Andy Schmookler: Unleashing the demons of hate

Andy Schmookler

For months, we have witnessed how the political rise of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of racism and bigotry in America.

The head of the nation’s largest white supremacist Internet forum – Don Black of Stormfront – says that Trump (whom he calls a “boon” to the white supremacist cause) is “creating a movement that will continue independently of him…”

David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, notes how Trump is providing “cover” for people to proclaim their “white nationalism.”

Such “cover” is one of Trump’s accomplishments through his repeated rejection of “political correctness:” the racism that America worked so long to declare unacceptable now again dares announce itself.

The point is not that most Trump supporters are bigots. But one thing the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups themselves are telling us: they feel encouraged by Trump. They recognize in Trump’s speeches the same spirit that animates them.

It is a hostile spirit that seeks to dominate other groups whose humanity is deemed less worthy of respect than one’s own. And it is a spirit that has blighted human history.

It blighted the ancient world, where conquerors routinely turned vanquished peoples into slaves, property to exploit. It has blighted the past century, with the German “Master Race” exterminating Jews by the millions, with Rwandans from the Hutu tribe slaughtering members of the Tutsi tribe by the hundreds of thousands, and with Serbs in the former Yugoslavia creating camps for the systematic rape of Bosnian women.

It is a spirit that Americans, with our own histories of conquest and enslavement, have long worked to put away safely in a cage so that we might better fulfill our basic national ideals.

One of these ideas is the one that declares that “all men are created equal.”

Another is the ideal that, despite our being a nation of people from many lands, “we are all Americans,” unified not on the basis of racial or ethnic uniformity but on the basis of a shared belief in the principles of liberty and democracy on which we were founded.

Having made so much progress toward building a society where different kinds of people can live together in peace, hold each other in a degree of mutual respect, and work together to achieve common purposes, are we now going to let the destructive beast of bigotry back out of its cage?

Are we to let this voice — that has emboldened the demons of bigotry — speak to us soon from the bully pulpit of the presidency?

One last note: while it is Donald Trump who has lately encouraged this bigotry to become bolder, the strengthening of this dark spirit has also inadvertently been enabled by President Obama. Our first African-American president erred when he failed to denounce – or have others denounce — the racist spirit behind the “birther” nonsense when it first emerged.

The racist nature of the birther movement could hardly be clearer. In view of the notice of Obama’s birth that appeared in Hawaiian newspapers in August 1961, there could be no rational basis for believing Obama was anything but a natural-born American citizen, thus eligible to be president.

But believing the incredible birther fiction solved a problem for those Americans with racist feelings. Obama’s election created a dilemma for those Americans holding two beliefs that suddenly were in conflict: 1) their belief that black people should be treated as inferiors, and 2) their belief that the President of the United States should be treated with respect.

Obama’s supposed African birth – or, to put it another way, his “African-ness” – allowed people faced with that dilemma to see him as no legitimate president, and therefore not requiring respect.

President Obama may have believed he should not dignify the absurd by taking it seriously. But, absurd or not, something serious was going on, and it was a mistake not to confront it– not so much the foolishness of the fiction but the racism that the fiction of Obama’s African birth indulged.

By ignoring his opponents’ use of bigotry, President Obama allowed the bigotry to feed and grow. And over these years, we have seen his political opponents grow increasingly emboldened to treat this president with a scorn and condescension to which no white American president has ever been subjected.

Meanwhile, as the passions of bigotry grew stronger, they created a political constituency powerful enough to nominate for president, in one of our two major parties, a man whom the white supremacist movement has embraced as one of their own.

Andy Schmookler is an award-winning author, and was the Democratic candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012.