How did we get Donald Trump? And how will we ever “undo the damage he has done”?
These are the two questions Joy-Ann Reid focuses on in her new book, with much more about the former than the latter. There isn’t a lot here that hasn’t been reported before, but Reid does a fine job of summarizing all the factors in the perfect storm that brought us a Trump presidency.
Among things that helped to defeat Hillary Clinton, she identifies “aggressive, full-throttle voter suppression deployed” by Republicans in Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, an effort which “took full advantage of the supreme court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act”.
There is also the “political press’s fixation on Clinton’s use of a private e-mail sever, and the FBI investigation it spawned”, which “consumed the coverage, even as the media … lapped up ‘The Trump Show’.”
And there is the “barely disguised sexism that crosses ethnic, cultural and even gender lines to punish women who vie for power.”
Reid is good on specifics about states where voting lists have been ravaged by Republicans. Wisconsin voter ID laws which “stripped some 300,000 mostly minority voters of their right to vote” in 2016 helped Trump win in 2018 by 22,748 votes. In North Dakota, Native Americans are disenfranchised “en masse” by a state law requiring them to show IDs with “specific street addresses on them, even though many lived on reservations, where street addresses weren’t used”.
After Trump’s most recent transgressions, much of what Reid has written is especially relevant, including her description of “some of the most open appeals to racial fear the country had seen in the modern political era”.
Noam Chomsky, one of America’s last public intellectuals, famously described the Republican party as “the most dangerous organization in human history”, because of its single-minded commitment “to the destruction of organized human life on Earth”.
In Reid’s book, Republican apostate Bruce Bartlett says the party is dominated by anarchists who stand for nothing except slashing taxes on the rich and gutting benefits for the poor. The purpose of the Bush and Trump tax cuts “is to destroy government, to downsize it to such a point where we have virtual anarchy”.
Bartlett adds: “Although all Republicans are not racist, virtually all racists are Republicans.”
“Trump talked like a populist but presided over massive tax cuts for the super rich,” Reid writes, “and a no-look government that unleashed an American oligarchy to do as it pleased.”
Trump is the president “brought to you by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Fox News”. He has normalized “corruption, cronyism, kleptocracy and the public display of of thuggery and open racism by white Americans who felt empowered to assert themselves as the arbiters of cultural legitimacy.” And to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and evangelical Christians, all of this “was worth it” because the only thing they really care about is the transformation of “the judiciary for a generation”.
Of course, Trump’s policies have also accelerated income inequality, which is now so extreme that it has made America comparable to Russia. As Reid writes, “the rich in both countries control approximately equal shares of the wealth and income. America, in a very real sense, has its own oligarchs.” That agenda is the only one with which Republicans in Congress are genuinely concerned.
Reid doesn’t have many original observations but as a successful television anchor she knows who to interview to find real wisdom. Some of the most interesting ideas come from Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son.
He thinks the 2016 election might have had a different outcome if Clinton hadn’t called Trump’s supporters “deplorables”.
If, Wise writes, the Democrat had said instead, “‘Donald Trump thinks his voters are so racist that they will fall for this phony scapegoating of black people and Mexican immigrants, but I know the people in this country are too smart to fall for that,’ she might have found a way into a conversation with white voters who not yet deeply entrenched against her.”
How do we undo the damage Trump has done? Instead of writing off the 40% which still seems to be mesmerized by his racist theater, Wise has a better idea. He believes that when most people are confronted with their subconscious biases, if they are “encouraged to respond to the better angels of their nature, they will do it.
“It’s when you don’t let them believe that they have better angels; if you make it seem like, ‘You’re just a horrible, irredeemable human being,’ they will show you just how horrible and irredeemable they are. The research tells us … that most white folks don’t want to think of themselves as racist, and don’t want to be racist.”
That bit of optimism about the malleability of the president’s supporters is just about the only hopeful thing in this book, a relentlessly depressing compendium of the horrors of the age of Trump.