The observations below were written in mid-March 2016, during one of the now mind-numbingly familiar surges of public indignation and consternation over Donald Trump's presidential campaign. That flare-up followed Trump's slow and unconvincing repudiation of David Duke. I sent a version of it to the New York Times, but they didn't like it. Now, three months and several cycles of public hand-wringing later, I'm dusting it off. It could be tweaked to fit the current moment more perfectly by changing about eight words and names, but I'll just leave it as it was in March to show how little progress the GOP and the media have made in the interim.
The recent torrent of indignation over Donald Trump is not what it seems. Whereas Republican leaders are trying to fool us (they are genuinely angry and frightened and are trying to re-label their honest emotion as outrage), the independent media are fooling themselves. The central lie lurking beneath both brands of dishonesty is the supposed fact that white supremacy is beyond the mainstream of American politics and universally deplored in our civic life. For their own reasons, people as disparate as Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Brian Lehrer want to agree that overt racism is verboten and that Trump’s comments and attitudes are somehow more despicable and extreme than those of the other Republican candidates. In reality, the Republican establishment knows, and the high-minded intelligentsia ought to know, that this is not true.
Acute racism not only persists in our society, it defines one of the most politically decisive constituencies in American politics. Without the monolithic support of white racist voters, the Republican Party could not be remotely competitive in any modern presidential election, nor in any but a handful of US Senate elections. Asking Trump to denounce the Ku Klux Klan is just a role-playing game—it would be much more to the point to ask all the presidential candidates to agree up front to subtract all the votes of overt racists from the results of the general election. When, in 2000, a painstaking analysis of a small number of undoubtedly legitimate but technically invalid ballots threw Florida—and the presidency—to George W. Bush, it was taken for granted that he was entitled to keep, and under no obligation to publicly disavow, the vastly larger number of votes he scored from virulent racists and white supremacists.
Amazingly, Trump’s is possibly the most sincere voice in 2016’s nauseating spectacle. It’s true that he, like any Republican candidate, is reluctant to turn down the votes of racist individuals; but notice that he is also ready to accept the votes of Democrats and others whom Cruz and Ryan and Romney would be quick to repudiate. The Republican establishment is suddenly yelping that Trump should denounce the racists only because their months-long complaints about others among his supporters (such as people who like Medicare, Social Security, Planned Parenthood, and protectionism) have not damaged him at all. This is the true outrage on the Republican side—horror and amazement that broad swaths of the Republican electoral base are not as interested in abstract conservative orthodoxy as everybody thought. But the Republican base is as racist as it ever was, and the Republican bosses know this well enough, even if they won’t say it. Their outrage over Trump is not honest pain over his tolerance for racism, but rather anger and fear that he has decoupled strategically important components of the Republican brand.
On the other, less cynical, side of the conversation, the media’s disconnection from reality is actually more disturbing. Why is Brian Lehrer spending so much time and effort decrying Trump as a liar (because he misrepresented his knowledge of David Duke), and why is David Brooks so especially perturbed by Trump’s lack of integrity (citing marital infidelity), given the unending procession of more substantive falsehoods proffered by all of the other Republican candidates? As cliched as it might sound, it seems likely that the media were simply unprepared for someone who “tells it like it is”—that the genteel center of our political discourse had actually lulled itself into believing in a kinder and gentler world than the angry America that Trump is engaging. It’s as though before Trump’s bombast, the pundits had been able to believe in the impossible: that white supremacy is unfeasible in today’s America (Ferguson: DOJ Condemns Racist, Profit-Driven Police & Court System); that building walls is crazy (Bush Signs Bill Authorizing 700-Mile Fence for Border); that seeking to displace 10 million people is preposterous (Romney say’s he favors “self-deportation” when asked about immigration during GOP debate); that advocating torture is hideously un-American (New poll finds majority of Americans think torture was justified after 9/11 attacks); that denigrating war heroes is politically impossible (How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs, and the New Media Defeated John Kerry); and that demonizing people on the basis of their religion is unusual among presidential candidates (Ben Carson says a Muslim shouldn’t be President). There are plenty of reasons for outrage in America, but Trump’s vulgarity is one of the lesser ones. Among the vast number of really odious positions embraced by this year’s Republican presidential candidates, Trump’s don’t stand out in substance, but merely in their unorthodox style and combination.
2. Bush Signs Bill Authorizing 700-Mile Fence for Border
3. Romney say’s he favors “self-deportation” when asked about immigration during GOP debate.
4. New poll finds majority of Americans think torture was justified after 9/11 attacks
5. To Set the Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs, and the New Media Defeated John Kerry
6. Ben Carson says a Muslim shouldn’t be President