The most important election of our lifetimes

Will we take a step back from the ugliness and race-baiting? Or will we affirm that we are really the intolerant people Donald Trump has made us out to be?

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No president has lied more often and more brazenly than Donald Trump.

But he told the truth when he said that Tuesday’s election is about him.

The brag cuts two ways. He said it to boost base turnout. It’s just as apt to make Democrats doubly-determined to vote against Republicans.

At a rally for Georgia Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Stacey Abrams, Barack Obama said the midterm vote is the “most important election of our lifetime.” He didn’t exclude his election and reelection as president.

Trump has brought us to “an unprecedented place in American history,” according to Trump critic and former Republican insider Steve Schmidt. “We have never had a president of the United States do what this president is doing.”

Trump is a non-stop panderer to racism, sexism, misogyny, religious bigotry, anti-LGBTQ prejudice, and xenophobia. As the election nears, he is firing up the white faithful by fanning their fear of “the other.”

Satirist Bill Maher dubbed Trump “a racist Paul Revere.”

Obama and Schmidt might seem an odd couple. Schmidt helped run the late Sen. John McCain’s campaign against Obama in 2008.

But they’re united against Trumpism.

Anyway, it has been a while since we’ve had a president more boorish and crudely bigoted than Trump. Andy Johnson was maybe the last.

But Trumpism is not without precedent in that it represents a reactionary backlash against significant civil rights progress.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson, a Texan, and northern and western Democrats in Congress championed (with Republican backing) landmark civil rights laws that were rightly hailed as a “Second Reconstruction.”

But soon afterward, the GOP heeled hard right. The party of “Lincoln and Liberty” became the party of the Southern Strategy, a thinly-veiled appeal to racism to win over white southern Democrats who hated to see Jim Crow go.

By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980, the GOP had gone national with the Southern Strategy to attract whites beyond the old Confederacy, too.

Obama’s election and re-election raised hopes of a post-racial nation. Trump’s election dashed those hopes.

Trump “has established a whole new level of mendacity, averaging 30 false or misleading statements a day now, and totaling 6,420 such bogus claims during his presidency,” wrote Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank.

“And he has exploited and worsened divisions among Americans, coarsened public discourse and used racial hatred, resentment of women’s gains, and fear of immigrants and minorities as political weapons.

“Now, we are seeing Trump close the midterm campaign with openly racist appeals.”

Trump and the GOP “are running a very race-conscious, racial-panic election,” said MSNBC’s Joy Reid. “…They are essentially looking right at the white electorate and saying, ‘Keep black and brown people out of power’ and they are thinking that’s a winning argument. It says something about what they think about their own voters.”

Reid characterized Trump-Republican midterm campaigning as “literally a replay of the 1950s and 1960s in modern times. Those racial codes are still here.”

Reid is right. Trumpism is rooted in the Southern Strategy and the Reagan era, when the president led a headlong Republican retreat on civil rights.

Reagan tipped his hand at his 1980 campaign kickoff at a site in Mississippi near where the Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers in 1964.

In a pre-Trumpian speech, Reagan promised a white crowd that he was for “states’ rights,” the term southern white supremacists used to justify slavery and Jim Crow.

Trump turned Reagan’s racist dog whistle into a bullhorn, and used it to help him get elected. (A slew of studies has shown that most Trump voters were motivated by racism more than economic anxiety.)

Trump and the Republicans think they can win Tuesday by again appealing to white animus against “the other” – with a boost from minority voter suppression measures.

Trump “is stoking a cold civil war in this country and it has turned hot on the periphery,” Schmidt said.

He likened Trump’s vitriol to “the propaganda that you would have seen in Germany in 1938 – the dehumanization, turning people into infested vermin. What Trump is doing is stoking and inciting for the purposes of political power the worst amongst us to take action in his name.”

Milbank described the upcoming election as “the purest midterm referendum on a sitting president in modern times.”

'This is the purest midterm referendum on a sitting president in modern times.' – Dana MilbankClick To Tweet

He recalled that two Novembers back, “many people held their noses and voted for Donald Trump. Some were conservatives willing to tolerate his vulgar excesses in hopes of getting tax cuts, a repeal of Obamacare and a friendlier judiciary. Others had Clinton fatigue. Sure, they were concerned about Trump’s words about Mexican ‘rapists’ and what he liked to do to women — but maybe those were just words. Maybe Trump could build a coalition across traditional party lines to get things done.

“Now, all Americans have seen the results with their own eyes.”

Milbank then asked the crucial question: “Will we take a step, even a small one, back from the ugliness and the race-baiting that has engulfed our country?

“Or will we affirm that we are really the intolerant and frightened people Donald Trump has made us out to be?

“If we choose the latter, 2018 will in some ways be more difficult to take than 2016. This time, we don’t have the luxury of saying we didn’t really know what Trump would do.

“Our eyes are wide open.”

'Will we take a step, even a small one, back from the ugliness and the race-baiting that has engulfed our country? Or will we affirm that we are really the intolerant and frightened people Donald Trump has made us out to be?' – Dana MilbankClick To Tweet

Post columnist Max Boot isn’t shocked that Trump stoops so low. “With him, there is no bottom. What is shocking, if no longer entirely surprising, is that the Republican Party would so readily follow him into the gutter.

“The prominent Republicans denouncing his hate-mongering are mostly those such as Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Gov. John Kasich (Ohio) who are not seeking reelection. The rest of the GOP is complicit in this disgraceful demagoguery. Republicans who do not denounce Trump’s racist tactics — and even imitate them — will never escape the stench of this year’s campaign as long as they live.”

'Republicans who do not denounce Trump’s racist tactics — and even imitate them — will never escape the stench of this year’s campaign as long as they live.' – Max BootClick To Tweet

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Cross-posted with permission from the KY AFL-CIO site.

Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, published by the University Press of Kentucky, is Kentucky’s Rebel Press: Pro-Confederate Media in the Civil War. His critically-acclaimed Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, also from the University Press, has been reprinted in paperback.

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