America.” The only bulwark is Donald Trump, who stands ready to dispatch the National Guard should pusillanimous Democratic governors or mayors but request it.

Traveling to Kenosha despite the pleas of local officials, Trump said not a word about black victims of police violence. Instead, he proclaimed, “reckless, far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.” Mendaciously, he claimed to have dispatched the National Guard to Kenosha in order to quell violence—when, in truth, they were activated by Wisconsin’s Democratic governor.

To the contrary Trump is America’s foremost fomenter of violence, hatred, and strife. Regarding the far-right goon squads in Portland who fired paint and pellet guns at protesters, he said “paint is a defensive mechanism” and “the big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected.” When one of the right-wing provocateurs in Portland was shot to death, Trump tweeted “Rest In Peace Jay”—a glaring contrast to his silence over Jacob Blake. As Kyle Rittenhouse was lionized by pro-Trump media after killing two protesters, Trump suggested that it was an act of self-defense without saying whether the 17-year-old should have been there.

Little wonder that street-fighting, armed militiamen and violent clashes between extremists proliferated after Trump’s election. Trump feeds on menace and disorder—indeed he needs them, never more than now. Charlottesville was but a prelude.

Little wonder, too, that reputable historians perceive some disturbing, if inexact, parallels between Trump and the authoritarians who remade twentieth-century Europe in their image. Harvard political scientist Steven Levitsky, co-author of How Democracies Die, told the New Yorker, “I don’t normally like to make these comparisons, but this sort of encouragement of violence for political purposes is worryingly similar to what the Fascist movement did in Europe during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties.” Similarly, NYU historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted that Benito Mussolini used violence “to destabilize Italian society, so he could position himself as the person to stop this violence”—adding that this evokes what Trump is doing now.

As reported by Philip Bump in the Washington Post, research by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels brings such concerns closer to contemporary America. Bartels asked survey respondents whether they agreed with four statements:

  • “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
  • “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”
  • “Strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.”
  • “It is hard to trust the results of elections when so many people will vote for anyone who offers a handout.”

Reports Bump:

Most Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agreed with the first statement. . . . Nearly three-quarters agreed that election results should be treated with skepticism. . . . Respondents were significantly more likely to say they agreed with the other two statements than that they disagreed.

Crucially, Bartels told Bump, “ethnic antagonism” is “the most powerful factor associated with willingness to resort to force in pursuit of political ends and support for ‘patriotic Americans’ taking the law into their own hands and ‘strong leaders’ bending rules.”

In short, whether one credits historical analogies, racial animus remains a potent and destabilizing force in America’s political present—and in this campaign.

Trump exacerbates racial unrest; Biden decries disorder. Yet Biden is assailed by demands from Trump supporters and anxious Democrats alike to decry it again and again. While—as a matter of politics and morality alike—Biden must do so, this underscores a pernicious double standard which bedevils him alone. The least of this, though appalling, is that Democrats don’t expect any decency from Trump—and his followers don’t want it. More disturbing is that whites’ fear of blacks preempts blacks’ all-too-real fear of whites.

Sadly, Trump’s strategic race-baiting may be making headway. According to a Morning Consult poll following both conventions, Trump gained a few points among whites and suburbanites—although that bump “was short-lived, with the three-day survey showing no significant national shifts among those groups.” Other surveys show Biden slipping a bit in battleground states.

By rightly embracing black protests against systemic racism, Democrats may have become more vulnerable to the reflexive anxiety of wavering whites. That also makes it awkward for Democrats to point out that unrest in cities has risen during Trump’s time in office, while opposing his interference in cities run by Democrats. When it comes to looting and vandalism, too many voters live in nuance-free zones.

Rhetorically, Biden’s response has been well-judged. Over the weekend he accused Trump of “fanning the flames of hate and division” and “recklessly encouraging violence.” His seminal speech in Pittsburgh on Monday drew salutary bright lines: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. . . . It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

What America most needs, Biden emphasized, is to be “safe from four more years of Donald Trump.” Stingingly, he reminded Americans of Trump’s colossal failure to combat the coronavirus: “More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol.”

That denotes the ground that Biden wants to fight on, and that the campaign should be fought on—the difference between decency and divisiveness, competence and callousness. The question is whether Biden can surmount Trump’s efforts to maintain power by acting as sorcerer’s apprentice to our seeming ineradicable toxins of race.

Michael Gerson well describes this national reckoning: “Will we allow the poisoner of our civic culture to be its doctor? A healthy democracy will refuse to reward the author of its own discord.”

America desperately needs to do so—not only to protect our deteriorating democracy from further degradation at Trump’s hands but to win a national referendum on racism which, if lost, would become a tragedy all its own.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.