William Barr and Trump
Attorney General William Barr and the President. Credit: White House/Wikimedia Commons

While Donald Trump was busy doubling down on his racist remarks about four congresswomen, his attorney general was hosting a Summit on Combatting Anti-Semitism at the Justice Department. William Barr delivered opening remarks at the summit, during which he took advantage of the opportunity to announce who he holds accountable for the divisions.

My concern today is that under the banner of identity politics, some political factions are seeking to obtain power by dividing Americans. They undermine the values that draw us together, such as shared commitment to our country’s success. This is the breeding ground for hatred, and we must reject it.

According to Barr, it is not the virulently racist tweets from his boss, nor the administration’s xenophobic policies on our southern border that are breeding the hatred that is dividing Americans. Instead, it is those who engage in that old bugaboo, “identity politics,” in order to obtain power.

There is a way in which Barr is right, though. If you read those three sentences with the understanding that Trump and Republicans are engaging in white identity politics, you would have an accurate diagnosis of what is happening in this country today.

Kevin Drum reminded us of the autopsy conducted by the Republican Party after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012. The general conclusion was that the GOP needed to do a better job of reaching out to women and people of color (in other words, what Barr would call “identity politics”).

But if they followed that advice, the party would jeopardize their support from white racists, a group they had been courting since the Southern Strategy of the 1970s. So instead, Republicans doubled-down on going after the white vote.

Donald Trump demonstrated just how far they could go with that strategy by announcing his presence on the national political stage with birtherism lies and then launching his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. In the end, white identity politics worked (with an assist from Comey and Putin).

Trump’s appeal to white racists has gone on unabated throughout his campaign and presidency. His latest statement that women of color who serve in congress should just leave the country is but one example of many words and deeds that not only demonstrate his racism, but become the fodder for his racist appeal. Conservative lawyer George Conway may be late in finally recognizing what’s going on, but he has reached the right conclusion.

What’s at stake now is more important than judges or tax cuts or regulations or any policy issue of the day. What’s at stake are the nation’s ideals, its very soul.

What are those ideals? That has become the question of the day. During his remarks at the anti-Semitism summit, Barr addressed it by talking about our “common bond.” See if you can tell what’s missing.

We are a pluralistic Nation composed of very distinct groups, each bound together by ethnicity, race, or religion – each group proud of its identity and committed to its faith and traditions. Yet despite these differences, we can be bound together into a broader community. Not one that seeks to grind away our distinctive identity. Not one that seeks to overbear our religious commitments, which must be paramount. But one that respects, indeed delights in, the freedom of each of us that give meaning to our lives – that help us understand our place and our purpose in this Creation.

This real sense of community cannot be politically mandated. It arises from the genuine affinity, affection, and solidarity that grows out of a shared patriotism and that spontaneous feeling of fellowship that arises from a shared sense of place, shared experience, and common local attachments. These bonds are the surest safeguard against racial hatred, including anti-Semitism.

The man whose job is to enforce our civil rights never once mentioned something that our founders referred to as a “self-evident truth:” that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” While Barr is right that a sense of community cannot be politically mandated, the ideal that binds us together as Americans is captured by the word “equality.” The long struggle we’ve engaged in since this country’s birth is the story of how our government has intervened to politically mandate adherence to that ideal.

It is Attorney General William Barr’s job to ensure that all citizens in this country are treated equally, something we’ve never lived up to. Rather than take up that job responsibility, he just joined his boss in blaming those who are speaking up and fighting for our ideals. In doing so, Barr demonstrated what it means to engage in white identity politics, which is actually the breeding ground for hate and must be rejected. The danger posed by people like Barr is that they do so in a way that sounds reasonable, but conveys the same racist message we hear from Trump.

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