Ever since Donald Trump was elected, many have insisted that the vulgar racism upon which he bases so much of his appeal is “unprecedented,” and “abnormal.”
And sure enough, there are things about the way he deploys racial, ethnic, and cultural hostilities that are new, even in the long and disturbing pantheon of American politics.
For instance, referring to some among a crowd of white supremacists as “very fine people” — as Trump did after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville — was indisputably unique.
So too, telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” where they came from is something past presidents, no matter their racial biases, have managed to steer clear of doing.
But at the same time, much of Trump’s approach isn’t unique at all.
Playing upon white fears and hostility is one of the oldest plays in the American playbook. Unfortunately, it’s one against which those playing defense have often fallen short.
The good news is, there is an example from recent history that could serve as a guide for Democrats hoping to defeat Trump and the racial hostility to which he has given voice. But so far, few have applied its lessons to the present moment: namely, the 1990 and 1991 campaigns against white supremacist and former Klan leader, David Duke, in Louisiana.
I was centrally involved in those efforts, as a staffer for the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism: the organization founded for the purpose of defeating Duke in his bids for the U.S. Senate and Governor. And what we learned in those years was rather simple: to deflate a movement whose yeast is racism, you have to make it clear that the choice for voters is a moral one. It’s about the kind of people they want to be and the kind of nation in which they want to live.
You can’t defeat such a movement with policy ideas. Even trying to do this normalizes the extremist by treating them like any other candidate. To debate David Duke on jobs policy or taxes would have been absurd. Likewise, to think one can defeat Trump with detailed plans for taking on Wall Street, college affordability, or anything else misses the point. His voters did not vote for him over policy. Most voted for him as a walking embodiment of their rage. He hates who they hate, and that is all that matters.
Duke retained over 90 percent of his voters from the first to the second race, and Trump will likely do the same next year. Why? Because turning on Trump now, as with Duke, would require those who voted for him to acknowledge they voted for a monster. Most will never do that, at least not in the short term.
What ultimately stopped Duke was the crafting of a moral message against hate: one that could inspire the progressive base (especially people of color), yet also appeal to reasonable conservatives and moderates. While those folks might never have been able to agree on policy, by uniting to defeat the politics of prejudice, we could all live to fight another day over those things. But first things first.
Sadly, it took a while for us to learn this lesson. In the Senate race, consultants advised us we shouldn’t focus too much on Duke’s racist appeals. And some of the more conservative members of our Board, for their own ideological reasons, agreed. Yes, we should point out his Klan past and his ongoing affiliations with Nazis, but we shouldn’t try and challenge his contemporary racial messaging around welfare, immigration or crime. To do so, they said, would “play into his hands.” Instead, they encouraged us to talk about the fact that Duke had paid his taxes late or avoided service in Vietnam.
Acutely aware of the valuable purse strings to which some of our more conservative principals had access, we felt as though we had little choice but to play that game. And so we ultimately spent close to half of our budget on an overly-stylized, too-cute-by-half TV ad, which combined references to Duke’s ongoing Nazi affiliations with information about late tax payments and draft-dodging, as if these had been remotely equal in importance.
It was absurd and ineffective. By mixing the messages, we undersold the centrality of Duke’s extremism. After all, a voter might say, if Duke were really this awful white supremacist, why are they talking about Vietnam and taxes? To some, it no doubt felt like we were trying to throw anything at Duke to beat him, out of desperation rather than principle.
The results weren’t pretty. Duke got 44 percent of the vote: 60 percent of the white vote. Even though Duke lost, Duke-ism had proved itself potent. As my boss at the Coalition, Lance Hill, put it, “We had a referendum on hate and hate won.”
The second time around, having shed many of our right-leaning board members (and no longer listening to overpriced consultants), we were free to focus on Duke’s racism and the existential threat it posed to the state and nation.
We ran statewide radio commercials — and the Democratic Party later ran similar spots on TV — featuring an interview Duke had given, along with a self-proclaimed Nazi. On the tape, the other man, Joe Fields, excitedly says, “Hitler started with seven men,” to which Duke replies, “Right, and don’t you think we could do the same thing if we put the right package together?” It was a powerful hit, and its message was clear: it wasn’t Duke’s past we feared, it was his (and our) future.
We took out full-page ads challenging Duke’s “politics of prejudice,” and calling upon Louisianans to reject his message of hate and division, to reject racial scapegoating for the state’s economic problems, and to stand up for multiracial democracy. We got evangelical leaders to speak out against Duke’s claims of Christian piety by noting how his racism and anti-Semitism belied his protestations of faith.
That was the message. It wasn’t about Duke’s war service or tax payments, and it wasn’t even about how the Democratic candidate had a better plan for job creation. It was about the fundamental danger posed by hate: to Louisiana and America.
Although some in the pundit class insisted that only the threat of an economic boycott turned voters again Duke, this was absurd. It certainly didn’t take that threat to drive black voters to the polls — the racism was quite sufficient — and even the effect of that message on whites had its roots in a moral imperative. After all, it was Duke’s bigotry that would drive businesses and tourists away, and justifiably so. Had people not been convinced of his extremism, threats of boycotts would have fallen flat. It was because Duke’s racism made him a moral monster that the economic boycott threat had real legs.
Even our bumper stickers — “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important” — were based on the premise that whatever one might think of the ethically-challenged past of Democrat (and three-time Governor) Edwin Edwards, Nazism was worse. Much worse. And so the choice was clear.
The results? Duke still got the majority of the white vote; indeed, he got 65,000 more votes the second time around than the first. But his vote share fell to 39 percent overall and 55 percent among whites because progressive whites showed up in more significant numbers as did moderates inspired by the moral message. And black turnout surged. In 1990, white turnout had been 70 percent versus 64 percent for blacks. By 1991, white turnout had risen to 79 percent, but black turnout shot up to a comparable 78 percent.
The lesson? Democrats must make this election about the threat of Trumpism. Not about how their plan for health care is better, or cheaper, or more realistic than those of the other Democrats, let alone Trump. Not about the minutiae of policy at all. That’s not to say policy doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t drive voters. Trying to wow folks with “look-how-much-I’ve-thought about-this” stuff is not going to move the needle in 2020.
Progressives and liberals have this odd but unjustified faith in the power of pure reason. We tend to think people make rational decisions about self-interest and vote accordingly. But they don’t. If they did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, because Donald Trump would still be a second-rate game show host rather than President of the United States.
Those who say (and many do) that the Democrats should ignore Trump’s race-baiting because it’s some genius political strategy calculated to distract us, are fools. He is not a genius. And to downplay his bigotry is to normalize him just as some would have had us normalize Duke. But Trump is governing as a white nationalist, and authoritarian. He and his movement are a threat to the future of the nation. That is the message that will drive turnout — not debates over marginal tax rates, or funding for schools, and surely not talk of Russia.
Trumpism is the threat to America, far more than Vladimir Putin. So when Donald Trump says “The Squad” hates America, or that anyone who opposes him does, we must say in unison, no.
It is you, Mr. President, you and your cult, who hate this country. The only version of it you love is America, circa 1957. But that America is no longer, and we are better for it.
America is a nation in the process of becoming a pluralistic, multiracial, multicultural democracy. You and your cult hate that America: the only one that actually exists. You despise the very notion of it.
But there are some of us who dearly love it, no matter how strongly you insist otherwise. And we are willing to bet everything on the proposition that there are more of us than there are of you. We may not be able to agree on everything, or even most things. But there is one thing we agree on — that you and your movement are toxic and must be stopped.
So Democrats, take note. America is on the table, bleeding out from a terrible, self-inflicted wound. Now is not the time to fight over the perfect plan for the nation’s long-term health and recovery.
It is time for triage.
Time to stop the bleeding.
Time to save the patient.