Political realities that got Donald Trump elected should shock us into action
Strategy that got him elected capitalized on a weakened Voting Rights Act
In the arc of American history, Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the United States is no shock. The functional preamble remains that all white men are created superior and those who subscribe to it are periodically compelled to stick it in the face of black folks — and now brown and Muslim folks, too — even if it comes at considerable cost to the nation and world standing.
A nation that went to war over slavery, and to this day has neither apologized for the “peculiar institution” nor considered economic remedies remotely equal to the value of the free labor that built this country, will endlessly remain at risk for racist convulsions, even as the U.S. Census projects a nation in which the majority of people will be of color in 27 years. A cancerous core of the white American experience is the fear that equal opportunity is a zero-sum game for them. Once more, such fears — pun intended — trumped equality.
Trump’s zero-sum campaign now goes down in American history as the most modern campaign to win looking the furthest backward. Trump’s rhetoric invoked the anti-immigration Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, the end of Reconstruction, the George Wallace/Ross Barnett/Lester Maddox resistance to integration, the “law and order” silent majority of Richard Nixon, support for South African apartheid under Ronald Reagan and the rollbacks of affirmative action engineered by Supreme Court justices appointed by the Bush family.
Fittingly, among those cheering the Trump victory were former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who called it “one of the most exciting days of my life.” The online hate newspaper the Daily Stormer celebrated with a banner photo of a swastika and graffiti playing off Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America White Again.” The Trump directive to “take back America” created such sore winners that the Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 250 incidents around the nation of anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-LGBT and anti-woman harassment, intimidation and bullying in the first three days after the election. As early evidence that Trump is already serving as a sterling role model for boorish bigotry, the top locations for incidents were numerous K-12 schools. Trump picked as his chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who ran the racially and religiously inflammatory website Breitbart News.
Trump’s victory reminds us that America pitifully remains a racially spasmodic nation, living up to the full meaning of its creed only under extreme and cataclysmic duress. The Civil War, the civil rights movement and the Great Recession of the late 2000s were such events that forced the hand of white Americans to briefly share power with African-Americans.
But those ecstatic moments have always faded into long years of purgatory for African-American aspirations. As legal scholar Derrick Bell told me after the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, “My great appreciation for having lived to see a day I thought would never come is, however, diluted by experience. Seemingly firm commitments to substantive progress were redefined, reversed, or simply ignored.’’
Bell warned that just because Obama became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and the first black president, “it does not change society’s view of all the rest.”
That is abundantly clear from the election of Trump, the nominee of the conservative white island of the Republican Party. It did not matter to a majority of white Americans that this is the same party under which only 3 million jobs were created during the eight years of George W. Bush, compared with the 23 million jobs in the prior eight years of Democrat President Bill Clinton, according to The Wall Street Journal, or the nearly 11 million jobs created during the subsequent eight years of Obama, according to the PolitiFact.
It did not matter that under Obama the unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent from the 10 percent he inherited from Bush. It did not matter that Obama’s Affordable Care Act insured millions more Americans that under Bush. It did not matter that many of Obama’s policies put money in the pockets of the working class, such as dramatically raising the federal salary threshold to collect overtime pay, or the Lilly Ledbetter Act for fair pay based on gender.
Since none of that mattered, all of Trump’s rhetoric about everything in America being a “disaster” was a smokescreen for the consolidation of crude white power. The majority of white Americans, a century and a half after the end of slavery, still spectacularly prefer economic uncertainty in exchange for returning black people to their place and now sending brown immigrants and Muslims “back home.”
Early in the Trump candidacy last year, I wrote in The Boston Globe that his “hateful nonsense, meant for white people who still think the country is theirs, is a death rattle for the most crude forms of white privilege.” I was hoping it was a death rattle for the snake, not for whom it struck.
The task ahead is to reclaim voting rights
The horrific venom that still flows through American politics makes it quite clear the tasks ahead for black folks, brown folks, Muslims, women and the LGBT and disabled communities, and any other groups insulted by Trump on his scorched-earth march to victory. One of the things most clear to me is that we are back to voting rights as the next civil rights movement.
The wonderful aspect of this is that Obama proved that a person of color can be elected, not once, but twice, to the nation’s highest office, without the majority of white Americans. It must be remembered that in his respective victories over John McCain and Mitt Romney, he received only 43 percent and 39 percent of the white vote.
The challenging aspect is that the Republicans, and especially the most racist elements of the party, understand this quite well. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, the GOP published a Pollyannaish “autopsy” for public consumption, claiming it was time for a “year-round effort to engage” people of color.
But from the day Obama was elected in 2008, Republican governors and state legislatures set to work to disengage African-Americans and Latinos from the political process through gerrymandering at the state level and disenfranchisement through stricter voting laws. They were aided greatly by the Supreme Court and its conservative majority, which in 2013 gutted the key portion of the Voting Rights Act mandating that states with a history of voting violations directed at African-Americans had to clear redistricting maps with the Justice Department.
Unfortunately, the rainbow that voted for Obama was slow to match vigilance with vigilance. Terrible turnout in the 2010 midterm elections handed control of the House of Representatives back to the Republicans, emboldening their resistance to Obama’s initiatives. Terrible turnout in the 2014 midterms handed control of the Senate back to the Republicans, who then put the final bricks in their barricade by not granting even a hearing to Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
On top of that, Republicans are now governors in at least 33 states — the North Carolina race has been too close to call — the most since 1922. With Republicans pulling so many levers of power where the sausage is made, voting in many states has become an equestrian event of hurdle after hurdle.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, 20 states enacted voter restrictions since the 2010 midterms, such as requiring photo IDs, cutting back on early voting days and hours, and making it harder for both everyday citizens and people with criminal records to register.
It cannot be an accident that of the 20 states, Trump won 16, including battleground states Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona. One of the most blatant cases may be my hometown of Milwaukee. In a city that is 40 percent black, there were 38,531 fewer votes for Hillary Clinton than for Obama in 2012. Trump won Wisconsin by only 27,257 votes. Obama handily won Wisconsin both times.
The city’s election commissioner, Neil Albrecht, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “We saw some of the greatest declines were in the districts we projected would have the most trouble with voter ID requirements.” Those were the high-poverty districts where, before, voters without photo ID could vote if they had witnesses with them to vouch for them. Albrecht said that might have only been “the tip of the iceberg.” The iceberg against black voting may have also been evident in the long lines in so many cities. Voters may have been able to endure them for Obama, but were finally worn out for Hillary Clinton, who could have been the nation’s first female president.
Earlier this year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report that found that the average wait time to vote for African-Americans was twice as long as for white Americans. Latinos had to wait 1 1/2 times longer than white Americans. In Florida, the county with the highest percentage of people of color, Miami-Dade, had average wait times of 73 minutes after the closing of the polls. But Citrus County, which had the lowest percentage of people of color, had no wait time at all.
According to Harvard government studies doctoral candidate Stephen Pettigrew in an online paper, “the effect of lines on minority voters is vastly disproportionate to their makeup of the electorate.” He found that African-Americans, about 10 percent of the electorate in 2014, made up 22 percent of voters who were turned off from voting because of long lines in 2012. Latinos, about 5 percent of the electorate in 2014, made up 10 percent of discouraged voters from long lines.
My wife Michelle Holmes saw the long-line effect firsthand as she participated in get-out-the-vote efforts in Pittsburgh. On Election Day, an Indian-American told her he had to go back home after waiting for two hours because he did not have proper ID. He said he was going to try to return, but his return was uncertain.
Michelle knocked on 800 doors to encourage people to vote and encountered many single women taking care of small children who wanted to vote but said they did not know if they could wait with kids in tow for two hours. Others said they couldn’t risk missing time from work. That was in line with the concerns of Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Charles Stewart III, who estimates that waiting in line during a presidential election translates into $1 billion in lost wages. He told The New York Times that voting can mean “all sorts of other things that white voters don’t have to do.”
How huge or decisive all this discouragement was in Trump’s victory is for the political scientists to sort out. But what is undeniable is that it was an intentional, malicious tilting of the process toward suburban and rural white voters, punctuated by the fact that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote. Evidence that the long lines are discriminatory by design is a report this month by the Leadership Conference Education Fund. It found that after the 2013 Supreme Court Shelby decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, states that had been subject to pre-clearance closed hundreds of polling places. The biggest offenders were Texas, Arizona and Louisiana, and also included battleground state North Carolina. The only way future closures can be prevented, the report said, is to restore transparency in voting practices in the Voting Rights Act.
That makes it quite transparent for what anyone disappointed, disgusted and disillusioned about the Trump election needs to do. The No. 1 thing the Republicans targeted when Obama was elected was to destroy the clout of his voters. If Trump and his voters want to return us to the 1950s, then those who want to resist his presidency can do so in the best way possible. The Obama coalition can start right now to fight for turnout so that local and state elections and the 2018 midterms mean as much as the presidential elections.
An excellent example to remain optimistic was an analysis in The Nation that tallied several local victories in elections related to criminal justice. Virulent anti-Latino and racial profiling Sheriff Joe Arpaio was defeated in Maricopa County, Arizona. Charles Todd Henderson became the first Democratic district attorney in years in more than 10 years in Jefferson County, Alabama, the most populous country with Birmingham as its seat. The county also elected a record nine African American women judges, most on platforms of fairness. One of the nine victors, Tamara Harris Johnson, told the Birmingham Times that she won because of her perseverance, determination and faith.
“I have always told my children never let anybody decide what your dream will be – not even me – or who will bring your dream to fruition – not even me,” Harris Johnson said. “So, I have to set myself as an example. This isn’t my first time running for a race. I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics. The only thing I liked about campaigning was meeting the people.”
Texas might have gone for Trump but in the Houston area, Democrat Kim Ogg defeated incumbent Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson on a platform of transparency in police shootings and not incarcerating low-level, non-violent drug offenders. The Houston Chronicle quoted her as saying her victory was “a mandate from the people. They want fairness. They want justice and they want safety.”
Trump won Florida, but in the Tampa area, Democrat Andrew Warren upset 16-year incumbent Mark Ober for Hillsborough County district attorney. The Marshall Project, the nonprofit criminal justice news website quoted Warren as saying. “We have been so focused on the one goal, retribution and punishment,” he says, “that we have lost sight of the other goals: reducing recidivism, rehabilitation and victims’ rights.”
The Nation and the Marshall Project noted these were just some of the challenges around the nation to injustice at the local level. Local electorates have voted in more progressive prosecutors in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Albuquerque, Santa Fe., Corpus Christi, Denver and Jacksonville. “These contests — which have centered around race, sentencing, the treatment of juveniles, and the death penalty — reflect a growing awareness among reformers that with bipartisan efforts to reduce prison populations stalled in Congress (and inconsistent in state legislatures), local elections are a place to push for change,” the Marshall Project wrote.
Deborrah Brodsky, who directs Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, told the project, “People are scrutinizing their local criminal justice systems, and people are realizing how much power state attorneys have, and they are seeing elections as a way to change those results.”
Those results also point to the power the people still have.