Chances are you’ve already made up your mind about whom to vote for as we decide who’s going to be the next president of the United States. You probably are also aware there’s no way The Hartford Courant or most any other newspaper is going to endorse Republican Donald Trump for reelection.
There are many reasons for that, and we’re not going to go into them in great detail here. If you are voting for Democrat Joe Biden, you know what they are. If you’re voting for Trump, you probably don’t care.
But there is one issue that demands a closer look as we approach Election Day, one that even those of you who are pretty sure you’re voting Republican might want to think about before voting for Trump: race. Or, more specifically, racism and the damaging effects it has on the fabric and future of our nation.
President Trump’s views on race and his willingness to exploit deep-rooted divisions are well documented. He jump-started his 2016 campaign by equating Mexicans with rapists and drug dealers. When racist violence erupted at a Charlottesville, Va., white-supremacist rally, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.” And most recently, when asked during a debate with Biden to denounce white nationalism, Trump said it was time for the militaristic hate group the Proud Boys to step back — but also to “stand by.”
That alone should frighten you, but right about now is when some of you are probably saying that you don’t subscribe to the kind of racist invective Trump uses to fire up his base. You believe in the free market and low taxes, or you’re against abortion, or you just don’t trust the Democrats.
But on race? You believe that all men and women are created equal. I see the person, you say, not the color of their skin.
Politics is always about compromise, to a certain extent. It’s rare to find a candidate who lines up with all your beliefs, so you find the one who comes the closest, and you put the other issues on the side. That’s what most Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren supporters are doing in this election. They are putting some of their more left-leaning beliefs aside and getting on board behind the more centrist Biden. Backing a candidate who supports the idea of insurance companies becoming part of a universal health care model doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your belief in a single-payer system.
But Trump’s racism isn’t the same, not even close. The potential damage he could do to the fabric of our nation is profound. So, his candidacy raises a question: Can you really support Trump without supporting the racism that permeates his administration?
Bending toward justice?
Thomas Jefferson knew slavery was evil.
Jefferson, like others of his time, was an ardent advocate of the Enlightenment ideal that people should not be subjugated to authoritarian rule. He also knew that kidnapping people from their homes, putting them in chains and forcing them under threat of violence or death to work for free was wrong. Any suggestion that the people who were leading a global revolution for self-governance were blinded to the evils of slavery by the sensibilities of their time is naive.
Jefferson wanted to codify that condemnation in the Declaration of Independence, but an early draft that spoke to the evils of slavery was removed before the Continental Congress voted on the final version on July 4, 1776. The economy of the Southern states — and the nation as a whole — was dependent on enslaved people, and the framers decided that holding the new nation together was more important than taking a stand on slavery.
It was a political compromise that resonates today. Slavery wasn’t a “peculiar institution,” but an abomination against the values and ideals of this nation, not to mention an abomination against any sense of morality or human decency. And for more than two centuries, we’ve wrestled with the consequences of that decision.
Then, in 2008, the tide seemed to turn. Barack Obama was elected president. More than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, decades after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and 40 years after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the United States elected a Black man as its leader.
The moment was savored and celebrated. Had we finally arrived at a post-racial America, where — in the words of Dr. King — people were judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?
Turns out we hadn’t. While many were celebrating, others were seething. And one person who understood that well was Donald Trump, who jumped in early with his “birther” claims that called into question Obama’s citizenship. The campaign was dismissed by many as ridiculous, but it sent a clear signal to those who’d been disaffected by the election of a Black president: They had a champion in Donald Trump.
The exploitation of racial antipathy isn’t a new phenomenon in American politics. Racist tropes and imagery have long been part of the lexicon of campaigns. When George H.W. Bush wanted to call out Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime, his campaign focused on a Black man, Wille Horton, who had raped a white woman while out of prison on a weekend furlough program. The message was racist and clear. Dukakis never recovered.
So, again, you might be saying to yourself: That’s campaign rhetoric. That’s not who I am. President Trump is doing what white politicians have always done; the election will end, and we will move on. Supporting Trump doesn’t mean I am condoning or facilitating racism.
The difference now, in 2020, is that Donald Trump doesn’t just exploit racism, he revels in it. Trump wears his whiteness like a badge of honor and plays his affinity for groups like the Proud Boys and other agents of racial hatred for applause. Trump doesn’t simply mine the racial divide for political advantage, he treats it like a worldview to be celebrated and adored.
And the sad truth of America is that there are plenty of people ready to revel in racism along with him. If Donald Trump is reelected, we should expect a deepening of the divide that has long marred our nation’s soul. At a time when so many are ready to participate in a genuine effort to reconcile and repair, Trump will tear us further apart.
Change is possible
When a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd this summer, the nation erupted. The anger and frustration reached the point where many — Black and white — said, “Enough.”
To appreciate the depth of the anger, it’s important to look at the death of Floyd in historical context. Floyd’s death was the most recent moment in a chain of violence and degradation. Before his killing, Black people were seized by force, sold at auction, ripped from their families, lynched, raped and told they couldn’t drink from the same fountain as white people.
And along the way — as if a legacy of violence and exploitation wasn’t enough — something else happened. Blacks became the primary scapegoats for the grievances of disaffected whites.
That’s why you can’t support Trump without supporting the racism that forms the bedrock of his political persona. The politics of grievance — the backbone of the Trump presidency — is built on the notion that if there is something wrong in your life, there’s someone to blame for it. With racism against Black people deeply embedded into our history and institutions, it is painfully easy to evoke that hatred when seeking a target for your anger. Trump is counting on that anger to get him elected again.
But in evaluating a candidate, racial hatred cannot be set aside for the sake of political compromise. Supporting the reelection of Donald Trump validates and supports those who would mine America’s deep legacy of racism to feed their own grievances. You may not think of yourself as promoting racism if you vote for Trump, but you are giving comfort and aid to the hateful among us.
This isn’t a traditional year, nor is this a traditional election. Tensions in the United States are off the charts as political divisions widen and intensify. The fear of illness and death from the coronavirus pandemic is pushing those tensions to levels that are borderline intolerable for many Americans.
There is also growing recognition that the problems of race cannot be brushed aside, that prejudices are deeply ingrained in American culture, and that righting historic wrongs will take hard work.
But doing the work — understanding the crippling, insidious effects of bias and recognizing prejudice in ourselves — means we could come out on the other side a nation actually ready to start living up to the ideals of freedom and equality.
There are many other reasons to vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. Trump mishandled the coronavirus pandemic and let far more Americans die than would have if the nation had acted sooner. He abused his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son. He has turned us against each other to aggrandize himself.
The task of trying to enumerate his misdeeds — from the May 2017 firing of FBI Director James B. Comey because “the president wanted to protect himself from an investigation into his campaign,” according to Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s report, to Trump’s recent inexplicable behavior and shocking comments after he was found to have COVID-19 — is a numbing one.
Joe Biden, by contrast, is the beacon of sanity this nation desperately needs right now. The Democratic Party has offered a platform of substantive policy initiatives that promise health care for more Americans and an economy that works for all, not just the rich. Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, have the will and good judgment to restore decency to America.
But if you still are lukewarm on Biden and think you can put the abhorrent racism of Donald Trump aside, you need to understand that you really can’t. It’s what his campaign, at its core, is about. It’s who he is. So, if you are someone who believes we can do better as a nation when it comes to treating everyone equally and fairly, Democrat or Republican, your vote for president can make that statement clearly.
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