Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday June 12, 2016
House Speaker Paul Ryan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. These names lead an impressive list of Republican leaders in high dudgeon over the perceived racist comments Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump made about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the presiding judge in a class action suit against the now defunct Trump University. Trump claimed that as someone of Mexican descent, Curiel could not be objective. For several days this past week the Republican leadership wanted us to believe they were deeply upset over Trump’s comments which they said were unworthy of the presidential candidate of the party of Lincoln.
Most of the news media seemed to buy this. Frankly, I do not. To me, their protestations sound more like one of the memorable lines from the movie Casablanca, when Captain Louis Renault says, “ I am shocked, shocked that gambling is going on here” in Rick’s Café. We smile at his hypocrisy because we know Capt. Renault is being bribed by Rick to allow such gambling.
Likewise, Republican grandees can hardly be shocked that once again Trump is flagrantly playing the race card. Trump opened his campaign for the nomination with his infamous charge that illegal Mexican immigrants were rapists and murderers. And race bating has been a prominent feature of his campaign ever since. A new Pew Research analysis found that Trump attracted supporters by appealing to their “racial anxieties.” Meantime in the latest poll on the subject, 65% of Republicans do not believe Trump’s remarks about the judge were racist.
Whether Trump is or is not personally racist is beside the point. The evidence that Trump will use racism to stir up his political support is abundant – and it didn’t just begin with his latest run for the Republican nomination. In March of 2011 in an interview with Good Morning America Trump revealed that he was seriously considering running for president in 2012. Within that interview Trump himself brought up the issue of President Obama’s citizenship, saying he was skeptical of the documents showing he was born in Hawaii. He also defended the so called birthers, which at that time included mainly fringe Republicans such as Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and Michele Bachmann. But Trump would soon go from flirting with the birther movement to becoming its most famous leader. In so doing, he significantly raised his political profile and his approval rating among Republicans.
It is hard to imagine anything more racist than to try to delegitimize the first African American president by questioning his legal right to hold that office. Yet, very few Republican leaders were willing to stand up and denounce such racism. In fact, at the time former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to opine publicly that to understand Obama, you had to recognize the anti-British colonial feelings of his Kenyan father- implying that Obama the son likely shared his father’s anti-white attitudes. Such logic is worthy of Trump and consistent with Trump's allegations against Judge Curiel.
And while I’m on the subject, when I hear Republican leaders criticize Trump for sullying the legacy of the “party of Lincoln” it makes me cringe. As we all know, from the time of the end of the Civil War, until the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 65, the party founded by Abraham Lincoln virtually did not exist anywhere in the South. All the political power there was in the hands of Southern Democrats who enforced the segregationist Jim Crowe laws with a vengeance.
In their anger to punish their party and President Lyndon Johnson for passing this seminal civil rights legislation, they began a mass defection from the Democratic to the Republican Party, encouraged by President Richard Nixon’s cynical Southern strategy. By the time Nixon left Washington in disgrace, there were very few national Democrats left in the South. And though they had become Republicans – few of these former Southern Democrats shared the values, especially on race, of the founder of their new party.
It should be noted that the civil rights bills were passed with the help of moderate Republicans, who once were an important factor in the political balance of Congress. But once all the conservative Southern Democrats switched sides, Republicans moderates began to lose their influence and are now very much an endangered species.
I am not suggesting that all or even most Republicans are racist. And in the past fifty years the South, and the whole country has, in many ways, been transformed. Nevertheless, race remains a potent political issue which Republicans are more likely to try to exploit. How else to explain that almost immediately after the Supreme Court seriously weakened the Voting Rights Act by removing its most important enforcement mechanism, states controlled by Republican legislatures jumped at the chance to change their voting rules. The specious excuse for these changes is always the prevention of voter fraud, even though we all know it is to suppress the vote of African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, especially the older ones, who often find it difficult to comply with new voter ID regulations.
So call me a cynic but I don’t believe that the Republican leadership is truly upset with Donald Trump’s latest racist rants. Knowing his history on race, they have endorsed him, and they want him to be president. What else need be said?
By the way, may I recommend a current HBO offering which powerfully tells the story of how the 1960s civil rights bills were passed, It’s called “All The Way” and stars Bryan Cranston (of “Breaking Bad”) as Lyndon Johnson. It is a remarkable performance. And given the continuing relevance of these issues is very much worth seeing.
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