The Line That Trump Crossed

As I pointed out yesterday, Steve Bannon’s game plan is to incite racism and then accuse liberals of being consumed with “identity politics” when they push back. He followed up his remarks about that to Robert Kuttner with an email to the Washington Post, in which he said this:

“This past election, the Democrats used every personal attack, including charges of racism, against President Trump. He then won a landslide victory on a straightforward platform of economic nationalism,” Bannon wrote. “As long as the Democrats fail to understand this, they will continue to lose. But leftist elites do not value history, so why would they learn from history?”

We’ll leave aside the lie that Trump won in a landslide and simply recognize that there was no “straightforward platform of economic nationalism” to his boss’s campaign. It was riddled with racism and ethnocentricity.

Obviously Bannon thinks that if the country is embroiled in racial conflict, Trump wins. As he told Joshua Green, “we polled the race stuff and it didn’t matter.” In other words, the fact that Trump’s campaign was riddled with racism didn’t matter to his voters. As a matter of fact, for many, it was the reason they voted for him.

But here’s what Bannon fails to recognize. During the press conference on Tuesday, the president walked back his condemnation of Nazis and white supremacists by reverting to his “both sides” argument and suggesting that there were a lot of “good people” in their ranks. In doing so, he crossed the line from socially acceptable racism to socially unacceptable racism, as this chart from Jonathan Odell demonstrates.

The state of race relations in this country right now is that white privilege blinds a lot of people to the racism embedded in the kinds of things that fall into the socially acceptable range of that graph. Combined with political polarization, conservatives often justify those things as not being racist or anti-semitic.

A great example was when, especially towards the end of the 2016 campaign, there were ads and Trump speeches where the rhetoric was all about the “global elites” that control the world’s finances. As many pointed out, that was a wink and a nod to anti-semites, but a lot of people heard it as a form of political populism. When Trump equivocated about people who march with swastika flags, shout Nazi slogans like “blood and soil,” and use Nazi symbols to advertise their gathering, he crossed a line into embracing socially unacceptable anti-semitism.

Similarly, Trump can talk about African-American communities being full of thugs, lie repeatedly about crime rates and encourage police officers to get rough, but when he aligned himself with former KKK grand wizard David Duke, he crossed a line.

It is Trump’s embrace of overt white supremacy that led military generals, corporate CEO’s and some Republican politicians to condemn his remarks. Even among those who have been willing to engage in covert racism to advance their agenda, that was a bridge too far.

Right now all of this has led to a conflict over the ubiquity of confederate statues in many places around the country—especially in southern states. That takes the conversation below the line again into an area where the racism involved has become covert due to the historical revisionism launched during Reconstruction. That is territory where Trump will be more successful in his attempts to inflame his base.

I don’t offer that as a way to suggest that anyone should back down from continuing that struggle, but simply as an awareness of the field on which it will play out. There is a reason why, after years of Trump’s racism, things exploded following the events in Charlottesville. He crossed a line. It is now up to us to expand the arena of what is socially unacceptable and prove to Steve Bannon that racism does matter.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.