Large portions of the news media and liberal activists have made the Charlottesville aftermath all about President Trump. In today’s personality-driven political climate, we should not expect any different. But Donald Trump didn’t invent this problem in the political arena, and it will be around far after he’s gone. What Trump has done is spoken in clever code to inflame and exploit a base of voters who already support GOP candidates- in fact a base of voters who have provided the Republicans their margins of victory in the last two Governor’s races in Florida.
The rush of GOPers beyond Trump to condemn white supremacy in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy carries some political risk. Since the 1972 Presidential Election, every Republican running at the top-of the-ticket in Florida has benefited from this set of voters. Some like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush blatantly pushed racial buttons to drive out these voters. Even John McCain who took great pains to avoid racial demagoguery benefited from surrogates who played these cards. It also is very likely disingenuous, – those Republicans condemning neo-Nazi’s and racists this weekend have in most cases benefited directly from the mainstreaming of their views through the years whether they openly sought those votes or not.
Make no mistake about it – Rick Scott has won two terms as Governor of Florida because of this base of voters. However small statewide, in tight elections that require small margins and micro-targeting, these voters tend to make a difference for any conservative Republican who plays the race card subtly – even if it means simply attacking President Obama or someone else with a distinctly ethnic or Jewish sounding name. Pat Buchanan used to be a master of playing these cards by naming “large industrialists” or “new world order types” that all had Jewish, Asian or Eastern European sounding last names. Trump has picked up on that by running the most blatantly anti-Semitic campaign by a major party Presidential nominee since the 1920’s. It also can be argued by some Trump ran the most racist campaign since the 1920’s 0r 1910’s also but I’d strongly argue the themes played in the Reagan and Bush campaigns of the 1980’s were equally if not more racist than anything that came out of Trump’s mouth or his campaign. But the 1980’s and 2010’s were different times with different standards. The 1980’s were a time when GOP candidates could scream “crime,” “welfare,” “state’s rights” and “government spending,” and subtly poke racial buttons. Today those themes no longer work as well and so the vocabulary has changed.
Condemning neo-Nazi’s and racists is convenient after a tragedy but will the GOP, particularly here in Florida renounce the votes they get from white supremacists. Will a Republican in Florida stand up and say “if you are a racist, I don’t want your vote?” Of course not, because they know they depend particularly in close elections and maybe more importantly in tight GOP primaries on these voters.
Were I an excessively political creature advising GOP candidates in Florida, I’d probably tell my clients to say almost identically what Trump did – call out violence and maybe tweet something stronger than what you said on camera BUT don’t alienate your base and somehow try and muddy the waters by creating a false equivalency between leftist peaceful protesters and neo-Nazi’s.
Of course this is a completely morally repugnant way of conducting themselves but the GOP has made its own bed. If you lie with dogs you have to expect to get some fleas and simply applying a flea treatment once, a year or more before you are on the ballot again doesn’t do a whole lot.
Trump likely was being advised to create the types of false moral equivalencies between counter-protesters and neo-Nazi’s by his advisers. A Nixonian move that reminded us so much of when Republicans would blame anti-war protesters for the heavy-handed actions of law enforcement officers and national guard. Trump’s words were simply lifted a 50-year old page from the Republican playbook.
The media can obsess over Trump and let other GOP officeholders who sent out nicely worded but largely meaningless statements on Saturday and Sunday off the hook. The politics of personality and simply viewing Trump as the second coming of Stalin or Hitler rather than looking at the environment and politicians that enabled his rise and continue to benefit from those he cultivates is something that has not been done effectively in the last 48 hours. Activists on the left need to focus their energies on the Republican officeholders, particularly in Florida who win by tight margins by pushing racial or anti-Semitic buttons subtly or through surrogates when they most need to. They also should focus on those Republicans who win by small margins thanks to the racial vote and shame them into renouncing these voters – we can start in the State House and also put Rick Baker on the spot in the upcoming St Petersburg Mayor’s Election. Again the point isn’t that Republican candidates and officeholders are somehow racists – most aren’t. But have they benefited from racial thinking and racially-driven voters? To quote President George W. Bush “you bethca!”
Simply focusing on Trump and screaming RACIST or ANTI-SEMITE with regards to Trump fuels a feeding frenzy in the media and among newer activists that misses the point entirely. Time to refocus and make those who have long benefited from racism and have mismanaged our state pay.