In 1988, George H. W. Bush, deadlocked in a tight race for President against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, ran an ad against Dukakis featuring Willie Horton. Horton, in prison for first-degree murder, had taken advantage of a Massachusetts prison furlough program that let prisoners out briefly, and while out committed a series of violent crimes, including rape. The main ad darkened Horton’s skin, emphasized his crimes, and then accused Dukakis of being weak on the issue. Years later, on his death bed, Lee Atwater apologized for the ad, calling it racist.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan began his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair. At the time, the only event of historical note that happened there was the 1964 murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers who had been there to investigate the bombing of a Black church. Nevertheless, during the speech, Reagan emphasized one theme only: states’ rights. After his election, Reagan would go on to singlehandedly invent the “welfare queen” meme and accuse civil rights leaders of being “poverty pimps.”
In 1971, then Governor Reagan spoke with then President Nixon about the UN vote to recognize China. Reagan had this to say about the African nations that supported the bill: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon would go on to not only repeat Reagan’s joke, but he would use it to bolster his belief that the best way to stay in office was to go after racially resentful whites. In a separate conversation with advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon would tell him that he believed in a racial hierarchy based on genetics with whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom.
Of course they weren’t alone. And Republicans don’t have a monopoly on racism. Woodrow Wilson resegregated the federal government, not to mention that the Democrats were the apartheid party in this country for a century. Speaking of Willie Horton, Al Gore invoked him first, although he did not use his face in a TV ad.
When Donald Trump has provided cover to white supremacists in Charlottesville; amplified birther claims about President Barack Obama; refused to condemn police brutality of any sort; provided a 17-year-old responsible for the murder of two protestors with a plausible legal argument for his defense; called African nations “shithole countries”; threatened to use the federal government to withhold money from majority Black cities that have expressed support for Black Lives Matter; sought to withhold money from California schools that have decided to adopt portions of the New York Times 1619 project for their curriculum, one could argue that Trump is altogether unique.
There are indeed ways he is unique. He’s uniquely ignorant, uniquely venal, uniquely corrupt. And in his effect on institutional norms, values, and procedures, he’s proven to be unique as well—after Trump, no one can plausibly again argue that the institutions that shape American democracy are more powerful than any one individual. In this way Trump may go down as the worst President in the modern era, as well as the most consequential.
But there’s one way in which he’s a throwback.
In which he’s old school. He’s an old school racist.
His throwback, old-school racism has significant consequences for democracy. Inasmuch as racism is consistently used to withhold resources not simply from non-white populations but from American populations in general, it reduces the more progressive aspects of government and increases support for fear-based, punitive forms of government. Inasmuch as racism reduces support for the norms of competition and cooperation required to run a multiparty government at federal, state, and local levels, it increases the pace at which we fall from what is already a quasi-democracy into something far less democratic. And as it decreases support for the norms of competition and cooperation it increases support for deeply anti-humane policies and turns the government into a kleptocratic racket.
How do we undo the damage Trump has caused here?
I’d suggest we need to do four different things.
First, we need to engage in an aggressive 50-state education campaign designed to re-emphasize democratic values in our nation’s heartlands. Here I’m not simply talking about teaching students that the Civil War was fought over slavery as opposed to states’ rights. I’m talking about educating students about how difference functions in a democracy, how truth functions (and when different truth claims exist, how to distinguish between them). And then teaching students about active rather than passive citizenship.
Second, we need to aggressively work to radically increase voting, treating the Fifteenth Amendment the way that conservatives have for the last several decades treated the Second. If for them munitions are the primary tool by which they can protect their rights, for us that should be voting. Not only should we work to make every felon disfranchisement act illegal, we should make voting a holiday, and bolster the power of the post office to handle and distribute ballots.
Third, we need to mobilize these voters to restructure how our democracy functions. As it stands, too much economic power is concentrated in too few individual and corporate hands, and too much political power is concentrated in a combination of these hands and in small rural states.
Finally, although the first three should be taken on by Americans concerned with democracy in general, Black communities, the communities disproportionately hit by a combination of the pandemic (of the approximately 190,000 deaths taken by COVID-19, I know at least ten—a high school classmate, another high school classmate’s five-year-old daughter, one of my best friends from college, my first college girlfriend’s father, one neighborhood friend’s mother, another neighborhood friend’s father, one fraternity brother from Detroit that most of my friends knew, three fraternity brothers from Detroit that I myself knew) and by police violence have a specific obligation. We need to revitalize old institutions and build new ones that can shift from a politics mobilized around spectacular instances of Black death to a politics mobilized around Black life.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen a hashtag grow into a social movement and from that into a political movement. Although it remains to be seen whether Black Lives Matter will generate the type of durable change in policing we need to see at this moment, it is clear that it has generated far more political change than most have thought possible. The challenge Donald Trump and his tendency pose for the world is dire. To build a new world out of the ashes Trump seeks to leave will require the movement for Black lives, and all of us, to make political discussion and action equivalent to the air we breathe.