Where would we be without plausible deniability? A gift from the Reagan presidency that keeps on giving, that phrase lowered the bar for truthfulness and accountability. The concept gained currency after Ronald Reagan used it to absolve himself of involvement for the Iran-Contra scandal. The verbal arsonist Donald Trump has done away with the plausible part, and even the deniability part as well, reserving the act of denial only when he has been accused of inciting riots.
For its part, the GOP establishment is deep in denial, viewing Trump’s incendiary rhetoric as the main cause forthe unmasked racism and occasional violence that have marred the candidate’s rallies, when they aren’t asking protesters to share the blame. In fact, Trump’s combustible appeals to white racial resentment have long been a staple of conservative politics. What’s new is that Trump refuses to back down from racist and xenophobic statements.
Conservatives horrified at Trump’s front-runner status may be nostalgic for a time when rules of coded languageand deniability — a reprehensible practice, to be sure — regulated how their side of the aisle communicated their views on race. Just ask Trent Lott, who resigned as Senate Majority Leader in 2002 after bipartisan objections to his unguarded praise of Sen. Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation third party presidential campaign of 1948. Caught up in the occasion of Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott claimed that the nation would have been better off had Thurmond won and somehow prevented civil rights reforms. For transgressing the rule of deniabilitywith his expression of hidebound views, Lott fell on his sword.
One wonders how Lott must feel as Trump’s poll numbers rise with each seemingly damning statement, andeven after incidents of violence at his rallies. Trump continues to rack up primary delegates — despite bigotedand authoritarian attacks of Mexicans and Muslims — and his reluctant, winking disavowal of an endorsement from the likes of Ku Klux Klan spokesman David Duke.
The investigative journalist Jane Mayer has noted the irony of the far-right, anti- government billionaire Koch brothers’ objection to Trump’s xenophobic, authoritarian campaign. Mayer reminds us of the Koch-financed “grassroots” opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Then, in 2010, the Koch brothers had no problem whatsoever with the hate-filled mob atmosphere of a rally on Capitol Hill, where some whites yelled homophobic and racial slurs and spat upon three African-American members of Congress.
The use of racial euphemism in US politics goes back to President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy. Usingcoded appeals to “law and order” and fear of crime to demonize Black demands for equality, Nixon triggered a mass exodus of white southern Democrats angered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into the Republican Party.
Ronald Reagan announced his campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were killed by white supremacists in 1964. Though polarizing, such manipulation helped advance Reagan’s anti-government, tax-cuts for the rich, deregulatory economic agenda, whose benefits did not trickle-down to white, blue-collar supporters.
It was Republican Party political operative Lee Atwater, however, who perfected the alchemy of turning base, anti-Black racism into electoral gold. Toning down the racial demagoguery of a Thurmond or George Wallace, Atwater mined the racial fears and resentments of whites with a subtlety that proved effective in national, as well as statewide elections.
As Atwater explained:
[Y]ou start out in 1954 … saying ‘n*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘ n*****’ — that hurts you. So you say stuff like forced busing, state’s rights…. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things … are totally economic, and a byproduct of this is Blacks get hurt worse than whites…. Because … saying “we want to cut this” is much more abstract than the busing thing, and … saying ‘n*****, n*****.’
Much of Trump’s support comes from this constituency, forged during the 1980s and 1990s, motivated largely by white racial fear and loathing. Atwater’s notorious “Willie Horton” ad yoked the crimes of an African-American man to Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis. Though widely condemned, the ad helped propel George H.W. Bush to victory in 1988.
Though his 1990s campaigns for statewide office in Louisiana were unsuccessful, David Duke ran viable campaigns as a Republican and attracted funding from a national network of contributors spouting racism andanti-Semitism unvarnished enough to make Republicans uneasy. Duke stoked the resentments of poor andstruggling whites, even those on government assistance themselves, by portraying African Americans as undeserving beneficiaries of government programs and worse.
It seems fitting that Duke has figured in Trump’s own effort to go beyond the GOP establishment’s disturbing protocol of dog-whistle appeals to white prejudice. When Trump and many of his supporters say they refuse to be “politically correct,” they want to eliminate public taboos on racist, sexist and bigoted speech.
Even more concerning than his legitimizing hate speech is Trump’s complete denial that his words have consequences. His rallies have become rituals of hate and physical violence against outsiders and people his supporters disagree with. Trump insists that he is not responsible for the chaos we are witnessing. And now he has predicted there will be riots if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination.
Of course, not all of Trump’s supporters are afflicted with the sickness of racism. Many have legitimate economic grievances. Job flight, falling wages, the Great Recession and Republican-led cuts of the social safety net have plunged many into a desperate struggle to survive. Tragically, those who have benefited so little from backing the GOP establishment are now submitting to the dangerous manipulations of a demagogue unworthy of their support and unfit for office.