I am a black man living in South Carolina who’s voted for plenty of Republicans, including George W. Bush in 2000, Mark Sanford twice for governor, Lindsey Graham for the U.S. Senate, and current Gov. Nikki Haley in the GOP primary. I’ve also defended the party in the past from blanket accusations of racism. But Donald Trump is a different kind of candidate, and this is a different kind of election. Long after it is all over, even if Hillary Clinton wins, the rest of us will still be grappling with the racial demons the Republican candidate summoned up with his campaign.
That’s the tragedy and blessing of Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican Party. He brought into the mainstream the kind of race hatred that had flourished only in the shadows before he came along. But his presence also removed the scales from the eyes of sane Americans who had held onto the belief that the election of our first black president had ushered in a post-racial society.
Story Continued Below
Trump’s most enduring legacy, and it is an oddly beneficent one, is that he taught America how bigoted it still is, and that many among us who are not intentionally bigoted are willing to tolerate racism anyway, given the right circumstances and stakes. No matter the final tally, nor the recent poll data showing that Trump is beginning to lose college-educated whites, it is very likely that a majority of white voters in November will still pull the lever for Trump, despite a clear bigotry running through much of what he’s said, done and proposed.
We need to reckon frankly with what this means. Eight years after the jubilation of Barack Obama’s election, the Republican Party nominated a man who rose to political prominence not as an economic populist but as a birther casting doubt on Obama’s Americanness based on race and heritage. It was that, far more than his rants against trade agreements, that turned Trump into a hero among a party base in which nearly three-quarters of Republicans either doubt or don’t believe Obama was born in America. Afterward, he kicked off his presidential campaign by heaping hate on Mexicans and Muslims, immediately shooting to nearly the top of most Republican primary polls. Recent data gathered by Gallup bear out the idea that Trump’s support from working-class whites isn’t only or even primarily about “economic angst” and that well-off whites tend to support him as much as poor ones.
Instead, the political ascent of Donald Trump is largely about Caucasian fears of the browning of America.
The ugly truth is that what Trump is doing—what he stands for, what he is saying—is as American as apple pie, despite the contention of his liberal critics that it is un-American. Nothing Trump has said or done or how he is trying to garner votes is new in an America that was forged in slavery and experienced a century of Jim Crow and lynching. It is silly to pretend any longer that the victory of the nation’s most prominent birther in the GOP primaries was just happenstance and not related to his masterly exploitation of “otherism,” which is simply another way of talking about how people of color are often dismissed as not being fully American because calling them “nigger” is not socially acceptable. Trump simply tapped into and coaxed out of America a racial angst that was already present—and which is now, thanks to him, far less shy about showing its face.
As a result, this election is no longer about all Americans. It is about white Americans. The United States of America is essentially undergoing a white identity crisis. By dramatic numbers, people of color have, in no uncertain terms, expressed their horror about the possibility of what a Trump victory in November would mean. It is White America that has yet to decide which way it plans to pull.
The question going forward is will this country as a whole say with a loud voice that we will finally wrestle with these demons, rather than put them off any longer? The country has to declare that no matter a candidate’s other qualities—or the balance of the Supreme Court or fate of Senate control—he will be shunned if his appeal is fundamentally racist. It’s the only way to guarantee we won’t see a repeat of Trump, the only way to change perceptions so that what Trump is doing truly does become “un-American” in a new, emerging America. Or will a combination of racial fear and apathy force us to refight the battles of the mid-20th century?
As a black resident and native of South Carolina, I live at the epicenter of the national self-delusion about race. South Carolina was the first state to leave the union, the place where the first shots were fired in a Civil War whose causes are still being passionately argued over more than a century and a half after maybe 700,000 Americans lost their lives in what remains the country’s bloodiest conflict.
Think about that. Southerners have been arguing for 151 years over an event that is far better documented than Trump’s rise, the Civil War. And even now there is little agreement. No matter the amount of first-person papers—war letters, detailed, official governmental declarations, speeches by top Confederate leaders—almost no one in the South has moved from his preferred position in a debate that has been short-handed “heritage vs. hate” by media outlets in an oversimplification of arguments made by those for and against the most iconic relic from that era, the Confederate flag. The same fate—a distracting, never-ending, ultimately fruitless debate—awaits the legion of conservative and liberal intellectuals and pundits busy wasting breath and ink in the hopes of crafting the definitive argument about what’s ultimately animating Trump supporters.
Here’s the short answer to the question of just how central racism is to the average Trump voter: It doesn’t matter.
Just as there were good-hearted, well-meaning people who went along with Jim Crow and other such ugly things throughout our history, there are good-hearted, well-meaning people who show up at Trump rallies, put Trump signs on their lawns, wear “Make America Great Again” hats, or support him silently and even uneasily because they are convinced not doing so would lead to something worse. These people all think they can separate their motives from the darker dimensions of the causes they support. They can’t.
There’s no better example of that kind of deal-with-the-devil-making than Tim Scott, the junior U.S. senator from South Carolina. He’s the first black man from the Deep South to make it there since Reconstruction. He was originally appointed by the state’s first woman and nonwhite governor, Nikki Haley, before winning a majority of the vote in a red state where statewide races are often decided by white conservative voters. (He did that while losing the black vote and was later subject to a short-lived boycott by students and faculty at Coastal Carolina University for his refusal to vote to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.)
Scott is also generous and kind and compassionate. He frequently talks about his upbringing—“from cotton to Congress in one lifetime”—about his love for his mother’s strong hand and his frequent educational struggles that almost led him down an ugly path too many young black men take. Since he’s been in the Senate, he has partnered with a black liberal senator, Cory Booker, to push us closer to real criminal justice reform, and has recently paired up with a white conservative senator, James Lankford, to encourage cross-racial dinners as one step to help defuse the tension caused by the recent clashes between people of color and police departments.
He cried when he watched video of Walter Scott being shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer. He’s proposed the “Walter Scott Notification Act,” along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, to finally do something the federal government has astonishingly never done—officially track all police shootings—as well $100 million for police body cameras.
What’s more, while his party was gearing up to cheer during the Republican National Convention at the mention of yet another Baltimore police officer being found not guilty in the death of Freddie Gray (the Justice Department recently released a report detailing pervasive constitutional abuses by police in Baltimore), Scott was taking to the Senate floor to talk about the racial profiling he has faced as one of the few black faces in the chamber.
“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement,” Scott said in one of three speeches he gave in response to the unrest caused by police shootings. “Not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official.”
On at least three different occasions, he’s received calls of apology from Capitol Police because of the way he’s been treated while trying to get into the Senate, an indignity not shared by almost anyone else in the mostly white (and male) chamber. “I can certainly remember the very first time that I was pulled over by a police officer as just a youngster. I was driving a car that had an improper headlight,” he shared. “The cop came over to my car, hand on his gun and said, ‘Boy, don’t you know your headlight is not working properly?’ I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and scared, very scared.”
There is no rational case that could be made to convincingly paint Scott as racist, or even out of touch.
And still, Scott is working to put a bigot in the White House. He supports Trump. Scott is a Republican, and he must survive politically in Trump country.
If a black man from the South who is unafraid to talk about the racial problems still plaguing this country can rationalize his way to backing Trump, how much easier do you think that feat is for poor and working-class whites who feel threatened—in ways real and imagined—about their station in life, about a country that is rapidly changing, a dark-skinned man with his feet propped up in the West Wing its most visual manifestation, and by a manufacturing industry that is its most productive ever, with a $2.4 trillion footprint, and is being transformed much more by technological advancement that require skills and education they don’t have than by free trade?
Does it really matter how much of a factor race is in their decision to support Trump, as opposed to economic factors? It’s tempting to say yes. But that’s the mistake many of us in the South made for decades. It mattered little why many of our fellow residents wanted to prioritize the presence of the Confederate flag over our well-being; it only mattered that they did, whether to honor their great-grandpa, a poor, non-slave-owning farmer who fought in the Civil War for the South or because they felt put upon by the black people in their midst demanding damn civil rights and an equality that made them feel as though something was being stolen from them.
And it’s not just support for Trump or the Confederate flag. Everywhere in American society, well-meaning people let good intentions substitute for making real progress on race. It should be lost on no one that #OscarsSoWhite had to be launched to get Hollywood—overwhelmingly white and liberal—to examine itself. It matters little if Hollywood is full of racists or clueless people when it comes to race. It matters more that the kind of bigotry Hollywood stars feel comfortable railing against elsewhere, even as they depict stereotypical white Southern characters and helped push ugly ones about people of color, when people of color are depicted at all, still has a hold on a place full of self-professed progressives.
It matters little if those on the top rungs of media are motivated by the racial fear animating Trump supporters, and matters more that the industry has yet to fully grapple with its own racial disparities.
It matters little if residents of Northeast states or police departments throughout the nation are full of well-meaning people; it matters more that those places and organizations have a legacy of discrimination against people of color that has yet to be fully accounted for or corrected.
Living in the South has taught me that it is all too easy to take your eyes off the prize, to become distracted by the shining object, away from what’s truly important. I don’t care how many times Trump supporters declare they aren’t racist, don’t care if they are or not. I don’t care how many times a J.D. Vance or a Ross Douthat reminds us to not be too hasty in labeling them. In fact, I agree with such attempts; it serves no one well to build caricatures of fellow Americans or to pretend that they don’t have real concerns that need to be remedied, no matter how much we disagree with them.
I just know that no matter who wins this economic angst-vs.-racism debate 151 years from now, one fact would not have changed: They tried to put a bigot in the White House. That’s why the primary focus between now and November should be about making sure that bigotry doesn’t win the country’s biggest political prize. Only afterward will debating and dealing with the motives of Trump supporters and teasing out real hurt and harm from baseless fear make sense.
Because supporting Trump means millions of Americans have declared that there are more important things that opposing a man in 21st-century America who kicked off his campaign talking about Mexican rapists after years trying to undermine the legitimacy of the nation’s first black president. They have said, by their support of Trump, that there are more important things than opposing a man whose bigotry stretches back to the earliest days of his career, when the Justice Department had to sue his company twice for discrimination against black people.
They don’t care, or not that much, that Trump proposed banning an entire religion from the country, spoke favorably of “Operation Wetback” and an apocryphal story about the massacre of Muslims with pig’s-blood-soaked bullets.
They don’t care, or have decided that partisanship or other concerns are more important than opposing a man whose list of ugliness toward people of color is so long he is on the verge of a historic landslide among voters of color, in some polls registering 2 percent or less of the black vote and less than the teens among Hispanics.
Scott may have proposed sensible policies and spoken eloquently about building trust between communities of color and the police. But he doesn’t care—not enough—that that message is both overshadowed and undercut by his support of a bigot.
I know Scott is a good man in many ways, just as I know that’s also true of numerous white Trump supporters. (I live in a county where Trump received 49 percent of the vote in a then-still crowded Republican field during the South Carolina primary.) I know that for them, acknowledging the depth of Trump’s bigotry, or even considering a vote for Hillary Clinton, is akin to asking the new mother to admit that her baby really is ugly. It’s easier to deny what’s staring them in the face because recognizing the truth would instantly mean they’d have to ponder the role they played in that creation and what that creation says about them.
As we speed toward becoming a country that will be majority-minority, time is running short for white America to decide whether racism and bigotry of any kind should be always and everywhere disqualifying in politics. What we are experiencing are the early birthing pains. If we aren’t careful, 50 years from now we’ll be looking back to 2016, wondering where all the time went as we remain stuck over the same debate—but in a country far more riven by race than it is now. How do I know? That’s about how long it took the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House—and that only after the massacre of nine black people in a church.
We spent half a century over a flag that should have never been allowed to become the center of our attention while more pressing matters—racial disparities in just about every walk of life, robbing us of precious talent and creating gobs of unnecessary headaches—went mostly unresolved, in large part because our gaze was fixed on the superficial.
That’s why the economic angst-vs.-racism argument is dumbing down an already dumb conversation about race—one that is often devoid of the kind of nuance and charity that will be required for us to pick up the pieces once Trump fades from the scene. It makes it nearly impossible for us to grapple with an ugly reality many of us still don’t want to face, that racism and bigotry remain primary drivers of the American populace in ways understood and not, that they are not confined to a few imagined trailer parks in Kentucky and Georgia and are not the sole property of one major political party, even if that party is infected by it more than the other.
Trump’s presence on the national stage, while damaging in so many ways, is providing the mirror this country long ago needed to look into. If we are willing to accept the gift he’s provided—and refuse to look away—we can take another giant step toward perfecting a still great nation.