While the Republican presidential frontrunner’s support appears as solid and stable as any celebrity’s, it would be a mistake for political observers to claim that Donald Trump is infallible merely because his floor in the polls won’t budge. If it weren’t clear at the time that the reality television star’s refusal to clearly and unequivocally decline the support of the KKK, David Duke, and other white nationalist organizations was an error, it should be today. Save for the famous immigration hawk Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the flood of endorsements you might expect the GOP’s delegate leader to receive after a series of Super Tuesday victories has not materialized. What’s more, compelled by conscience and a sense of responsibility, the last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, delivered a scathing, itemized indictment against Trump on Thursday and urged every Republican to back the remaining non-Trump candidates in the race.
It is, however, unlikely that core Trump backers will be moved to rethink their support for the candidate merely because he has been dubbed, at the very least, accommodating toward white supremacists. It would be easy to dismiss this phenomenon as a facet of the cult-like adoration Trump supporters display for their man, but that is unduly charitable toward the left, which has abused and diluted the meaning of the word “racism.” Many conservatives believe that the charge of racism has lost all meaning. And they have a point.
For the GOP, campaigning against the man who might potentially become the first black president was an impossibly fraught task, and we’re not talking about the crank notion of “birtherism” that overtook the fever swamps. Republicans could not campaign against Barack Obama’s lack of executive experience in 2008 without that line of attack being dubbed racially suspect. When John McCain criticized the Illinois senator for his association with slumlord, convict, and Obama facilitator Antoin “Tony” Rezko, he was accused of base racial agitation and waging a campaign of guilt by association-style McCarthyism. The same was said for anyone who dared note that the president launched his political career in the living room of a convicted anti-American, far-left terrorist, Bill Ayers. Ditto the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose hateful, un-American sermons were so damaging to the campaign that the Illinois senator was compelled to deliver a grandiloquent speech on race in America in which he framed his critics as insufficiently educated on the subject of ethnicity.
So eager was the press to dub any and all opposition to Obama racist in 2008 that overzealous crowd reactions to McCain’s swipes at his opponent became suitable evidence of an ugly phenomenon on the right. “McCain: Obama not an Arab, crowd boos,” a Politico headline blared in October. From then on, reportage on the conspicuous booing of conservative crowds proliferated. “Obama can hardly be held accountable for Ayers’s behavior 40 years ago, but at least McCain and Palin can try to take some responsibility for the behavior of their own supporters in 2008,” the New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote without a discernable hint of irony. So petrified were Obama skeptics that, even when they’d preface such criticism with “I don’t want to sound racist, and I’m not racist,” it was dubbed by the left an admission of their racism.
The efforts of Obama allies to tar Mitt Romney and his supporters as racially suspect made the 2008 campaign look tame by comparison. Hardly a day passed when the vilest slurs and most thoughtless innuendo were not deployed against Romney for having the gall to run for president against Barack Obama. That’s not an exaggeration, either. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews asserted that he thought it was “arrogant” and showed a “certain kind of disdain” when Romney decided to run against a sitting African-American president. “I don’t want to get into his head on this – I don’t like the look of it,” the MSNBC host declared.
For Obama backers, identifying racist “dog whistles” became a favored pastime in 2012. Words like “angry,” “golf,” “skinny,” “Chicago,” “food stamps,” “apartment,” and even “Constitution,” were ascribed some darker meaning that supposedly only white nationalists could hear (although liberal talk show hosts seemed rather attuned to them). Romney was allegedly racist toward African-Americans, toward Palestinians, toward Hispanics, and none of this let up even after he lost.
When, in the effort to address long-term urban poverty in 2014, then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan was accused of racism for using another one of those code words, “inner cities,” to describe one of the areas in America plagued by generational poverty. “Let’s be clear, when Mr. Ryan says ‘inner city,’ when he says ‘culture,’ these are simply code words for what he really means: ‘black,’” insisted Representative Barbara Lee, along with a host of finely tuned dog whistle decoders on the left. It is perhaps unsurprising that Barack Obama did not meet with the same criticism for making the same observation while using virtually the same language.
Even members of Barack Obama’s own administration have mobilized racial anxiety against Republicans when it was politically convenient. When complaining about having had to address a typically pugnacious House committee session, former Attorney General Eric Holder told a gathering of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network members (again, sans irony) that the spectacle was “ugly,” and standard for a GOP that had treated him and the president with unprecedented contempt. “What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?” he asked. In case this was too subtle an accusation for anyone, Holder spelled it out. In an exit interview before he resigned, the attorney general was asked if he believed Republican racism was behind opposition to the Obama administration. “There have been times when I thought that’s at least a piece of it,” Holder said.
When honorable and decent men like Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, not to mention most of the conservative movement, are reflexively dubbed racists simply for opposing Democratic policies, the result is a GOP electorate that doesn’t listen to admonitions when the genuine article is in their midst. Democrats will go about patting themselves on the back for their successful psychological manipulation of the right to a point at which the GOP appears set to nominate a toxic figure for the presidency. They should perhaps postpone the celebrations. Anyone who wins the presidential nomination of one of the two major parties in America stands an excellent chance of winning the White House. While Trump would seem unlikely to become commander-in-chief, any number of unforeseen black swan events along the campaign trail could yield a victory for the celebrity candidate.
Today, they point and shout “racist” into the void, but Democrats only have themselves to blame for the fact that so many on the right are no longer listening.