“When men oppress their fellowmen, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.”
― Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
For America, the debt has finally come due. There was a time when the fledgling nation could boast that its imperfections were a product of its youth — -a by-product of its guilelessness. No more. The stirring words writ large in our founding documents were a promise — -a pledge, of sorts, that the new nation had reimagined governance. No longer emanating from the heavens, the authority of a government was dependent on the consent of the people. Those heady days after our nation was freed from the chains of England, the founders could not agree to extend that freedom to the enslaved men and women whose labor enriched them. The foundation they laid was built on sand. For more than two centuries the failure to recognize and deal with the inequity of slavery now threatens equality for all of us.
The Civil War was fought over the inability to come to terms with the evil of slavery. The ferocity of the battle that ripped the nation apart, then patched it back together was proof that we knew better. The winners in this war were the cynics — -not the emancipated slaves or the victorious North. The denouement failed to eradicate the vestiges of that fateful decision made at our founding. Slavery morphed into its ugly successor, Jim Crow, segregation, suppression, and inequity. Blacks had given up their chains for prison bars and institutionalized poverty:
“If Black people make up 13.2 percent of the US population, then Black people should make up somewhere close to 13 percent of the Americans killed by the police, somewhere close to 13 percent of the Americans sitting in prisons, somewhere close to owning 13 percent of US wealth. But today, the United States remains nowhere close to racial parity. African Americans own 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth, and make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population. These are racial disparities, and racial disparities are older than the life of the United States.”
We are now dining on the poisonous fruit of that tree. The freedom that the enslaved Americans were granted in 1863 wasn’t a gift they had been or a right they had been granted. Rather, freedom was a birthright that they had been denied. Ibram X. Kendi states that the myth of a post-racial America died with the end of the Obama presidency and the election of Trump. There are racists among us who would deny each and every American their freedom because, just like at our inception, freedom for them is a commodity. If that is the case, then, it is nothing more than an illusion. Until we eliminate the inherent inequities that afflict some of our citizens, those who are “different,” marginalized, and vulnerable, democracy is only a cruel delusion.
“What the hell do you have to lose?”
When candidate Trump asked the nation to take a risk on him, the prevailing thought was that the strategy was aimed at black and minority voters. The question was phrased with a tone of desperation on his part. This was August 2016 and he was the presumptive loser to a Clinton campaign that seemed unbeatable. What may have been overlooked in this query was a fact that was prominent in the Washington Post reporting of the event:
On Aug. 19, 2016, before an overwhelmingly white crowd in Dimondale, Mich., where 2.8 percentof the population is African American, then-candidate Donald Trump stumped for black votes. After blaming Democrats and their nominee, Hillary Clinton, for his repeated stereotypical viewof African American lives, Trump ended his pitch with a blunt query: “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump? … What the hell do you have to lose?”
Whether in the first or third person, Trump’s question seemed pathetic. How could he hope to convert voters who had been at the core of the Democratic Party faithful, those who had come out in 2008 and 2012 in droves to elect the first black president — — expect them to abandon the Obama legacy? Surely, it was a ploy, an empty gesture — -but did it work?
Lost in the reportage is an alternative motive for the campaign and its most ardent followers. It was odd, in retrospect, for the question to be asked at a rally in front of a mostly white audience in a mostly white suburb of Lansing, Michigan. Given our understanding today that this president is both racist and misogynistic, an alternative view is unavoidable. Intended or not, the speech and its message were not lost on his audience of white suburbanites, nor was it lost on his ardent followers who heard it the next day on their favorite Fox and Friends newscast. In what may have been an unintended consequence given the lack of expertise of a campaign that required Russian interference and willing fellow travelers among his campaign staff, clearly Trump’s followers got the message. According to Pew Research. voting patterns in 2016 were telling:
Some Black and Hispanic voters decided to stay home on election day. The expected advantage that Clinton should have expected did not materialize as white women voted in larger numbers for Trump, as did white Catholics, Protestants, and non-college-educated voters. Clearly they had gotten the message — -what the hell did they have to lose? What did they hear in the whispered subtext of his plea? Vote white! Vote male! Vote Trump.
Now looking back, they heard that the nation was changing — -that their majority was in jeopardy. In a nation that had been ruled predominately by white politicians throughout its history, the threat of losing its ruling status was what was at stake. Trusting that Trump may be a “risk”, it was one worth taking because the Democratic party, despite having a white female as its candidate, offered a greater risk. After all, having supported the first a black president, then the first female candidate — -what could be next? The third rail for the racists and misogynists among us had been crossed. The question of whether the risk was worth their vote on a failed bombastic reality show host was an easy one to answer for white voters. In a choice between gender and politics, those white voters who endured the “ceiling breaking” election of a black man, simply couldn’t allow more precedents. Too many women felt that the risk of having a suspected racist president, and one who was a proven (after October 7 Access Hollywood tape release) misogynist outweighed reason and common sense. They decided in numbers reflecting their fear of black and women ascendance as political leaders to vote against their interests.
What was lost
After 4 years we now know the answer to Trump’s pathetic query. We lost “a lot.” But the loss extended far beyond the self-interests of those who took the challenge and voted for a carnival barker.
- We face the loss of American leadership in the world. Our allies have been abandoned and our enemies buoyed by Trump’s lack of leadership.
- Health care has been threatened and in a second term would be eliminated.
- Minorities have seen the rise of white supremacists and bigots and kooks, nutjobs, and weird conspiracists, the irrational and fatuous deniers of science.
- We have lost over 175,000 lives to a virus that has baffled a resolutely incompetent administrative response, and more than 5 million Americans afflicted by the virus.
- 30 million Americans have lost wages and many of them their jobs due to the mismanagement of the virus and its impact on the economy.
- Democracy is imperiled as his henchmen remove guardrails that would preserve our freedoms.
In the end, the real answer to that question for them is “ we are prepared to lose our freedom to preserve an America that retains rule for white men who are losing their electoral majority. The election before us represents their last gasp effort to hold on. They are willing to destroy our democracy in order to maintain power.
Make no mistake, the fears driving Trump’s so-called base are real. They are the same as those that prompted southern slave states to break from the union. It includes a demand that this generation of Americans be held to the devil’s bargain agreed upon at our inception, a time when “All men” were reduced to wealthy white ones, and when “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were rights enjoyed only as a derivative of the being allowed to live in their midst.
There are racists among us and their fear is well-founded. They always knew or should have known, this day was coming. It was presaged by their very words and made inevitable by the success of the founders’experiment. In their world, what evolved has been an unintended consequence of their labor. Their choices are stark, give it all up, or bask in some afterglow of the democracy created by them for them. Yes, give it all up, or share it.
Yes, there are racists among us, and our fears are well-founded. It is not a matter of who will win or lose, rather there will be a reckoning determining what will survive and whether it will be enough.