One time isn’t like another. Things aren’t that bad. This isn’t 1968 – the year that opened with the Tet Offensive. Those people over there in Vietnam celebrate the Lunar New Year. There was going to be a break in the war. But the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong attacked everywhere. They overran our embassy in Saigon, for a time. We recovered, but things were different. Walter Cronkite was on television saying we were not going to win this thing – we needed a diplomatic solution. Lyndon Johnson heard that and must have known it was over. He decided he would not run for another term. Things were unstable. A few months after Tet, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. Then there were the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Chicago police, or the “security” folks, or someone, beat up Dan Rather on the floor of the convention. The Republicans met in Miami and nominated Nixon. He won on Law and Order, and America, Love It or Leave It. Four years later those kids at Kent State would lie dying on the grass – demonstrators, shot dead. Nixon said that never should have happened. That had to happen. There was an arc of inevitability to it all. Those were bad times.
Those aren’t these times, except for a few faint echoes of the past:
Two Louisiana police officers were fired Monday for a Facebook post that suggested Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) should be shot.
Officer Charlie Rispoli wrote on Facebook: “This vile idiot needs a round… and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve,” referring to a gunshot and the lawmaker’s earlier career as a bartender. It was not clear from the post, which has since been deleted, whether Rispoli knew he was sharing and commenting on a story from a satire website.
This seems to have been a misunderstanding:
Rispoli’s comment was made in response to a post on a self-described satirical page, tatersgonnatate.com, with the headline “Ocasio-Cortez on the Budget: ‘We Pay Soldiers Too Much.'”
Officer Charlie Rispoli didn’t read the fine print – this is satire – but he’s not alone:
The firings come amid a reckoning with racist and violent social media posts by police and federal law enforcement officers. As posts have been made public, firings and investigations have followed across multiple departments…
Police officers nationwide have faced waves of scrutiny following investigations of social media posts by 3,500 current and former police officers published by the nonprofit Plain View Project. In Philadelphia alone, 72 officers were pulled from street duty. The department plans to fire 13 of them for violent, racist and homophobic posts.
Patriotic law enforcement officers calling for the assassination of sitting members of Congress, and the assassination of pesky public figure of all sorts, is a problem now. That’s best left to civilians who really cannot pull off that sort of thing. But this is a worry:
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police, declined to say whether the agency viewed the posting as a threat. “We do not discuss how we carry out our protective responsibilities for Congress,” she said. A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment.
In short, let’s not talk about this. Let’s not give angry people any ideas. But really, this is not 1968 – no one is assassinating anyone – yet. But there is that arc of inevitability, and there is Max Boot with this:
July 17, 2019, is a date that will live in infamy. That was the day President Trump and his followers unveiled the unofficial slogan of his 2020 reelection campaign, “Send her back,” the successor to the unofficial slogan of his 2016 campaign: “Lock her up.” Both slogans are noxious and un-American, but the new one is even worse than the old.
Yeah, yeah, Trump said he tried to stop that chant, because it was vile, but then he changed his mind:
By Friday, Trump was no longer expressing faux remorse. Instead, he was praising the racist chorus as “incredible patriots” and doubling down on lies about the congresswomen of color who are their objects of hatred. Trump claimed that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) hates “our country” and called it “garbage” – which is blatantly false and an encouragement to the same ugly sentiments voiced in Greenville. This was a repeat of Charlottesville, with Trump once again walking back his initial walk-back.
It is only a matter of time before “send her back” is heard at another rally. Trump will most likely throw up his hands in mock despair as if to say: What can I do? This is the voice of the people!
Boot says no, that’s just his own people telling him what he wants to hear, but something has changed:
“Lock her up” was bad enough. By vowing to imprison his political opponent, Trump was telling his followers that he would violate the president’s duty to enforce the laws fairly and without favor. Now having gotten away with this outrage – having, in fact, been rewarded for his assault on the rule of law by election to the nation’s highest office – Trump is committing an even worse offense against the very foundation of our republic.
And that is one of many reasons that Max Boot is no longer a Republican:
The promise of America was summed up by Ronald Reagan in his last speech as president, when he cited a letter from a man who told him: “You can go to live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or Japanese – but anyone, from any corner of the Earth, can come to live in America and become an American.”
This, Reagan said, “is one of the most important sources of America’s greatness. We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people – our strength – from every country and every corner of the world.”
Oh, I know that this ideal has often not been honored. We have a long, ugly history of white supremacy in this country, ranging from Jim Crow laws to keep African Americans down to the 1924 Immigration Act to keep non-Europeans out. But in recent decades, we had been making real strides toward becoming a more inclusive society.
Coming here by jetliner in 1976, a Jewish immigrant from what was then a hostile state (the Soviet Union), I have never felt any less American than a Protestant whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Trump is now telling me and millions of other immigrants otherwise.
Well, those days are over:
With his “go back” demands and his followers’ chants of “send her back,” Trump is signaling that a refugee from Somalia – or even an African American from Cincinnati, a Palestinian American from Detroit or a Latino American from the Bronx – is an alien, an outsider, someone who is not welcome in a country that, as he previously said, is already “full.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R.-S.C.), Trump’s born-again true believer, said in his defense that “a Somali refugee embracing Trump would not have been asked to go back.”
So now the test of whether you are a real American is whether you are comfortable as part of a howling “MAGA” mob? I might as well start packing my bags.
And of course it’s absurd:
Trump is allowed to criticize this country as much as he likes. He can call it a land of “carnage,” say it is “becoming a third-world country,” claim that we are losers and laughingstocks. He can even deny that there is anything exceptional about America. His very campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – contains an implicit assertion that we are not now great. That apparently is his right as a white man. People of color, he suggests, do not have any such rights. Because they are conditional Americans, present at the sufferance of the white majority, they can love it or leave it.
That was said in 1968 too, so maybe we’re there again:
In claiming to defend America, Trump is actually transforming it into something I don’t recognize – or like. With the help of his nihilistic Republican enablers, he is mobilizing the forces of racism and dragging us back to our darkest days, our worst selves.
That might be the general idea. That’s what Eugene Robinson suggests here:
If President Trump and the Republican Party want the 2020 election to be a referendum on unabashed white supremacy, that’s their choice. Voters who embrace the views of David Duke and other proud racists will have Trump to vote for. Voters who disagree will have a Democratic alternative. Simple as that.
At the moment, it is difficult to see the coming contest in any other light. Make America Great Again has completed its sinister transformation into Make America White Again, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise.
So deal with the unfortunate reality here:
No sensible person should want such a fight. In a sprawling, diverse nation such as ours, with such a long and troubled history on issues of race, a certain amount of pretense is necessary. We try to bury our ugliest fears and resentments beneath a nobler commitment to the pluralistic ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. At our best, we subsume our private prejudices beneath a sense of civic responsibility.
But Trump is no sensible person, and he obviously does not represent our best. He is a demagogue with one highly effective political move: driving wedges. He is now trying to open a chasm between white and nonwhite Americans, and he wants to force his potential supporters to choose a side.
Now what? In response, choose the other side:
His shamefully divisive tactic must be called out, labeled with its proper name and fought without quarter. Based on Trump’s public comments and his Twitter feed, it seems obvious that race is what he wants the nation to be talking about right now, as opposed to his administration’s incompetence and corruption. But to ignore his white-power tactic would be a much bigger mistake than facing it head-on. Trump may believe his political opponents lack the stomach to confront him. He must be proved wrong.
So do it, talk about race:
On Sunday, he tweeted, “I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country. They should apologize to America.” On Monday, he called them “a very Racist group of troublemakers.”
This will surely be a theme of Trump’s white-power appeal – that minorities who have the nerve to raise their voices are the “real” racists who should be blamed for any and all hardships afflicting whites. It is incredible that our national political discourse has sunk to this kind of hideous scapegoating, but here we are.
And there may be only one way to deal with this:
Democrats, independents and Republicans disgusted by Trump’s use of race as a wedge cannot pretend this is a normal election. Republican officeholders and Republican candidates, who stand by Trump, perhaps for reasons of self-preservation, must be pressed: Do they believe all Americans, regardless of race, have a right to participate in our democracy, or not? Do they believe Americans who disagree with Trump’s policies should leave the country, or not? Do they agree with white supremacists that whites are somehow threatened by “racist” minorities, or not?
So ask the damned questions and trap them:
Anyone tempted to support Trump because of his economic or foreign policies should be constantly reminded that this is not an a la carte menu. If you plan to vote for Trump because of his tax cuts, for example, or his uncritical support of Israel, you’re also voting for his racism.
This is nothing less than a fight for the soul of the nation. Everyone needs to take a stand.
That’s what Martin Luther King said too, long ago. The past is never dead. It’s not even past. That’s what William Faulkner said, but forget the sixties. Catherine Rampell remembers the thirties:
Eighty years ago last month, the S.S. St. Louis entered American waters.
The liner carried more than 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, hoping to find a haven across the Atlantic. Passengers had purchased landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban government, and most planned to wait in Cuba while their U.S. visa applications were processed. But the Cuban government was roiled by political infighting and fearmongering that Jewish refugees might be communists. Officials turned nearly all of the passengers away.
The St. Louis sailed to Florida, coming so close to U.S. shores that passengers could see the lights of Miami, as one survivor noted in an oral history kept by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Passengers cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ask for refuge but never heard back.
America – where similar nativist and anti-Semitic rhetoric had infected the public – also turned the refugees away. The State Department directed desperate refugees to “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
That sounds familiar, and the rest is history:
The ship returned to Europe, where a handful of countries had agreed to take in the passengers. But many ultimately fell into German hands, and a quarter of the ship’s original manifest died during the Holocaust.
But we’re doing the same thing. Rampell notes “our rejection of innocents seeking refuge from persecution, based on excuses that they might become an economic burden or national security threat” and “our disingenuous claims that people need only to follow the rules and get in line.”
And that makes some things inevitable, again:
Among a litany of other anti-immigrant measures, the administration announced that it was gutting the U.S. asylum system, effective immediately, by rejecting any new arrivals who had not first sought asylum in another country they passed through on their way.
This change violates both domestic and international law – including an international pact set up partly to prevent another St. Louis – and is being challenged in court. If allowed to stand, it will force thousands risking all to reach the U.S. border to return to dangerous conditions in their home countries or in Mexico.
Also last week, Politico reported that the administration is considering zeroing out refugee admissions from around the world next year. That includes Iraqi interpreters who put their lives on the line assisting U.S. forces, and whose visas we have already been appallingly slow to process. For this reason, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reportedly opposed refugee cuts last year, fearing the consequences for national security.
There are other echoes, too, between our treatment of refugees today and in the 1930s, including presidential use of backdoor administrative actions to circumvent legislative debate. Back then, for instance, consular officials who were “under quota” – who kept admissions below strict (racist) national-origin quotas set by Congress – got letters of commendation under both Presidents Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt, according to American University history professor Alan Kraut.
That means we’re back in 1939 again, but not really:
The immigration system in place then was structured not around compassion, or other abstract concepts such as morality or equity, but on a determination of which peoples were believed to be most economically and culturally advantageous to the United States. Our moral obligations to the world through asylum and refugee policy were only legally formalized in the postwar years, after the Holocaust (and the U.S. immigration system’s complicity in it) had “shocked the conscience” of many Americans.
“We were in a sense making up for the mistakes we had made in the run-up to World War II,” says Morris Vogel, a historian and president emeritus of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
In other words: Today, we know exactly what we’re doing when we turn refugees away.
We’re doing 1939 again, those days before any of this “shocked the conscience” of anyone. The past is never dead. A whole lot of Jews are dead, but the past is never dead.
And this is 1971 again too – a nasty Republican president preparing to run for reelection – but this is Trump, not Nixon, this time, and Josh Marshall sees this:
In 1971 Pat Buchanan, then a young aide and speechwriter for Nixon, wrote a memo for Nixon and his top advisors in which he argued that Nixon should “cut the Democratic Party and the country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half.”
The story of the next couple decades of American politics and certainly of the early 1970s is that Buchanan was right. Nixon’s strategy was about polarizing the country, heightening the contradictions and inflaming divisions – around the war, around race, crime and the drug culture. Nixon’s half was bigger.
Watergate upended that, but only briefly. Democrats had a massive wave in 1974 and the stain of Watergate allowed Jimmy Carter to eke out a narrow victory against the never-elected Jerry Ford. But post-Nixon Republicans came back with modest but key pickups in the 1978 midterm and Ronald Reagan was elected along with a GOP Senate in 1980, in an election which defined American politics until the first years of this century.
So here we go again, but with a twist:
The logic of the Trump presidency is also to continually divide the country, to maximize polarization. The difference is that Trump’s half is clearly the smaller half.
This isn’t wishful thinking. It was true even in his improbable 2016 victory and even more so in the 2018 midterm. Looked at from a different, more demographic perspective, if you look at George McGovern’s losing coalition in 1972 – educated white voters and white professionals, young voters and minority voters – it’s fairly similar to the Obama coalition of 2008/12 and Democrats in 2018. It’s just that those groups are much larger in 2018 than they were in 1972.
Ah, Trump loses, but maybe not:
The key is that in our current political moment – especially in the Senate, but also in the Electoral College and the House – the smaller half can monopolize political power… We’ve already seen how Trump can claim victory with a minority of support. There are good reasons to think the margin of popular vote defeat he can weather while winning the Electoral College is even greater than it was in 2016 (because of activation of new voters in already blue states). But in this sense, the outcome is really in Democrats’ hands. They have the bigger part of a divided America, enough to overcome the locked in advantages of a Republican candidate, if they hold together.
Don’t expect that. They’re Democrats. And many things are inevitable. Donald Trump was inevitable. And the past is back in town.