Mitt Romney took to Twitter on Monday to denounce Trump’s infamous KKK hedge. For months Romney has been cautiously critical of Trump, but only now does Romney consider Trump’s antics “disqualifying.” Other conservatives have now echoed Romney’s comments and a solid opposition to Trump is beginning to take shape.
For almost a year Donald Trump has been bloviating bigotry. His insulting comments about Mexicans and Jews earned little if any complaint. Republicans have yet to criticize his ugly comments on Black Lives Matter protesters or his efforts to incite his followers to violence. Trump has been repeating conspiracy theories and re-tweeting comments from Neo-Nazis for months and no one in the party seemed particularly troubled.
An opportunity looms behind the threat Trump poses to the GOP. In recent decades, the Party of Lincoln has contorted itself into a vehicle for the frustrated defenders of Jim Crow. That effort was always toxic, gradually perverting the party’s meaning and purpose. Defeating Donald Trump will require us to confront a painful racist legacy and restore a lost Republican agenda. Accomplishing that feat could break the Blue Wall and create a new, more vibrant Republican future. Unfortunately, the first steps will be painful.
Before we can confront the racism of Trump, we must come to terms with bigotry that sits much closer to the party’s core. Unless we reckon with the genteel racist rhetoric of respected figures like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, any triumph over trolls like Trump is just a lull between disasters.
Romney’s comments go to the heart of what Trump’s supporters hate about the Republican Party – its hypocrisy. For half a century Republicans have been trying to recruit white nationalists without stating our intentions out loud. During election seasons we issue coded assurances to nervous racists that we support them. Concealed beneath rhetoric about constitutionalism, or religious freedom, “conservative values,” or government dependence is a promise to put the genie back in the bottle. Brown folk and women and foreigners will all be nudged back into their rightful place, properly subjugated and presumably happy. We will “take our country back.” We will “make America great again.” America will once again be a white Christian nation.
Frustrated by our failure to overtly embrace their agenda, Republican bigots have finally found a candidate who has dropped the pretense and run an explicitly white nationalist campaign. We are discovering that no one ever really cared much about abortion. No one cared about fiscal restraint, or tax cuts or nationalized health care. The Republican base we painstakingly assembled across fifty years is only really interested in one thing – preserving the dominant position of their white culture against a rising tide of pluralism. Other issues only mattered to the extent that they helped reinforce and preserve white supremacy.
No one should misunderstand Romney’s supposedly courageous stance against Trump. Renouncing the KKK requires no courage whatsoever from anyone in almost any era. His stance is not a departure from past practice. Mitt Romney condemned the KKK? George Wallace was doing that in the Fifties.
The Klan was designed to be a shadow organization. It was engineered to be disavowed. They wear hoods and operate primarily at night. Everyone who occupies some position of authority or social dignity is supposed to express outrage about the KKK even if they are members. That’s how white nationalist violence was executed in an otherwise “free” society.
Americans have always embraced colorblindness as a component of gentility, a class marker. Slaveholders insisted that they bore no animosity toward blacks. They were merely playing their appointed role in a natural order. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was careful to describe the compassionate intentions of enlightened Southerners toward African-Americans. Blacks would uniquely benefit under the Confederacy, by “teaching them the lesson taught to Adam, that ‘in the sweat of his brow he should eat his bread,’ and teaching them to work, and feed, and clothe themselves.”
Sound familiar? It should. Here’s what it sounds like when Congressman Paul Ryan repeats Stephens’ ideas:
“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work, so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.”
When Strom Thurmond broke from the Democratic Party over Civil Rights and launched his own segregationist campaign for the White House, he stressed his friendly relationships with blacks. Thurmond explained that segregation was the key to harmonious racial relations. Just as today’s Republicans blame Black Lives Matter protesters for stirring up unrest, Thurmond explained that all was well in the Jim Crow South before meddlers intervened: “the clamor comes from agitators and socially maladjusted persons who do not care about or understand the conditions existing in the many communities in the United States where people of different races live and work together.”
Alabama’s fiercely racist Governor George Wallace distanced himself from the Ku Klux Klan, not because he was a racial liberal but because that’s what decent people do in well-bred society. Wallace never took pictures in front of burning crosses, but he nonetheless managed to get his message across.
There are no racists in America. Properly domesticated Americans conceal their racism beneath a colorblind veneer. “I don’t see color” and “I have lots of black friends” are mantras that allow systemic racism to go unchallenged. Colorblind is just blind, and blindness is a comfort we indulge in to avoid seeing the reality around us. We live in a system engineered to produce unjust outcomes along racial lines. Half a century after the Civil Rights Acts, we still fight to avoid recognizing that injustice.
Ta-Nehisi Coates described the language we use to express racism in a 2013 essay for the New York Times:
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
What’s missing from Republican criticisms of Trump is any distinction deeper than rhetoric. None of the candidates has set themselves apart from Trump on his most extreme white nationalist policy positions. Opposition so far all comes down to either language or a futile insistence that he’s not conservative enough. That kind of attack will never hit home.
Romney’s attack on Trump is impotent because it is not about racism. It’s about manners. For well-mannered Americans from good backgrounds, racism is like Fight Club. Speaking openly about bigotry is a social faux pas. Outrage over Trump’s Klan gaffe is nothing more than tone-policing.
Remember, Mitt Romney is the same guy who whitesplained the opposition he got from the NAACP in 2012 by implying that they just want “free stuff.” Romney is the 47% guy. This year’s establishment moderate, Jeb Bush, repeated the same ‘free stuff’ line in South Carolina last fall. None of the GOP field drew any principled distinction from Trump on his refugee policy, his stupid border wall, or his foreign policy militancy. Sophisticated people cloak their racism in a well-turned phrase. Romney isn’t criticizing Trump for racism. He’s just ridiculing him for using the wrong fork. Good luck with that.
Supporters often remark that Trump “tells it like it is” or he “says what we’re thinking.” Through color-blind glasses this paints a strange picture. After all, when Trump isn’t lying he’s generally either evading or distorting. Voters are describing him as a straight shooter not because he’s telling the truth, but because he has abandoned the politically correct language used by the ‘in-crowd’ to embarrass less eloquent racists. He is breaching a barrier of class, manners, and education.
Trump is merely a step in a natural progression. If not him it would have been someone else. Defeat him this year without confronting the racism that fueled his campaign and we’ll just keep fighting the same monster again and again with different haircuts. Thanks to our colorblindness, racism acts like dark matter in our political universe, perverting policy outcomes in ways we find impossible to understand. As long as we tolerate systemic racism the prosperity, freedom, and success we would otherwise deserve will remain elusive.
Ironically, this is a time of opportunity for the Republican Party. We have nothing left to gain from continued pandering to a racist fringe. Unfortunately, we’ve forgotten other paths. Mitt Romney’s father, George, was one of the party’s greatest proponents of minority outreach. He represents a bridge to an era when Republicans took black voters seriously. Rediscovering that legacy could open up new possibilities and break the Blue Wall.
Nothing we do will change the outcome of the 2016 election. It’s over. It’s been over for years. Our own post-mortem of the 2012 Election made that patently obvious to anyone willing to face facts.
Our goal in confronting Donald Trump is not to win in 2016, but to halt the accelerating damage and build something new. By hitting us on this specific weakness, the Trump campaign is exposing the spot where our efforts should be invested. Mitt Romney does not consider himself a racist. You can be confident that he bears no open hostility toward other races or cultures. Understanding how an otherwise standup guy found himself pandering to racists will hand us a key that can free us from repeating his mistakes.
Making America “great again” is too modest a goal, one that implies our greatness is a limited resource that can only be mined from our past. Moving past colorblindness and denial to a basic awareness of reality will lay a foundation on which to build sound, effective policy.
The Trump campaign is a gift from the political gods. Confronting the forces that conjured him is our challenge. That fight could break the party, but that’s okay. This party hasn’t been fun for a long time. Time to build something better.