The Republican Party has had to make adjustments. Donald Trump finally decided it was time to tell us all that what he had been telling us for five years just wasn’t so – Obama actually was born in America. He didn’t apologize. No one got to ask questions. He scammed the press – he made the event an infomercial for his new hotel, and walked out, and the press was infuriated. This whole thing seems to have been intended to put the whole birther matter to rest, so Trump would never be asked about it again. Obama was born in America. Move on – but of course he did mention that Hillary Clinton started it all, and that has become the Republican line. It wasn’t him, it was her – and he fixed the birther thing by forcing Obama to produce a long-form birth certificate. Obama should thank him for putting the matter to rest. America should thank him for putting an end to Hillary Clinton’s racist nonsense, finally, once and for all.
That bit about Hillary has been thoroughly disproved – she didn’t start the birther thing. No one remembers her, at every campaign stop in 2008, shouting that Obama was born in Kenya, so she didn’t continue what she never started. This was recommended to her by a few supporters, but she laughed at them. She wasn’t going there. But Trump said she did go there. There were one or two internal memos suggesting she go there. Those who wrote those memos were fired? Well, there were memos. That was the smoking gun. It wasn’t him, it was her.
That’s the Republican line now – the adjustment they’ve had to make. Their candidate cannot be a racist bigot. This is the party of Lincoln, but Greg Sargent reviews the difficulties this creates:
This new GOP storyline has gotten obscured by the ongoing back-and-forth in the media over various subplots (did Hillary Clinton start birtherism? did Trump really keep feeding this conspiracy after 2011?) that are related to the birther battle. Yet it’s unmistakably the larger narrative that the Trump campaign and top Republicans – including the chairman of the Republican National Committee – are telling right now. The Trump campaign’s effort to whitewash his birther history – in which he fed racist conspiracy theories for years – is being widely called out as dishonest. And that’s good. But Trump’s new narrative is actually a lot worse than the rendering of it we’ve seen in most media accounts suggests, and now the party has institutionally joined in promoting it.
On the Sunday shows, RNC chair Reince Priebus, GOP veep candidate Mike Pence and other surrogates for Trump all made the same argument: Clinton started the birther rumors in 2008, and Trump ended them by compelling Obama to release his birth certificate, rendering this a settled issue, which Trump declared to be the case last week. Priebus said: “after getting this issue resolved, he proclaimed on Friday that he believes that the president was born in America.” Pence said that Trump brought the birther “issue to an end.” Chris Christie said: “after the president presented his birth certificate, Donald has said he was born in the United States, and that’s the end of the issue.” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that he “put the issue to rest when he got President Obama to release his birth certificate years later.”
In other words, Trump’s birther crusade legitimately got results. That is their argument.
That is, Trump stopped pushing this after he forced Obama to “show his papers” in 2011, which isn’t the case, but perhaps beside the point:
To chase after those assertions is to get lost in a rabbit warren. It distracts from the larger point here, which is that the current official position of the Republican Party on Trump’s birther crusade is in some ways just as reprehensible as the crusade itself was. To be clear, Republicans like Priebus and Christie have long left no doubt that they themselves know Obama was born in the U.S. But their position right now is simultaneously that Trump’s years-long effort to “settle” this “issue” was nonetheless a defensible exercise that had a positive outcome. Indeed, their position is essentially that this “issue” might not be sufficiently settled for many people if Trump had not launched his crusade. In short, it’s that Trump finally got Obama to cough up his papers, and now we can all move on – thanks to Trump’s efforts.
It is likely that many Republicans and conservatives – such as Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio – see it as a blot on the history of the modern GOP that the party nominated someone who launched a years-long racist campaign to delegitimize the first African American president in the explicit belief that it would appeal to the racist tendencies of many GOP primary voters. Those Republicans might even say so right now if asked. But Trump has compelled the RNC not merely to participate in helping him push lies designed to muddy the waters around his birther history, but also – and this is the really important part – to institutionally defend that history. Indeed, while many Republicans previously repudiated this history, the RNC is now helping Trump validate it.
It seems that Trump turned them as racist as he is (or was) to prove that they’re not racists, that no Republicans are racists. They simply got Barack Obama to “show his papers” – like a good meek boy – or as Sargent puts it:
Trump’s handling of birtherism has reignited a national debate about Trump’s racism, and the RNC has been forced to institutionally defend it, neither of which will likely help him.
They had no other choice, but Justin Gest suggests there is a parallel problem on the other side:
Hillary Clinton’s recent reference to many of Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” comprised of racists and homophobes only made explicit what her advertisements and other public statements have insinuated.
Three weeks ago, she released a video that confronts Trump with the support he has received from white supremacists. In it, Jared Taylor, editor and founder of the white-supremacist magazine American Renaissance, is quoted from an interview with CNN: “Sending out all the illegals, building a wall, add a moratorium on Islamic immigration – that’s very appealing to a lot of ordinary white people.”
That video might have been a mistake:
It’s pretty obvious what Clinton hopes to get from this line of campaigning: Underscoring Trump’s endorsements from white supremacists might deter moderates, independents and mainstream Republicans who are loath to be associated with the right-wing fringe.
However, her mudslinging also condemns Trump voters – half of them, at least – who may support Trump’s social platform, but not in the interest of institutionalizing the supremacy of white people. These white working-class voters support Trump because he articulates their complicated discomfort with immigration and demographic change.
Gest argues that discomfort isn’t exactly racism, just something that looks like it:
Over the past six months, I’ve interviewed more than 100 white working-class people both here and in the United Kingdom, where a similar nationalist surge has triggered accusations of racism.
My interviews suggest that there is a complexity to Trump’s supporters that is not as simplistic as a yes-no binary about whether they’re racist. Millions of Trump’s supporters exist in the vast space between Wall Street and Breitbart.
Is it racist to associate immigration with the greater globalization of commerce that has altered the economic prospects of outmoded people? Is it racist to be frustrated that members of ethnic minorities are rendered new advantages unavailable to white people, such as affirmative action policies and ethnicity-specific advocacy? Is it racist to believe that white working-class people are underrepresented in political leadership or vilified in popular media?
Clinton’s decision to lump all voters with these concerns into the sweeping category of “racist” might motivate her base, and might even be correct as a short-term political calculation: She probably won’t win over these voters. But there’s a long-term societal risk here: Shunning them as racists pushes them only deeper into pockets of private discomfort, where their perceptions go unexposed and unchallenged – entrenching their views and further polarizing the American public.
She could make thing worse, and probably is making things worse:
Allegations of racism are now viewed by many white people as a means of wielding their ancestors’ misdeeds to unfairly disqualify their dissenting viewpoints in the present.
In the view of many of the voters Trump is speaking to – not just the “alt-right,” but disaffected white voters across the board – it’s crucial to talk frankly, even critically, about the perils of Islam, immigration and Black Lives Matter, even if it means offending some listeners. And on the more politically activated end of that spectrum, such voters see suppression of their ideas is part of a broader conspiracy to impose a liberal worldview.
It’s a perception that has been seized by Trump – “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore,” he said in his July GOP convention speech – but also by far-right leaders in Europe, like Britain’s Nigel Farage, the former head of the UK Independence Party and one of the leaders behind the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Both Trump and Farage have heralded the power of their countries’ “silent majority” – a hushed constituency of predominantly white voters whose views have long been ignored.
That means you get this sort of thing:
In Britain, dozens of my respondents would often preface their most candid thoughts to me by stating “I’m not a racist, but…”
“I’m not racist, but this country’s covered by blacks and Bosnians.”
“I’m not racist at all. I’ve got black cousins and nieces. But the Polish have been taking all of the work and running prostitution and drug rings.”
“I’m not a racist. I fucking love goat curry, pardon my language. But the principle of English families not coming first is just not right.”
Gest excuses that:
These individuals had not endured hours of sensitivity training; they were concerned that their ideas would be disqualified, when they are, in fact, sincere expressions about how their societies are being transformed.
Racism is perceived to be a “mute button” pressed on someone while they are still crying out about a sense of lost status – from a position of historic advantage, frequently in terms they have difficulty articulating.
Therefore, the preface “I’m not racist” is not a disclaimer, but rather an exhortation to listen and not dismiss or invalidate the claims of a group that feels marginalized.
And that raises antipathy toward minorities, and toward those who are doing well, and urban hipsters:
They feel estranged from minority groups, who they believe have access to new privileges that compensate for historic advantages that today’s white working-class people do not recall exploiting. They feel alienated from an urban white bourgeoisie, which has divorced their less skilled or geographically isolated co-ethnics and look down upon them. And they feel blamed for neither empathizing with the plight of minorities, nor mobilizing to overcome structural poverty and embrace global cosmopolitanism.
There’s no way in hell these people would vote for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat – that’s the cosmopolitanism urban white bourgeoisie and their minority friends. Those are the folks who mock them, who call them racists, and on a good day pity them, if they think about them at all. And there’s no way they’d vote for any fat-cat establishment Republican. Those are the folks who have used and betrayed them. They don’t want to hear one more word about tax policy or Ayn Rand.
They’ll vote for Donald Trump. When Trump won the Colorado primary, he gave a shout-out to the voting bloc that put him over the top – “I love the poorly educated!”
Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but they love him. He doesn’t call them racists. He rips into the Black Lives Matter folks, and Muslims, and he mocks the disabled, who of course do get special treatment, and he really did lead the effort to prove Obama was not born in America, and may be a Muslim too, and should have never gotten in Harvard Law School but did because of Affirmative Action or something – no matter what Trump just said at that press conference. He had to say that. He’ll take it all back when he’s elected. After all, they’re not racists, but…
This is why Republicans are now making adjustments to excuse what Trump has done – Hillary started it and Trump fixed the problem. That’s preposterous, but they cannot lose this voter bloc. What else have they got?
Gest, however, does note that Clinton has a harder task:
To govern effectively, Hillary Clinton needs white people to buy into the social change she heralds. So instead of casting them as outmoded bigots, she could point to how the very social forces that entrench white working-class people into poverty also entrench minority groups – that there are no white problems or minority problems; there are just problems.
That’s a non-starter. Everyone is too angry to hear that, even if it’s true.
Zack Beauchamp addresses this in a different way, looking at the recent rise of far-right populists in Europe and the United States. The problem is larger than Trump:
It’s tempting to see Trump’s rise as something sui generis: something so bizarre, so linked to his own celebrity, that it could never be repeated. Yet it is being repeated: Throughout the Western world, far-right populists are rising in the polls.
In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party – which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans – is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.
These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.
This is the new world:
These parties’ values are too similar, and their victories coming too quickly, for their success to be coincidental. Their platforms – a right-wing radicalism somewhere between traditional conservatism and the naked racism of the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan – have attracted widespread support in countries with wildly different cultures and histories.
The conventional wisdom is that the economic losses suffered by working-class people throughout the developed world explain the rise of this new right. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to free trade pacts in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.
That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people – primarily blue-collar and primarily white – who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.
But that’s not the real story:
A vast universe of academic research suggests the real drivers are something very different: anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance. That conclusion is supported by an extraordinary amount of social science, from statistical analyses that examine data on how hundreds of thousands of Europeans look at immigrants to ground-level looks at how Muslim immigration affects municipal voting, and on to books on how, when, and why ethnic conflicts erupt.
This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the “losers of globalization” aren’t the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia – and not economic anxiety – are their calling cards.
So it was always about race:
The ongoing surge of immigrants – especially those who venerate a different prophet or have a darker skin tone – is triggering a fierce right-wing backlash around the West. In the US, the anger about Latino immigration has linked up to another racial anxiety: Many white Americans believe their privileged status is being eroded by the past half-century of moves toward treating African American as truly equal citizens.
Donald Trump is a manifestation of this backlash, as are Brexit and the surge of support for far-right European parties. They show the extent of white Christian anger – the privileged who are furious that their privileges are being stripped away by those they view as outside interlopers.
It is that fury over immigrants that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today – and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come – we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.
That’s depressing. The war between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism is the war that’s being fought now. It has little to do with Democrats and Republicans, and little to do with Donald Trump. He’s just a foot soldier on one front of many, and that’s a worry:
It’s not clear just how high the far right’s ceiling is.
On the one hand, the far right has never taken power in Western Europe or the United States. Donald Trump is down in the polls, and could lose so spectacularly that he discredits the entire right-wing populist approach. The United States will be a majority minority country in 30 years; younger generations on both sides of the Atlantic are less attracted to the far right’s racial dog whistles.
So it’s possible that the far-right wave peters out over time. But it’s also possible that the opposite is true. We could be at the very beginning of an era defined by a battle between the far-right, racist nationalists and the kind of liberal cosmopolitanism that transformed the world after World War II.
The only answer may be this:
If we want to protect the idea of Western societies as fundamentally open and tolerant places, then Western governments need to do something. One possible path forward can be found in the Western country that’s proven most immune to the rise of right-wing populism: Canada.
You might be tempted to think Canada has always been this way. Far from it: For most of its history, Canada was every bit as bigoted and intolerant as its peers. The Canadian immigration system prior to the 1960s was known as the “White Canada” policy because of explicit ethnic and racial quotas.
A half-century later, Canada has become an entirely different type of society.
In 1982 it passed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a major anti-discrimination law that enshrined multiculturalism as an essentially constitutional value. Ottawa now provides funding for communities and individuals to run citizenship and language classes for new immigrants, and sometimes even help them find housing. It eschewed the guest-worker programs used in much of Europe and emphasized to new immigrants that they would be a welcome and permanent part of the Canadian populace.
That might work anywhere, or not:
Even if other Western countries copied large parts of Canada’s immigration system and multicultural ideology, they could have a hard time staving off the growing political strength of the far right. Divisions over race caused the American Civil War; in Europe, centuries of ethnic supremacy culminated in the Holocaust. What we’re experiencing today, thankfully, is far less dangerous – partly because the open racism that the Confederates and Nazis stood for has been utterly delegitimized.
This is a testament to a basic truth, underscored by the Canadian model: Things really can get better. The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again. The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values – to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.
Sure, but the Republicans aren’t helping. They’re with Trump now. And the Democrats are helping, with condescending talk about the deplorables among us. And we’re simply not Canadians. They’re too damned polite. We’re direct, and proud of it. This will not go well. No adjustments seem possible.