Yes, the White Supremacists in their Klan regalia, displaying Nazi symbols, are despicable. Of course we should denounce them.
But they will always be there. Their numbers will fluctuate. They will be brazen at certain times and keep to the shadows at other times. Sometimes their hatred and anger will simmer, noticeable only to those looking closely. Other times, it will boil over, in disgusting displays like what we saw in Charlottesville.
We’ll never change them. The issue is whether they will change us.
And over the course of a slow, half-century long march that has not yet reached its end, they have.How? Call it derivative enablement. The haters don’t have the numbers, by themselves, to win elections and move policy, even in the South. Thus, cynical politicians are not enough to enable the haters, unless cynical voters are willing to enable those cynical politicians. Which is what gives voice to the depraved values of the haters. Politicians pander to them, while other supporters of the pandering politicians look the other way, because of something else that’s in it for them.
It started in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights victories of 1964 and 1965. Lyndon Jonson said those victories would cost the Democratic Party the South for the next generation. Richard Nixon was listening. He campaigned in 1968 on law and order, with the emphasis on order. Order is needed when certain people are getting, you know, uppity. That dog whistle, and the southern and border states it placed in his column, was Nixon’s margin of victory.
That was Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” You also could call it his “Supremacist Strategy.” The haters would not be enough to clinch victory. They were only part of Nixon’s winning coalition. But the other members of that coalition – country club Republicans, Goldwater Republicans – kept their coalition memberships. They could have quit. They could have decided that no matter how much they’d like Nixon’s approach to taxes and regulation, they couldn’t support someone who pandered to angry racists bitter that black Americans could now vote and sit at lunch counters. But they didn’t. Those country clubbers and Goldwater types might not have cared much for Nixon’s pandering to the White Supremacist rabble, but they weren’t going to kick Nixon to the curb for doing so.
Reagan took the dog whistling to the next level in 1980. He kicked off his general election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, speaking about states’ rights. Throughout the campaign he spoke of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks.” By this time, the so-called Religious Right had joined the winning coalition. Although Reagan’s pandering to the haters may not have pleased the other coalition members, it again was not a deal point for them. If the path to lower taxes, reduced regulation, and forcing women to take unwanted pregnancies to term meant getting into bed with the racist crowd, well, so be it.
Enter economic inequality. Over a span of three decades beginning about the time Reagan was elected, those at the top of the economic food chain in America did unbelievably well, while those in the middle and towards the bottom did progressively worse. Hard times bring out the best in some people, but the worst in others. Otherwise decent people succumb to the temptation of hatred in hard times, especially when there’s a group, like immigrants, to scapegoat.
Throw in the election of an African-American at the depths of the Great Recession, and you have a toxic brew. The combination of a well-financed media operation, courtesy of the Koch Brothers and their affiliates, and dozens of cynical politicians, gave rise to the Tea Party. Hate was back in style.
Which took derivative enablement to an entirely new level and ultimately gave us Donald Trump.
Trump in not especially smart, but he recognized that the Supremacist Strategy now called for more direct communication. The hater crowd had grown to the point they could elect dozens of Tea Party types in Republican primaries. Trump noticed. He didn’t communicate by dog whistle. His message was direct and unmistakable. Mexican immigrants had to be walled off. Muslims were going to kill us. Blacks lives don’t matter, but Blue lives sure do.
That propelled Trump to easy primary victories and the Republican nomination. Those angry, vicious crowds at Trump rallies grew throughout the campaign. The haters, forced to lay low for decades, had now emerged from behind their trees and under their rocks. They were jubilant. Their savior had arrived.
Still, they were not enough by themselves once the general election was upon Trump.
It wasn’t the hard-core Trump supporters who ultimately elected Trump. Rather, it was the Rubio supporters, the Cruz supporters and, yes, the Kasich supporters who did. It was the country club Republicans, who made a Faustian bargain in the hopes of lower corporate and estate tax rates. It was the military contractors, who salivated at the prospect of a bloated defense budget. It was the fossil fuel industry, which feared another Democrat might continue the woefully inadequate baby steps Obama had taken to prevent catastrophic climate change.
So here we are. The haters are out in full force. They think they’re large and in charge. We know Donald Trump isn’t going to tell them otherwise. He’s with them.
What about those who have been enabling Trump? Will they step up?
In the early days of Nazi Germany, many industrialists did not care for Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. But they thought his agenda would be good for them economically, so they lent their support.
Whether history repeats itself, time will tell. But living through the past two years in America gives us a glimpse of how precarious civility and decency are in any society, and how easily a society can devolve into madness.
Let’s hope enough of Trump’s enablers recognize this in time.