July 8, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Autocracy’s hidden enablers
They think they're standing against it, but they're helping it.
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. This 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 60s, 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 amid 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.
Anti-PC critics behave as if Pandora’s box remains closed.
That wasn’t Kilmeade’s goal. His goal—or that of his newswriters—was influencing the opinion of Republican voters uncomfortable with the president’s overt racism but still desiring to support a Republican. The goal is portraying 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 OK 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. 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. As long as racism was covert, partisans had plausible deniability on their side. They could talk about what they wanted to. 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.
Nils Gilman is correct in saying racial liberalism collapsed in 2016. I’d argue that something related should have collapsed with it, but didn’t: 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 no longer as bad as it once was, 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. What’s more, they are dangerous. 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 newswriters are doing: telling white people who do not want to vote for a racist that it’s OK to vote for a racist, because liberals and social reformers are just as bad as Donald Trump.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.