Signs at Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House on June 20, 2020. Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud / Shutterstock.com.
Brian Kilmeade is co-host of Fox & Friends, the president’s favorite weekday morning show. Kilmeade is, well — he’s not that bright. To be sure, he’s very good at advancing the party line. Sometimes, though, he gets mixed up. Wednesday morning, he tried saying something bad about the Democrats but ended up saying something bad about the Republicans, and in the process, intimating accidentally the truth about the GOP.
Historically, it was the Democratic Party [that was] the party of the [Ku Klux Klan]. It was the Republican Party [that was] the party of Frederick Douglass as well as Abraham Lincoln. So somehow, I guess in the sixties, things all reversed.
All things did indeed reverse more than half a century ago. The Democratic Party’s ruling coalition, which had prevailed since the 1930s, shattered under the weight of the backlash against the Vietnam War and the passing of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. At the same time, the Republican Party, seeing a power vacuum, traded white liberal conservatives (which was the majority of New England) and Black Republicans for southern segregationists. It has been waging variations of soft civil war ever since.
That wasn’t Kilmeade’s goal. His goal — or that of his news writers — was to influence the opinion of Republican voters uncomfortable with the president’s overt racism but still desiring to support a Republican. The goal was to portray the Democrats, and by extension Joe Biden, as being just as racist as Donald Trump, or more racist, so that white people who do not want to vote for a racist will feel okay voting for a racist.
This now appears to be acceptable discourse on Fox, which we should take to be indicative of respectable opinion among Republicans. It is a major shift from decades past. It is also a consequence of pragmatic need.
As long as racism was covert, partisans had plausible deniability on their side. They could talk about what they wanted to. Trump, when a candidate, didn’t bother coding the rhetoric of white supremacy the way Republicans had since Richard Nixon courted segregationists successfully in the late 1960s. With it now being overt, partisans are forced to find ways to take the offensive. The result is malicious nihilism. Fine, the GOP partisans now say, Trump is a racist. The Democrats are just as bad, though. May as well vote for the Republican.
That Republicans coded white supremacy was itself a concession to gains made by the civil rights movement. To paraphrase Lee Atwater, overt racism used to be a winner, but after the late 1960s, it backfired. Republican rhetoric, therefore, grew more and more abstract, so that “forced busing” became “welfare queens” became “tax cuts” over time, so that white racists heard one thing while white voters who did not want to support racists heard something else entirely, but both ended up voting Republican. This compromise is sometimes called “racial liberalism” in that the Republican Party played by terms established by someone else, not them, and in that racist politics was forced to operate subliminally. As long as racism was hidden from view — that is to say, from white people who did not want knowingly to support racism — it was all good.
But as Nils Gilman correctly argued, racial liberalism collapsed in 2016. But something else, something I would argue should have collapsed with it: anti-“political correctness” and its various offshoots, including the latest trend, “cancel culture.” It didn’t collapse because legions of people, perhaps half the pundit corps, are financially vested in exposing liberals and social reformers as hypocrites or worse.
These anti-PC critics say that racism and other forms of sadism can’t possibly be as bad as liberals and social reformers say they are, because racism is longer as bad as it was before 1968, and it’s no longer as bad as it was because they can’t see it. And because it is no longer as bad as it was, liberals and social reformers must have malign motivations, motivations perhaps on par with authoritarians of the past. When anti-PC critics look at college students of color who are demanding progress on campus, they don’t see agents of change, they see authoritarians of the kind that led to racial liberalism’s collapse.
They are wrong. The scores of anti-PC critics who signed an open letter published Tuesday by Harper’s, which condemns “cancel culture,” are consciously or not aiding and abetting authoritarian energies they say they stand against. White supremacy is no longer coded. The president is campaigning as a full-on fascist. The evidence of institutional racism, leading to the murder of Black men, is undeniable. Yet these anti-PC critics are behaving as if Pandora’s box remains closed. In doing this, they are, in effect, doing what Brian Kilmeade and his Fox News writers are doing: telling white people who do not want to vote for a racist that it’s okay to vote for a racist, because liberals and social reformers are just as bad as Donald Trump.
John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative.
This article was first published at The Editorial Board.