How Much Does the “R” Word Explain Politics?

 Racist Obama Depiction

One of the most consistent recurring themes in think pieces about Trump supporters is how they’ve all been unfairly maligned as racists by politically correct liberals.  The pieces almost invariably follow the exact same template.  They begin by extolling the virtues of honest, Real American conservatives, then declare how they’re not racist, and liberals need to stop labeling people bigots solely because they disagree with leftist dogma.  Rinse, repeat.

Because these pieces are usually so stale, it’s especially refreshing when someone comes along with a candid take.  And this week, Michael Kruse of Politico did just that.  The piece dispenses with woolly platitudes about small town life, and cuts to the chase regarding what really motivates Trump supporters in this Pennsylvania town.  Deindustrialization and the opioid epidemic are major concerns here, but amazingly, people don’t really have any hope that things will actually improve.  Instead, what’s really motivating them is cultural rage and, yes, racism.

“Everybody I talk to,” he said, “realizes it’s not Drumpf who’s dragging his feet. Drumpf’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”

I stopped him, informing him that, yes, Barack Obama liked to golf, but Drumpf in fact does golf a lot, too—more, in fact.

Del Signore was surprised to hear this.

“Does he?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

As if that’s not enough, there’s this gem at the very end.

“You’re not a fan of equality?” I asked.

“For people who deserve it and earn it,” he said. “All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever—they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the respect. They earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.”

“Like NFL players?” I said.

“Well,” Del Signore responded, “I hate to say what the majority of them are …” He stopped himself short of what I thought he was about to say.

Schilling and her husband, however, did not restrain themselves.

“The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit,” Schilling told me in her living room. “I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit. We do not watch no NFL now.” They’re Dallas Cowboys fans. “We banned ’em. We don’t watch it.”

Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”

McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.

Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.

She looked at me.

The NFL?

“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.

“For life,” McCabe added.

Seeing these sentiments expressed so bluntly should put to rest the idea that liberals are maligning non-racists unfairly.  Although, if we’re being honest, it probably won’t.  Even in ostensibly “liberal” outlets, there’s an awful lot of resistance to admitting that there may be times and places when it’s perfectly legitimate to use the “r” word.  I’m not a hundred percent sure why this is.  I suspect it’s because many people hold the belief that racist views are by definition fringe, and therefore implicitly jump to the conclusion that if something is not fringe, it cannot possibly be racist.

For now, I’m just going to take it as a given that what the Politico piece describes is a time and a place where the “r” word applies.  It seems pretty self-evident to me.  A more interesting question is to what degree does racism impact our politics?  Here, I think we need to be careful in distinguishing racism from partisanship.

Take the previous President (God, I miss him so much).  Obstruction of Obama was notoriously extreme, but is there really any doubt that Republicans would have obstructed endlessly regardless of which Democrat was in office?  After all, it’s not like they were exactly chummy with Bill Clinton.  I don’t think the behavior of Congressional Republicans between 2009 and 2016 really needs to be chalked up to racism.

However, the behavior of the electorate is another story altogether.  Conservatives can pretend the Tea Party was really about committment to their economic principles all they want, but they’re deluding themselves.  There’s a reason the anti-Obama protests developed such a reputation for racism, and it has nothing to do with smug liberals looking down on Real America.  It has everything to do with the heinous things Tea Partiers were saying and the racist depictions of the Obamas they were running around with.

For my part, I’m convinced that Republican voters really, really hated having a classy, well-educated, morally upstanding black man in the White House.  The constant reminder that a black man was doing a better job at raising a family, being a good person, and life in general, than they ever would was an indignity that their spiteful little minds couldn’t handle. Racism might not have affected how Congress was acting (or very much of Congress, anyway), but it most definitely affected the anti-Obama sentiment among voters.  As an explanation of these people’s politics, it’s not sufficient in and of itself.  But it sure as hell is necessary, and all the apologetic think pieces in the world won’t change that fact.

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