I firmly believe most Republicans aren’t racist.
I know that some of them are very actively racist, ever since Trump’s campaign worked to align itself with white supremacist groups throughout the country. I know that Trump’s immigration policy is, which he has made clear while discussing and implementing it.
I know Trump is a racist. I don’t believe that’s a belief system of his; for the longest time I thought he was simply an elitist who was willing to empower racists for his own gain. But he’s taken to using racist terminology and actions directly, so he has earned that indignity.
I know that nearly all of the Republican leadership – political and punditry – find themselves in the same situation Trump was in two years ago. Many of them are not racists, they are simply elitists who are willing to exploit racists as a political tactic. Some are nativists who have been closeted racists for a long time and are finally able to reveal themselves without fear of being abandoned by their party.
Both options – racist or racist enabler – are equally bad. On the one hand you have people who, through no reason other than prejudice, subordinate and often dehumanize others. On the other hand, you have people who, recognizing what they are doing, still promote social policy and law that institutionalizes such dehumanization.
The average Republican is not a member of the political class, though. Are some racists and others racist enablers? Absolutely. Many more are simply followers.
These are the people who are frightened by change; they grew up watching sitcom families on television and are convinced that was the way America needs to be, and they’re watching as families are actively redefined. Others are the ones who desperately want to remain part of a group they’ve always identified with. Most importantly, they’re the ones who’ve heard charges of racism so often that they don’t believe them when they’re real.
Reagan was charged with racism because he wanted to cut domestic spending programs… never mind that the majority of people on welfare were white, it was framed as anti-black racism and he was constantly attacked for it by the likes of Jesse Jackson. George H.W. Bush was similarly denounced. Newt Gingrich was attacked as a racist specifically because he dared to challenge Bill Clinton, who had embraced Maya Angelou and was being hailed as “the first black President”.
George W. Bush was said to be such a racist that he was going to use the 9/11 attack as an excuse to round up all of the Middle-easterners in the country and put them in internment camps. This wasn’t the rhetoric of an occasional crank; this was such commonly held belief among the Democrats that Marvel Comics produced a company-wide crossover story event, “Civil War”, specifically to address a “Muslim registration” that they were certain was coming.
The Republican rank and file have heard all of this before. And they’ve also watched as Democrat politicians and pundits have gotten away with blatant racism in their actions and statements. Donald J. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his racism-related incorrect statements about the Central Park 5 mirrors Al Sharpton’s continued insistence that Tawana Brawley’s racism-related attack allegations were real.
As recently as the last President, they heard that every criticism they had of Obama was not due to policy or obvious illegality, but because he was black. It wasn’t true, and it further degraded the effect of allegations of racism.
Again, this is not to say that there aren’t some racists and knowing racist enablers in the Republican party. There are far more than I’d imagined, actually, even before Trump’s efforts opened the door to the KKK and related groups. But they still don’t seem to represent anywhere close to a majority of the party. If they did, the Republicans wouldn’t be attempting to walk back or deny any racist statements, they’d be embracing them. Outside of a non-representative handful of nativist pundits and politicians who are happy to show their true colors, that’s not happening. Most of them are trying to change the subject or issuing ridiculous denials and excuses.
Those work if the people to whom they’re speaking are inclined to ignore any charges on the “boy who cried wolf” principle. The charge of racism has been leveled so often, and on such flimsy reasoning, that it does not resonate strongly today among the general electorate and can actually increase support among the Republican party. Not because they are delighted with racists, but because it normalizes Trump in their eyes, makes him seem like one more innocent victim like Reagan and the Bushes.
What resonates is not the charge, but actions and images. That’s why things like the photos of detention centers, tweets from the President and video of chanting at a Trump rally have an effect on Trump’s approval rating among non-Republicans and why they have caused many to leave the Republican party.
The question for those who are not affiliated with the Republican party, but who were for many decades, is: how do we address this?
It depends on your goal.
If you want to boost morale of those who are sick of Trump and all his criminal, immoral and anti-American dealings, you can just tar the Republicans with the same brush as their leadership and the worst among them. It plays into the simplistic us vs. them dynamic which is useful in fostering a sense of community and goodwill. It will do nothing to reduce the number of Trump voters in 2020, however. They will simply decide they’ve heard it all before… and in many cases, such as the accusation that they “just lost their minds because they had a black President”, they’ll be correct.
If you want to diminish the number of voters for Trump, the course of attack is to point out every one of the many racist actions and statements of the President and his subordinates, and condemn the Republican leadership for standing meekly by as Trump encourages the racists to command the party of Lincoln, Coolidge, Reagan and even W. Constant presentation of proven offenses has a chance to break people free of their “I’ve heard all this before” mindset, but only if done in a way that does not make them defensive. Defensive people are not inclined to be persuaded by those they perceive to be attacking them.
In the end, I believe persuasion, and diminished Trump voter numbers, is what we need.