Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday May 15th, 2016

 

In scoffing at his chances of getting the Republican nomination for president, most analysts and pundits in the media were wrong about Donald Trump.  Now that he has become the defacto Republican presidential candidate, many of those same people are attaching super powers, of a sort, to explain Trump’s success and predicting he may well win the presidency. I devoutly hope they will be wrong again.

But there is no secret to Trump’s success so far. In racking up the votes of millions of mostly white males, he has exploited their resentment that for the past seven plus years there has been a black family in the White House.

Trump started his specious campaign several years ago. Without an iota of evidence, Trump claimed that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and therefore was not eligible to be president - and what’s more, asserted Trump, Obama was secretly a Muslim. This effort to discredit Obama’s legitimacy found favor among far too many Americans. Remember it became known as the “birther movement,” which included an embarrassing number of Republican leaders and officials who at least tacitly gave it their approval by not openly challenging this blatant lie.

While the election of the first black president in 2008 was historic and certainly positive, it has since become evident his election also inspired visceral negative reaction among significant numbers of people. Perhaps that should not have come as a surprise.  As Brent Staples wrote in the Editorial Observer column of the New York Times two months ago:

“Every era of racial progress engenders a racist backlash. The one that is still unfolding in the wake of President Obama’s presidency, bears a striking resemblance in tone, to the reaction of the South after Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when former slaves were granted Constitutional Rights and black Americans served in interracial governments that came to power in the former confederacy. The sight of former slaves eagerly lining up to vote and electing their fellow citizens to public offices was anathema to Southerners who had justified slavery and believed negroes were not fit to govern because they were not actually persons.”

Ultimately, through a web of Jim Crow laws, the South was able to negate the new voting rights of former slaves by imposing an apartheid regime that lasted for ninety years. When the Civil Rights movement successfully brought the so called “separate but equal” era to an end with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the backlash came against the Democratic Party for having passed these laws. After nearly a century when no Republican could get elected dog-catcher in the South, the vast majority of Southern Democrats suddenly became members of the party of Lincoln – although remaining oblivious to his attitude toward race.

In the fifty years since, no one could deny that significant racial progress has been made, in large measure because of the expansion of civil rights and voting rights to African Americans. Yet inexplicably, three years ago a divided Supreme Court gutted the main enforcement mechanism of the Voting Rights Act by allowing nine states, mainly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. To no one’s surprise, many of the usual suspect states almost instantly began to come up with new ways to suppress the black and minority vote. And to the extent the effort to make it harder for minorities to vote is successful, the November presidential election can of course be affected.

Still, as I am back living in the D.C. area I can report that there are positive things happening here that were not, when I moved to Vermont twenty years ago. In the venerable, Roman Catholic Georgetown University some current students are urging their college to atone for the fact, that at one time it too was a slave holder.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, has recently issued an executive order restoring the vote to felons who have paid their full debt to society. He is being resisted by Republicans who control the Virginia legislature and who argue this is “political opportunism” and a “transparent effort to win votes.”

Given that McAulliffe’s executive order will affect 200,000 ex- felons, and most are African Americans, this could indeed have political consequences - which is one of the key reasons barring felons from voting continues to exist. Vermont and Maine are the only two states that have not disenfranchised felons. Until this latest action, Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa and Florida had the most severe restrictions.

A few years ago, in researching the subject of voter suppression, I found that Florida’s ban on felon voting was almost certainly a key factor in President George W. Bush’s paper-thin victory there, which decided the 2000 election. It wasn’t that felons couldn’t vote in Florida. It was that the ban on felon voting was used as, what the military calls, a force multiplier.

Here’s how it worked. We know that many African Americans have slave ancestors who chose adopted names from among the founding fathers or prominent historical figures. Thus, there are very many black Washingtons, Jeffersons and Lincolns etc.

I learned that when lists of felons not eligible to vote went out to the various voting precincts in Florida, it would include the names G. Washington, T. Jefferson, A. Lincoln and so on, often without an address or any other specifics. That meant that any black man who showed up to vote with that name, unless he could prove he was not a felon would not be allowed to cast his ballot. At the very least, that shouldn’t happen this year in Virginia, which is an important swing state.

Still we must brace ourselves for Trump’s use of fear tactics on a broad scale - blaming Hispanics, Muslims and implicitly African-Americans – for most of the nation’s ills. It’s sad but true that a man with virtually no credibility, is believed by so many.

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