Black and Blue
Present-mortems abound. Much has been written about the self-immolation of the Grand Old Party and its historical roots, some analyses tracing its causes back to the South’s making good on its threat of secession in the face of the resistance to slavery’s spread to newly acquired western territories, that sepia-toned era when the Republicans were the Party of Lincoln, before America’s Original Sin turned them into the Party of Calhoun. Blame Reagan (for winning). Blame Barry Goldwater (for losing). Blame George W. Bush (for being an idiot).
The recent violence at presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rallies, increasingly indiscriminate, has finally forced other blood-red Republican candidates to speak their displeasure on the record, beyond even Mitt Romney’s targeted appeal at the GOP’s owner-class. Marco Rubio’s reticence was on full display in a statement he made over the weekend. Ted Cruz was even more forceful in his criticism. Both managed, in a manner characteristic of the Party of the Dog Whistle, to shirk any responsibility for what their Party has become. The mob’s atavism has expanded its orbit, no longer content to swallow up and spit out black protestors, but now white ones as well, and now white reporters from friendly publications like Breitbart.
Students in Political Science departments study exactly this brand of violence as a matter of course. A political strongman animates the rage and fury of a disenfranchised body (or at least one that perceives itself as disenfranchised), and, like a growing celestial corpus, pulls the fringe towards the center. Clashes arise and blood is spilt, and it is precisely this violence that the strongman claims his election to high office will cure. By the time the protest turns to riot, it is out of anyone’s control. The strongman’s promise imbues him with otherworldly capabilities. Not only will he restore power to the disempowered, he will quiet all noisy dissent. The citizens of those countries named in those Political Science textbooks may be smirking ruefully at the fact that the United States of America can finally join their ranks. Or, they would if civil war and massacres and totalitarianism weren’t running rampant throughout Central Africa and the Middle East, if war were not pushing upon Europe the greatest refugee crisis in modern history.
When an iconic arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice who fought with all of his intellectual might to make the country a less fair place and the wife of the Republican Party’s patron saint die within months of each other, when one turns on basic cable television on any given night and can be bombarded by shows with majority non-white casts, when #BlackTwitter is a more powerful and envied source of cultural capital than most of the online output of white producers, it is perhaps understandable why various segments of White America may feel themselves besieged. The white student is denied admission to a school, admission she believed her birthright, and makes her way to the Supreme Court in search of victimhood.
More quietly, almost off-stage, a mirrored conflict is playing itself out on the other side of the political divide. One could argue that it was Lyndon B. Johnson’s embrace of the Civil Rights Act that cut the blue river of the Democratic bloc into smaller tributaries. Then-President Johnson noted most presciently that with the passage of the Act, the party had lost the South for at least a generation. Until then, a candidate could coast to victory on the white vote. Indeed, the post-bellum South had long been the primary battleground for candidates, and the irony is not lost on the fact that a Son of the South had brought about this most titanic change in the country’s voting topography, rewriting, in a single moment, the priorities of the American body politic. The increasing and increasingly fraught inclusiveness of the electoral process brought the Democratic Party, as it turned slowly turned its back on the Dixiecrat past, to a crossroads in 1972 with George McGovern’s catastrophic loss to Nixon. The mindset of the modern white Democrat, their dilemma in fact, was encapsulated quite horridly in Hillary Clinton’s recent two-punch faux pas, wherein she first praised the recently-departed Nancy Reagan for “starting a national conversation on AIDS,” then proceeding to make a calculated appeal to peace and the joining of hands in the aftermath of an attack on a protestor at a Trump rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina, invoking the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, wherein the families of the victims publically forgave white supremacist Dylann Roof for walking into a church and shooting dead nine defenseless black parishioners with the intent of starting a race war.
Watching cable news and reading the newspapers with the highest circulation will inundate the media consumer with yet more demonstrations of the performance of black grief and reconciliation, the familiar platitudes of those black Americans “being the better person” or “turning the other cheek.” Spend a little bit of time online, however, and the picture changes. The weeping becomes a sneer. There are still tears, but anger burns in them. Since the deluge of video footage on the Internet displaying the agonized final moments of African-Americans on the other side of a police pistol, the process that follows has grown louder in its unrest and fury. We’re tired, and we’re running out of cheeks to turn. The Docile Negro has long been an illusion, but what appears now, a figure muscled with fury, no longer bears the ephemerality of nightmare. It is, with each passing day, a more tangible, tactile reality. It demands special prosecutors in police-involved killings. It demands bail reform. It demands that the logos and names of prominent universities and the buildings on them be changed. It jumps onto stages and grabs microphones from Presidential candidates. It tears signs at political rallies. It sets cities on fire.
“Wind/In the cotton fields,” Langston Hughes once wrote, “Gentle breeze:/Beware the hour/It uproots trees.”
African-Americans have not forgotten the scourge brought on by the tough-on-crime posture of her husband Bill Clinton during his tenure as “America’s first black President,” nor have they forgotten Hillary’s coining the term “superpredator” and her entreaty to “bring them to heel.”
One watches Hillary Clinton meet with Trayvon Martin’s mother and the mothers of so many sons whose murders have become the stuff of news, and one would be forgiven for seeing political calculation. The algebra works to painful effect when just such a visit can be paraded as a teachable moment, when private grief becomes political gain.
Hillary’s missteps have been rightly castigated on social media, the first with the #HistoryByHillary hashtag, the second with more earnest displeasure and disappointment, expressed, unfortunately, more through Tweets than actual reportage.
On a less extreme but perhaps more pervasive level rests the unease with which the Bernie Sanders campaign has appealed to black voters. From his failure to protect and engage with local Black Lives Matter protestors during a Seattle rally to his initial hesitance in including an element of racial justice into his platform of economic inequality, his campaign has done more to highlight the rift between black and white Democrats than perhaps any Republican candidate or President these past few election cycles has managed. And once Hillary Clinton secured the endorsements of such icons as Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis, popular consensus declared that she could check the Black Vote off on her to-do list and now pivot towards gaining the trust and votes of white voters. Hence, her recent appeal to kumbaya while black protestors in Chicago are held in jail and forced to crowd-fund bail money to secure their release. Bernie Sanders having the visceral and vibrant Killer Mike in his corner and Bernie’s lunching with Al Sharpton at Sylvia’s may be no match for Shonda.
Two reasons among a possible many can explain the press’s relative silence on the issue. One is that the conflict facing the Democratic Party has no entertaining villain around which a narrative can be centered. There is no Donald Trump for the Democratic Party, there is no single candidate turning the dog whistle into the bullhorn. The chicken coming to roost is more amorphous and operates in more widespread fashion. The second reason is that much of the divide between white and black Democrats has played out on social media rather than on more visible stages. Creep to the right corners of Facebook and Twitter and it becomes much easier to understand why some ostensibly white liberal BernieBros and Sandernistas might rage-quit the Party of the Left for Trump.
The most disruptive force in American politics has been the admittance of blacks into the electoral process. The groundbreaking advent of African-Americans to elected office during Reconstruction did much to fuel the white resentment that led to Redemption. The South wanted revenge for the Civil War, and the North was content to let them unleash their rage on the newly empowered African-American. Federal response to lynchings and cross-burning and the largest wave of domestic terrorism in American history was tepid and piecemeal, and no segment of government has taken any substantive steps to confront that legacy. But this is not news. It is merely history.
Reactionary victories during times of economic downturn are expected. Look no further than southern and southeastern Europe in the immediate wake of the Great Recession. Even now, eight years later in America, one can lay the blame for Trump’s appeal at the foot of the fact that economic recovery has left so much of White America in the dust. Fertile ground for xenophobia. A facile comparison is the Jews of Europe as the scapegoat for interwar Germany’s economic post-apocalypse. But whether the missteps of the Democratic candidates’ entreaties or the racism of the Republican Party’s platform, one of the premier dilemmas facing modern American politicians is this: now that blacks can vote, what do we do with them?
It is perhaps for this reason that the prospect of a Trump presidency has failed to frighten me. The math is simply not on his side.
Mitt Romney’s cri de coeur was the perfect picture of the existential dilemma facing Republican voters. Listening to Romney detail Trump’s business failings as well as his sheer ineptitude on issues of foreign policy, splashing paint all over him to reveal him for the conman he is, one wonders to whom Romney was speaking. The Trump supporter is not of the Establishment; indeed, the Trump supporter, the one caught on camera doing the Hitler salute at a recent rally, has aimed its ire at the very Establishment Romney represents. These are some of the folks most vehemently punished by “trickle-down economics.” Romney is among the folks who most vehemently benefited. The Trump supporter, in the grand American tradition of voting against one’s interests, should, by all means, be clinging to the platform on which Bernie Sanders stands hunched. In the museum exhibit on economic inequality, their faces line the walls. But the quantum quandary of the Trump supporter is only the other side of the coin that killed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Brown held counsel with Frederick Douglass before the attack. He detailed his plan and pleaded with the escaped slave and ardent abolitionist leader to do his part in marshaling black Americans, both slave and free, to rise up, break their shackles, and continue John Brown’s campaign of liberation past Harper’s Ferry and into the deep recesses of the South. Douglass remarked to John Brown that he misunderstood the white slaveholder. Brown’s intent was to make slaveholding such an expensive enterprise, through the forced freeing of slaves and the increasingly costly measures of ensuring their captivity, that slaveholders would simply give up and emancipate their chattel. Douglass knew, more than Brown could ever know, that it was not just economic benefit animating the peculiar institution but racial animus as well. Brown failed to truly understand the depth of hatred the white slaveholder held for the black slave. Had he known, who knows what else he would have been able to accomplish in his campaign to rid America of this stain of slavery?
This isn’t to say that the Trump supporter is automatically racist. But one cannot vote credit default swaps out of office. One cannot knock a derivative’s teeth out. When Trump brought the Birther movement into the mainstream, he did so to cheers and affirmative nods and sideways smirks from the GOP. His mindset has not changed, only the things he wants have. George Packer wrote in The New Yorker: “Trump may be the bastard spawn of the Republican Party, but his parentage can’t be denied.” Indeed, Republicans seem more resigned to accepting Trump than to effectively battling him. The #NeverTrump campaign died as soon as the Republican candidates admitted that they would support Donald Trump were he to become the nominee. The Trump supporter cares nothing for these machinations. The Trump supporter is angry, furious, that the country they have dominated for so long is getting away from them, forgetting, of course, that it was the Mitt Romney, the Ronald Reagan, who was perhaps most instrumental in shattering their illusion of supremacy. The Trump supporter lacks a high school degree. The Trump supporter is also college-educated. The Trump supporter admires personality more than policy. The Trump supporter is dying off at an extraordinary rate. The Trump supporter is white. What Trump offers is what so many Republican candidates before him have offered: a stemming of the tide. In early American history, whites worked as indentured servants alongside blacks in the repayment of debts. But when the two groups, united in their peonage, organized to demand better conditions, the owner-class introduced racial animus into the equation to eradicate the potential for underclass solidarity.
George McGovern recognized this past and saw the future.
I imagine he’s looking down from his perch in the firmament on the youth and minority voters that shut down Donald Trump’s planned Chicago rally, the ones disrupting his events at every turn, the ones putting their bodies in the way of the juggernaut threatening American democracy, and he is planning in his mind how he would have courted these people directly, how he would have recognized their role in saving the republic.
The charge against Hillary is that she believes the black vote guaranteed. Bill Clinton’s adoration or, at this point respect, among older black voters has laid a clear path for her. And she capitalized early on Sanders’s initial inability to effectively assimilate racial justice into his platform and to make black activists feel welcome. The likelihood that she will be America’s first female Head of State means more to younger generations eager to participate in the making of history than in older ones weary of watching the world get away from them. But already, she is pivoting from actively courting the Black Vote to a softer position more palatable for the white voter watching the Right with disgust but turned off by what they may see as militant rhetoric. Her rapid response to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan may be reason to hold out hope that, having made the expected overtures to Black America, she will not forget us.
The charge against Bernie is broader. Not only does it charge the candidate with an inability to disentangle racism from economic injustice, but it also charges many of his supporters with just the same dismissiveness characteristic of Republican voters. Indeed, the terms “BernieBro” and “Sandernista” have acquired a tone of derision. They are the young, white, liberal (usually male), who brooks no criticism of their candidate whatsoever. The refrains heard most often to any charge against their candidate is “But what about Hillary” and “So, what, are you going to vote Republican, then”. Indeed, they pose perhaps the greatest danger to Sanders’s campaign. Their rabidity echoes the dynamic, on a fundamental level but to a much lesser degree, of a Trump rally, a body bucking and writhing to expel an invading virus.
Discussing the election last year with a white friend of mine, I posited a theory of white fear. From the era of slavery to the present day, the white gaze has operated on two levels simultaneously, engaged in an instantaneous process. The white man looks at the enslaved Negro and says to himself, “if what was being done to them and theirs was being done to me and mine, I’d want to burn this motherfucker down. Maybe they want the same. I should do everything in my power to make sure they can’t.” All the while, the white man remembers he is white and that he does have the power to ensure such censure. Slavery, the poll tax, the policies that led to mass incarceration, Jim Crow, voter ID laws. The conservative display of this thought process is obvious. They are coming; time to batten down the hatches. Where is the Democratic candidate that notices this? That understands this? John Brown meant well and was determined to die for his conviction, but he misunderstood race hatred. Who could be so determined to maintain a social order that they would die for it? Who could be so invested that they would consistently vote against their own economic interests for it?
America may not yet be at the point yet where the white vote is irrelevant, where concerns facing the black community, the Latino community, the Muslim community, all take priority over those facing white voters. But America is close. In less than two decades, there will be more non-white American citizens than white ones. The Republican Party is allergic to teachable moments; the aftermath of their 2012 postmortem is evidence enough of this. What is the Democratic candidate’s excuse?
Is McGovernism still that much of a curse word? An epithet?
Republican voters are increasingly at an impasse. Marco Rubio looks and sounds like a beaten man in describing their plight. If sexist resentment will send the chagrined Sandernista into the arms of the GOP, singularly intent on watching the world burn, then it is also believable that disillusioned Republican voters will flee leftward, echoing the exodus that afflicted the Klan in the early and mid 1900s.
“White Lives Matter!” shouts the Trump supporter. It has been screaming that since Reconstruction. The modern Republican Party hears the cry loud and clear. Trump carries the banner on which that slogan is embossed. The Republican Establishment, in its tepid, half-hearted response to the destruction he has wrought on their party, hears it too. Indeed, has heard it for nearly all of its modern incarnation. The Democratic Party, still, in 2016, is drawn like a clarion call. But, in this election cycle, centrism has become a thing of the past. Neoliberal is no longer the ticket. And one hopes that Hillary and Bernie will continue to hear above the din.
The Democratic Party took the wrong lessons from George McGovern’s loss in 1972. It is the hope of this voter that they will not make the same mistake in 2016.