The Search for the Useful Scapegoat

Who lost China? That was the big and rather stupid question in 1949 – the year the Communist Party took over mainland China from the Nationalists. The loss of China to communism had to be someone’s fault, and it had to be someone in the Truman administration. The Republicans were gearing up for the 1952 presidential election. This would be good. They could point fingers, and the whole thing played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy – who would go on to find a communist under every bed. The Republicans unleashed the junior senator from Wisconsin and he jumped at the chance to be amazing in a new way. This would be his first naming of the one bad guy no one expected, and he decided that Owen Lattimore lost China. Lattimore was an influential scholar of Central Asia and he would do – and of course this was nonsense. Lattimore was a nonentity. There were dozens of factors that made the communist takeover of China inevitable – but this was good politics at the time. Why are things so bad? Owen Lattimore! And Jane Fonda lost Vietnam. Keep it simple for the rubes. Then harness their focused anger. They won’t know any better. They don’t want to know any better. They want someone to blame, that one person. Give them what they want.

The Republicans soon learned that strategy had its limits. Joe McCarthy, unleashed, was soon naming minor office workers and aides to the aides of attorneys and whatnot, and that became an embarrassment. Edward R. Murrow called him on it on national television. His own senate colleagues formally reprimanded him. McCarthy was far too specific. He was absurdly specific, and finally laughably specific. That was deadly. Yes, you want voters to be righteously angry in a tightly focused way, willing to storm the voting booths in rage, but you really cannot expect them to remember the specific names of totally obscure individuals. Give them a type, a category. Why are things so awful? It’s “those people” of course. It isn’t Owen Lattimore.

Ronald Reagan, when he was governor out here in California, figured that out. Avoid being specific. The unrest at Berkeley in the Free Speech Movement days, and everything else… it was those damned hippies. In the eighties, when he ran for president, it was those damned welfare queens, driving that big Cadillac and eating lobster and whatnot. That worked. Blame the black folks. Nixon’s Southern Strategy was the start of that as Lee Atwater explained:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now that you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is that blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.

Blame the black folks but don’t get too specific. You don’t want to be called a racist – but you do want the voters to be white-hot angry and focused. They’ll get it, and that led to this:

During the 1988 U.S. presidential election, the Willie Horton attack ads run against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis built upon the Southern strategy in a campaign that reinforced the notion that Republicans best represent conservative whites with traditional values. Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes worked on the campaign as George H. W. Bush’s political strategists, and upon seeing a favorable New Jersey focus group response to the Horton strategy, Atwater recognized that an implicit racial appeal could work outside of the Southern states. The subsequent ads featured Horton’s mugshot and played on fears of black criminals. Atwater said of the strategy, “By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’ running mate.”

Willie Horton was no Owen Lattimore. Horton, big and black, was the convicted murderer who escaped during a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison and then committed rape and armed robbery. Even though the furlough program was actually repealed during Dukakis’ second term, George H. W. Bush’s guys made Horton the symbol here, a signifier. Dukakis’ Massachusetts had no clue about bad guys. Dukakis was soft on crime. Sometimes you can get specific with the emblem of a type.

Lee Atwater died years ago. Roger Ailes runs Fox News. Paul Waldman says this:

Is Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez the new Willie Horton?

There are some people who would obviously like him to be. The story, which is about an undocumented immigrant who allegedly murdered a young woman in San Francisco named Kathryn Steinle after having been released from jail, has gone national. And it’s working its way into the presidential campaign.

Of course it is, but these things are tricky:

It’s important to understand that there’s no consensus even on the right about how much attention to give to Lopez-Sanchez’s case. Most of the Republican candidates are treading carefully so far. While they oppose the “sanctuary city” policies that meant that Lopez-Sanchez wasn’t turned over to immigration authorities when he had been arrested for lesser crimes, they haven’t yet tried to use this case as a bludgeon to attack Democrats. (The unsurprising exception to this is Donald Trump; meanwhile, for the record, many Democrats have said that a sanctuary city policy should still have allowed someone like Lopez-Sanchez to be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Yet at the same time, conservative talk radio and Fox News are practically vibrating with delight over this story. When I checked in to the network’s web site this morning, it was the subject not only of the main screaming headline, but five other written stories and four videos, with more coming all the time.

Waldman sees danger here:

What does this one case tell us about crime in America and our immigration policies? The real answer is not much, because one case is always just one case. According to the latest FBI crime statistics, around 38 Americans are murdered each and every day; every one is a tragedy. We know that as a group, immigrants are actually much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And though it illustrates an extreme negative consequence that can come from a sanctuary city policy, police in cities with sanctuary policies often argue that they help fight crime by allowing residents of immigrant communities to work with law enforcement without the fear that they’ll be turned over to immigration authorities.

Nevertheless, we’re always looking for individual stories through which we can understand larger issues, and those stories can be used for good or ill. For instance, the case of Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who contracted HIV in 1984, taught the country that AIDS wasn’t just a disease of people who (at the time) were on the fringes of society; after his death in 1990, Congress passed a bill expanding funding for AIDS research and treatment in his name. Then there are stories like Horton’s, which was supposedly about criminal justice policies but was actually just a way for George H. W. Bush to stir up racist fears among white voters in the 1988 election.

That it did, but that may not work again:

If Republican candidates are treading more carefully with regard to this story, it isn’t just because the two cases are different – it’s because there’s serious political danger in trying to make Lopez-Sanchez a reason why people should vote against Democrats. Don’t forget that Bush’s use of Willie Horton worked. Laden with the theme of dangerous and hyper-sexualized black men terrorizing white women while their emasculated husbands looked on helplessly, it resonated with white voters and didn’t produce any noticeable backlash, at least not enough to overcome the benefit Bush got from repeating the story.

But if someone like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush tried to make Lopez-Sanchez the new Horton – a symbol of fear meant to get whites to pull the lever for the GOP – he would undermine all the party’s efforts to convince Hispanic voters that whatever the party’s history on immigration reform, it isn’t blatantly hostile to them.

So we’re left with a situation where most of the candidates will criticize sanctuary city policies and make a case for tougher border enforcement, but they’ll be doing it within a context created by their side’s media, the media the primary voters they’re trying to win over are watching and listening to every day. And the Lopez-Sanchez story is exactly the kind of tale that the conservative media feast on: personal, vivid, tragic, just waiting to have all the outrage and anger they can muster poured into it. While the candidates say, “Yes, this is terrible,” behind them will be the media figures Republican voters trust, screaming at the top of their lungs that everyone should be enraged.

Roger Ailes still does run Fox News, so they’re stuck:

Caught between a base eagerly eating up the red meat conservative media are feeding them and a general electorate they can’t afford to alienate, they still haven’t quite figured out how to chart a path that avoids those dangers and gets them to the White House.

Ed Kilgore adds this:

The tricky thing about using this killing against Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is that the federal government had apparently done everything within its power to get rid of Lopez-Sanchez, but was unaware of his presence in the U.S., apparently because of an application (or misapplication) of San Francisco’s 1980s-era “sanctuary city” policy, which generally denies automatic cooperation with federal immigration authorities in case the person in question is a refugee from an unjust country (which was often the case in the 1980s). And in fact, the one thing that has been clear about the Obama administration’s enforcement of immigration laws has been that deporting people with criminal records has become an unquestioned priority. Yet sanctuary policies – not this kind of application, obviously, but the general principle – is pretty popular not only among Latinos but in many Catholic Church circles.

But it’s easy for conservatives to conflate “liberal” San Francisco with “liberal” Obama, and simply deny that the administration enforcement policies are effective, particularly in “sanctuary cities.” And so you get the feeling the GOP candidates are feeling their way around this one before joining the conservative media attack.

The Sanctuary City thing is complicated – no matter what Donald Trump says – but Michael Gerson argues that Republican politics are even more complicated:

Attempting to analyze political statements by Donald Trump is often a high dive into a shallow pool. But a number of conservative commentators are making the jump, discerning hidden virtues in his depiction of marauding immigrants, intent on crime and rape.

While finding Trump’s words “crude and reprehensible,” the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol thinks they summarize a “genuine concern about illegal immigrants.” “For all its crassness,” says National Review’s Rich Lowry, “Trump’s rant on immigration is closer to reality than the gauzy clichés of immigration romantics.”

Some of this is surely an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, the equivalent of: “My, that gangrene is such a pleasing shade of green.” But the varied reactions to Trump – Sen. Marco Rubio found his words “offensive and inaccurate” – also indicate a serious debate between reform camps within the Republican Party.

These folks have a few things to work out:

One brand of Republican reformers – the Rust Belt revivalists – believes the GOP has been too dominated by corporate interests and needs to identify more directly with the economic frustrations of working-class voters. Trump is the cartoon version of this view – preaching protectionism and accusing immigrants of “destroying the fabric of the country.” But Rick Santorum makes a similar economic case, proposing to cut immigration by 25 percent as part of a plan (according to his website) “to protect American workers from foreign labor that is taking jobs that Americans could otherwise hold.”

In this strategy, there is an inherent tension between appealing to the white working class and appealing to immigrants. As a matter of policy, high levels of immigration consume public services and depress native-born wages. As a matter of politics, the white working class remains the larger group of voters. A concentrated focus on their concerns, the argument goes, might open a path to victory through Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Or it might not:

Another group of reformers – the advocates of a demographic pivot – also believes the Republican Party is too closely identified with the boardroom and the country club. But they look at the declining percentage of white voters – falling an average of 2.75 points in each presidential election since 1996 – and argue that the Republican coalition will need to be browner in order to win in places like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

It will come as no surprise that I view the arguments of the Rust Belt revivalists as less compelling and more dangerous.

Those dangers are real:

First, the effect of immigration on native-born wages, while not imaginary, is easily overstated. For those who don’t graduate from high school, the results are slightly negative. But this influence is overwhelmed by other economic trends that have put downward pressure on wages, such as automation and the globalization of labor markets. The problems of the working class will not be solved by immigration restrictionism.

Second, the advocates of a demographic pivot, even if they are not currently right, are eventually right. It may well be possible in the 2016 presidential election for Republicans to pump up the white vote enough to secure a victory. But we are reaching the natural limits of that strategy. Mitt Romney in 2012 got a larger percentage of the white vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and still lost decisively, because President Obama secured more than 80 percent of the minority vote in an electorate with a larger proportion of minorities. If the eventual Democratic nominee maintains this level of support among minorities, Republicans will need about 63 percent of the white vote to win in 2016 – nearly a record high. And they will need to continue racking up new records each election, until the task is truly impossible.

Third, the strategy of appealing to the white working class by criticizing immigration raises the risk of racial polarization. Enthusiasm for this approach sometimes has reasons other than economics. There can be ugliness beneath, as Trump demonstrates.

That’s the real danger:

A political appeal that encourages division would worsen the GOP’s main political problem: a durable impression that it does not care for the country as a whole. As the old Southern strategy fades, it would be a terrible mistake to replace it with a different form of fear and exclusion. Republicans have an opportunity to craft an agenda of economic mobility – to reward work (through wage subsidies), strengthen families (with a larger child credit) and encourage skills (with education reform) – that could appeal to both the white working class and rising minority groups, instead of pitting them against each other.

It is the way that Republicans can win, and deserve to win.

And pigs will fly. Trump is soaring in the polls and the Republicans have another Joe McCarthy on their hands:

The head of the Republican National Committee, responding to demands from increasingly worried party leaders, spent nearly an hour Wednesday on the phone with Donald Trump, urging the presidential candidate to tone down his inflammatory comments about immigration that have infuriated a key election constituency.

The call from Chairman Reince Priebus, described by donors and consultants briefed on the conversation and confirmed by the RNC, underscores the extent to which Trump has gone from an embarrassment to a cause for serious alarm among top Republicans in Washington and nationwide.

But there is little they can do about the mogul and reality-television star, who draws sustenance from controversy and attention. And some fear that, with assistance from Democrats, Trump could become the face of the GOP.

Rather than backing down from his comments about illegal immigrants – whom he characterized as rapists and killers, among other things – Trump has amplified his remarks at every opportunity, including in a round of interviews Wednesday.

He insisted to NBC News that he has “nothing to apologize for” in his repeated remarks about Mexicans. But he also predicted that, if he secures the GOP nomination, “I’ll win the Latino vote.”

He says they all love him, and Dana Milbank says this:

One big Republican donor this week floated to the Associated Press the idea of having candidates boycott debates if the tycoon is onstage. Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and other candidates have lined up to say, as Rick Perry put it, that “Donald Trump does not represent the Republican Party.”

But Trump has merely held up a mirror to the GOP. The man, long experience has shown, believes in nothing other than himself. He has, conveniently, selected the precise basket of issues that Republicans want to hear about — or at least a significant proportion of Republican primary voters. He may be saying things more colorfully than others when he talks about Mexico sending rapists across the border, but his views show that, far from being an outlier, he is hitting all the erogenous zones of the GOP electorate.

Anti-immigrant? Against Common Core education standards? For repealing Obamacare? Against same-sex marriage? Antiabortion? Anti-tax? Anti-China? Virulent in questioning President Obama’s legitimacy? Check, check, check, check, check, check, check and check.

He’s good at this:

He recognized that, in the fragmented Republican field, his name recognition would take him far if he merely voiced, in his bombastic style, the positions GOP voters craved. The mogul’s broader basket of issues is also in tune with those of a slate of candidates who have compared homosexuality to alcoholism (Perry), likened union protesters to the Islamic State (Walker) and proposed elections for Supreme Court justices (Cruz), and who virtually all oppose same-sex marriage and action on climate change.

It worked. Trump placed second in national polls by Fox News and CNN, virtually guaranteeing him a place in the first debate, on Aug. 6 – unless the GOP persuades Fox News, the host, to dump Trump.

That would be hard to justify. Trump may be a monster, but he’s the monster Republicans created.

Of course they did. Since 1949 Republicans have been searching for that one perfect scapegoat, the man who lost China. Then they discovered you can’t be too specific – Joe McCarthy’s mistake. It isn’t Owen Lattimore. Find a type, or someone emblematic of a type. Atwater and Ailes struck gold with Willie Horton, but even Lee Atwater saw the danger of being too specific. Don’t scream NIGGER! Were Atwater still around he’d tell Trump to back off the talk of Mexican rapists, and maybe Roger Ailes did warn him:

Donald Trump and Fox News chief Roger Ailes met privately for lunch at the 21st Century Fox headquarters in Manhattan in late June, just eight days after Trump announced his bid for the presidency, the On Media blog has learned. The lunch, held on June 24 in the dining room at 1211 Avenue of the Americas, was an informal meeting among friends, sources with knowledge of the meeting said. Still, Trump and Ailes discussed aspects of the 2016 presidential campaign at length.

It may be time for another talk. The first one didn’t do the trick. Yes, you want voters to be righteously angry in a tightly focused way, willing to storm the voting booths in rage, but you really cannot come off as a jerk. Be subtle. Speak in code. This scapegoat thing is tricky. Trump should listen to Ailes, the master. Perhaps he will.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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