Play With Fire, You're Going to Get Burned

If John McCain had been the maverick he thinks he is, he might have single-handedly redeemed his own party.

I have an uncle who's got a white collar job and a college degree and who would be horrified if anyone called him a racist, because he understands that being a racist is a terrible thing and that to appear to be one carries some social cost. He probably believes that he isn't a racist, and as evidence of that, he'd point to the fact that there's a world of difference between him and the kind of people who show up at McCain rallies and scream "Kill him!" at the mention of Obama's name or call black cameramen "boy." Still, my uncle, who used to love Law & Order, had to stop watching it a couple of years into its run, when they hired the African-American actress S. Epatha Merkerson to replace the white actor who'd been playing the police lieutenant. It wasn't just that he felt uncomfortable watching a black woman boss around the actors playing the cops. It was that, even though he doesn't think of himself as a racist, he does think of himself as a conservative with good family values, and he associates the idea that anyone might ever hire a black woman--whether to work as an actress or a real police lieutenant or whatever--so long as there's a white man anywhere in America who could do the job with "liberalism" and decadent thinking and the decline of the American empire. He couldn't relax and watch a cop show if it had a black woman giving orders in it, because then he felt like liberal elitists were trying to make a point and muddying up his light entertainment with their propaganda.

In the almost forty years since the Republican party developed its squalid, corrupt, but spectacularly successful "Southern strategy" based on siphoning off votes from the Democratic party's economic base with coded racist appeals to white voters, there's been a little ritual that the party's handlers have forced their candidates to go through. The candidates attend NAACP conferences and other settings where they can "reach out" to black voters, urging them to enter the "big tent" that is the Republican party and belly up to the trough that the unregulated free enterprise system would like to provide for everyone. It is not the point of these events to court black voters. If black voters wanted to vote Republican in droves, the Republican party would be very happy to have them, or at least it would be very happy to have their votes, but they have long since abandoned any realistic hope of this ever happening. (George W. Bush's great dream was to bypass the African-American vote altogether and bring Latin voters, en masse, into the Republican party. Then some genius in the region of the Texas-Mexico border started talking about building a fence.) The whole point of the ritual of Republican voters "reaching out" to blacks has always been to reassure people like my uncle, to tell them that, even though they know that white racists in this country tend to feel closer to the Republican party if they have any feelings of solidarity with either major party, this is just some weird fluke and voting for Republicans is nothing to feel guilty about. This dance requires a careful balancing act, one where the candidates plastering TV screens with photos of black ex-cons and regaling audiences with stories of welfare queens in Cadillacs have plausible deniability and can always retreat to safe ground with a look of Alfred E. Neuman-style "What, me racist?" consternation and cluelessness if called on their bullshit. It is very hard to keep up this innocent-miss act once people at your rallies start looking like a crowd scene from The Ox Bow Incident.
This entry by Phil Nugent was originally posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.
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Election 2018