It is unsurprising, but very dispiriting to watch members of the Beltway media class fall all over themselves congratulating Republicans for denouncing Nazis and white supremacists. Never mind that few of these Republicans will call out their leader by name for his callousness and attempts to blame “many sides” for the violence that occurred last weekend in Charlottesville, or that “denouncing Nazis” is literally the lowest bar one can hurdle in politics, the real danger in all this slurpage is the gas lighting of the now decades-long effort by Republicans to court racists. Just because someone like Paul Ryan says the Republican Party is not a party of racists does not make it so. In fact, the record shows the opposite to be true.
Let’s face it, Republicans were never particularly shy about their tactics. Indeed, no less a media outlet than the New York Times published an article way back on May 17, 1970 in which a Nixon advisor named Kevin Phillips discussed the so-called “southern strategy” of appealing to white voters by playing on their racial prejudices. Nixon coded some of his message in language that Donald Trump has tried to appropriate (“law and order,” “silent majority”), but whatever subtlety he used was jettisoned by the late 1970s when Ronald Reagan made his own run for the White House by railing against “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” on government assistance that were clear attacks on African-Americans.
It should therefore not be surprising that Reagan began the general election of 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, but he was not there to honor the three dead civil rights workers who were murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964, rather, he touted “states rights,” a rallying cry of white supremacists and segregationists that Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were fighting against when they were killed. As President, Reagan went on to veto a bill that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid leaders in South Africa and his administration launched a “war on drugs” that disproportionately impacted minority communities.
In 1988, the tide of the race to succeed Reagan began to turn when George H.W. Bush’s campaign ran an ad about a Massachusetts state prisoner named Willie Horton, who skipped out of a weekend furlough program and proceeded to rape a woman and seriously injure her fiancé. Horton was black, the victims white. Bush 41’s under qualified Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of sexual harassment but flipped the script by accusing Senators of conducting a “high tech lynching” even as those same Senators refused to allow witnesses to testify who would corroborate his accuser’s story and treated her with skepticism at best and downright hostility at worst.
In the 2000s, Bush 43 could not be bothered to deal with Hurricane Katrina, leading Kanye West to famously opine that “George W. Bush does not care about black people.” Trent Lott was forced from his position as Senate Minority Leader when he was caught on tape saying that if the segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected President in 1948, we would not have many of the problems we have today (don’t feel bad for old Trent, his tone deaf comment might have cost him his Senate leadership, but he has made millions as a lobbyist).
Of course, this was all prelude to the odious “birther” movement that sprung up upon Barack Obama’s election as President. The claim that Obama was born in Kenya was touted by none other than the man who would succeed him as President, who continued trafficking in this ugly smear long after Obama produced his so-called long-form birth certificate. Trump did not even acknowledge Obama’s Hawaiian birth until years later and even then, grudgingly so.
But Trump was no outlier. As recently as last year, polling showed 41 percent of Republicans did not think Obama was born in America and another 31 percent had their doubts. Of course, “birtherism” was of a piece with a deeper vein of racial antipathy toward Obama. One need not look far on the Internet to find images of Tea Party protestors holding photos of Obama portrayed as an African witch doctor complete with a bone in his nose and more than a few Republican officials throughout the country were caught making crude racial comments comparing the Obamas to apes and monkeys.
The beat goes on. Voter ID laws have been passed in many states even though the problem it claims to address (in person voting fraud) is vanishingly rare. These laws have been proven to impact the poor, minorities, and the elderly disproportionately. Indeed, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that North Carolina’s Voter ID law attempted to disenfranchise African-American voters with “surgical precision” and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down two of that state’s congressional districts because of racial discrimination. Ohio has tried to scrub their voter rolls of inactive voters (action supported by the Trump Administration in a case that will be heard by a Supreme Court that has retained its conservative bent thanks to the blocking of Merrick Garland last year) and Wisconsin’s Voter ID law affected 300,000 voters, an unknown number of whom were then unable to vote in 2016.
Racism is not a bug in the modern Republican Party, it is a feature. Attempts by their party leaders to gas light their actions should be called out, loudly and firmly, by members of the media.
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