Soundings August 27: A Calculated Attack on Human Rights and Dignity

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the obvious and occasionally we read something or converse with someone who shines a spotlight on the proverbial elephant in the room. I had just such a moment when reading a column by the conservative columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Douthat used his essay, “The White Strategy,” to assess the Trump campaign and GOP electoral strategy to increase racial polarization to mobilize voters in 2016 and currently. Douthat carefully parsed Trump’s electoral margins and racialized rhetoric targeted to key demographic groups in 2016 in several midwestern states (which resulted in his Electoral College victory). While suggesting that outcome hardly constituted a vindication of the former businessman’s strategy, and making clear he did not embrace such a course himself, Douthat nevertheless observed:

Turning out disaffected whites is more politically effective than most people imagined after 2012, but white voters are ultimately too divided to make a “white strategy” work as a foundation for a real governing majority.[1]

I doubt I am the only person who read this analysis with incredulity and concern. Douthat suggested that Trump and the GOP had consciously adopted fomenting such division as their preferred and ongoing course. Meanwhile, once in office Trump has continued almost daily to stoke racial animosity and polarization by encouraging white identitarianism among his supporters. Douthat concluded that this stance is unlikely to win the next national election for the GOP:

But when those anxieties are translated into white-identitarian rhetoric, they cost Republicans not only minority votes but white votes as well, repelling anti-racist white suburbanites even as they mobilize some share of racially-resentful whites.

So even with a slower immigration rate, a slower pace of demographic change, the Republican Party would still need either some of the white voters Trump alienated or some of the minority votes he didn’t really try to win — and neither can be delivered by the white strategy alone.[2]

For the columnist, a “morally superior” winning alternative would,

recognize that Trump’s populist rhetoric as well as his race-baiting helped win the white Midwest, and instead of a white strategy pursue a populist strategy shorn of white-identity appeals. Keep the infrastructure promises and drop the birther forays; pursue E-Verify but forgo the child-separating cruelties; be tough on China but stop vilifying black athletes; embrace nationalism but stiff-arm Confederate nostalgia.[3]

Even as Douthat argued that Trump should drop his “populist race baiting,” he concluded that neither Trump nor the GOP was likely to do so.  

While Douthat, a respected national conservative,  was surely justified in raising concerns about the President’s and Party’s ongoing race baiting and racial polarization efforts, the facts he treated are not only morally outrageous, but also completely antithetical to the founding principles and Constitution of the nation that individuals seeking elective office under the GOP banner routinely swear to uphold and serve. This is a diverse nation and one that has only grown more so, and that trend looks set to continue and to deepen. It is also a country that has long struggled to cope with that heterogeneity and that has done so unevenly and often amidst the imposition of tragic injustices. Nevertheless, this nation’s declared ideals call for human equality, irrespective of race or any other characteristic. Indeed, however unevenly attained and despite the high price those pursuing progress in civil rights have too often paid, including a prolonged and bloody civil war echoes of whose divisions endure today, those core aims represent a precisely antithetical stance and course to Trump and the GOP’s “strategy.”

So, the elephant in the room is how the nation’s dominant political party and its titular head could embrace so patently cynical, anti-democratic and anti-American a course simply to win votes in the near term. This racist force, ultimately constructed on human fear and alarm concerning difference (the flight or fight instinct), cannot readily be controlled once unleashed. Trump and the Republican Party have nonetheless intentionally opened this Pandora’s Box and actively encouraged a share of the country’s population to hate, and to do so mindlessly and heedlessly, in order to garner votes, irrespective of the costs to the unity of the nation or to its animating aspirations to assure the civil and human rights of all of its citizens. In adopting this course, Trump and his party have sullied the regime as a beacon of hope for freedom around the world, even as they have daily ostracized immigrants, African Americans and those evidencing any difference from a supposedly superior mythical white archetype. To watch this spectacle unfold is both sad and sickening.  However obvious it may be to highlight the poison that has been loosed, it is essential to point up the destructive cynicism of those who released it as well, and for that very reason.

Apart from its ugly anti-democratic and corrosive impacts on human and civil rights, the GOP’s “white strategy” exacerbates the difficulties that individuals who appear different (whether on the basis of religion, perceived disability, race, ethnicity, gender or other characteristic) daily encounter precisely because it legitimates discriminatory behaviors rather than encouraging all American citizens to accept human diversity as a foundational reality that has no bearing on the otherwise in-principle equal standing and dignity of all human beings. The poet and essayist Claudia Rankine has written powerfully of the effects of animosity for those who are its targets. In one such reflection she recalled witnessing a conversation with the philosopher Judith Butler in which that scholar noted that the very being of humans makes them vulnerable to the hurt and pain imposed by the hate-filled language of the sort Trump and others in the GOP routinely employ today,

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person. After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.[4]

Rankine’s profound prose-poetry illuminates the harm visited on those stigmatized by an ongoing Trumpian politics of calculated cruelty. These costs are being levied in the name of a “White Strategy” and their toll in human terms is incalculable, laying aside their implications for the rights of all of the nation’s citizens and for self-governance. One of our country’s major political parties has shown itself willing to erode this nation’s dearest principles as it subjects the standing and rights of a broad share of its population to daily assaults on their basic rights in the name of short-term political power. Whatever one’s partisanship, this situation should be unacceptable. No argument or rationalization can excuse, let alone explain, supporting this so-called “strategy” and the shameful costs it imposes on millions of this nation’s residents each day. I am reminded of holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Weisel’s insight:

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.[5]

Just so.

Notes

[1] Douthat, Ross. “The White Strategy,” The New York Times, August 11, 2018,  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/11/opinion/sunday/the-white-strategy.html  Accessed August 19, 2018.

[2] Douthat, Ross. “The White Strategy.”

[3] Douthat, Ross. “The White Strategy.”

[4] Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014, p. 49.

[5] Weisel, Elie. “Nobel Lecture: Hope, Despair and Memory,” December 11, 1986, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1986/wiesel/lecture/ Accessed August 19, 2018.