Trump has revived one of the Republicans' most durable themes: raceby Sam Tanenhaus / August 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
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With his convention-eve promise to preserve “law and order” following the July sniper-killing of five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Donald Trump—putative outsider, interloper, hijacker, wrecking-ball—revived one of the modern Republican Party’s most durable themes, rooted in response (fearful and angry) to the violent discords of the 1960s.
Almost fifty years after a presidential commission warned that America “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white,” race remains the great unsolvable problem in American politics, society, culture. And it has been so from the beginning. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence—one of history’s great calls for freedom—relied on slave labor to build his mountaintop Xanadu in Virginia. The contradiction was as blatant then as it seems today. “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Samuel Johnson wondered at time time of the Revolution. Edmund Burke had an answer. It was true, “in Virginia and the Carolinas they have a vast multitude of slaves,” he acknowledged. “Where this is the case in any part of the world, those who are free, are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom. Freedom is to them not only an enjoyment, but a kind of rank and privilege.”
The modern story is no longer regional, a story of the south, the “peculiar institution” of plantation slavery, followed by the “strange career” of Jim Crow apartheid laws in sleepy rural towns where the highest law was the lynching rope. For half a century now race has been as much a story of the north as of the south, as well as of the west and east, of cities and suburbs, of campuses and the workplace. The issues are no longer those of rights but of contests over housing and schools, of college admissions and hiring practices.
The Obama years seemed to offer an exit from this conflict: a popular “post-racial” African American president who twice swept to victory in an increasingly multicultural country. He was elected as the tribune of the young. There are more than 80 million Millennials, and 44 per cent of them are nonwhite. And they gravitate to cities—many coming from “elite” campuses which teach, or preach, a politics of continual suspicion, of the hair-trigger response. Yesterday’s faux pax is today’s micro-aggression, just as yesterday’s liberal sociology—its “culture of poverty,” its “crisis of the family”—is now attacked as imprisoning dogma, a coded vocabulary of “white supremacy.”
And they’ve got visual data on their side—police body cameras, iPhone video that seems to materialize every time a black man is beaten or shot by the police. The last few years have seen a growing catalog of wrongful or at least avoidable deaths—Michael Brown, the 18-year-old shot by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014; Pierre Loury, the 16-year-old chased and killed by police in Chicago in April 2016. And many others too.
All this inspired the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Its unofficial laureate is the journalist and memoirist Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose polemic Between the World and Me, published in July 2015, was a sensation: number-one best-seller, National Book Award. It described routine violence visited upon blacks by whites. In Coates’ world, the police are the heirs of plantation overseers in the slave era, “endowed with the authority to destroy your body”—right up to committing murder, “the superlative form of a dominion that includes friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.”
But with Dallas and Baton Rouge the “narrative” swiftly changed. The true text of America’s racial history is Newton’s third law: with gains come setbacks, with “progress” comes “backlash.” This right now has a manifesto of its own, “The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe,” by the conservative policy writer Heather Mac Donald. “President Obama betrayed the nation,” she declares. Given his chance, after the white cop in Ferguson escaped indictment, “to defend the workings of the criminal-justice system and the rule of law,” Obama instead changed the subject to “police racism and criminal-justice bias.” Both are figments, Mac Donald insists, which distract from the true cause of black mortality in the city: “violent crime” and reigns of terror imposed by armed gangbangers and drug dealers. Interviewed by the talk radio maestro Rush Limbaugh, who has some 13 million listeners, Mac Donald said the Black Lives Matter attack on the police is wrongheaded. Cops “are in inner-city neighborhoods trying to save lives,” not destroy them. The many inhabitants of “inner-city communities that I have spoken to over the years adore the cops.”
Many expect race to be a main topic of the election—Trump’s promise of “law and order” vs Hillary Clinton’s plea for “love and kindness.” These phrases are coded too. The Republicans have become, increasingly, a lily-white party. In 2012 Mitt Romney received zero percent of the African American vote in a combined 150 precincts in New York City and Philadelphia. Yes, zero. A poll this summer had Donald Trump likewise receiving zero in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. These are the calculations driving both candidates, and their parties—as they plumb the deep recess of America’s race problem for answers best translated into simple, but all-important, arithmetic.