We Already Know The Racism Of Trump’s ‘Rigged Election’ Talk
The day after the debate, and a furious backlash to his refusal to accept the results of the election, Donald Trump sought to soothe frayed nerves at a rally in Ohio:
“I would like to promise and pledge, to all of my voters and supporters and to all of the people of the United States, that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election . . . If I win.”
The outrage has been swift and bipartisan, with people across the political spectrum condemning Trump’s remarks on the University of Nevada debate stage, and his pledge that he’d “keep you in suspense” about whether he’d accept the voters’ verdict. Former McCain campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace called it a “lights out moment” for American democracy; MSNBC anchor Brian Williams called it a “disqualifying” moment for Trump, as did The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan; even the AP, in a straight news report, was obliged to point out that Trump’s remarks were “threatening to upend a fundamental pillar of democracy.”
Lost in the discussion of Trump’s Gish Gallop of imprecations against democracy is the way in which he is priming his supporters to blame people of color for his inevitable loss in this election.
Going back to the first debate, when moderator Lester Holt asked Trump if he’d accept the results of the election, he had initially said “yes,” but prefaced it with a rambling rant about “illegal immigrants” who wrongly received citizenship because someone “pressed the wrong button”; the clear implication was that Latinos who vote are suspect because some might not be “real” American citizens. In rallies since that debate, he has made the “rigged election” nonsense a centerpiece of his campaign, giving new life to the racist lie promulgated by Republicans that voter fraud is a widespread problem — with their legislative “solutions” invariably targeting communities of color disproportionately, through nixing early voting, creating demands for state IDs in states where black residents live in DMV-less counties, and so on.
But as is so often the case, Trump dispenses with the gloss of subtext layered over GOP talking points and has specifically pointed to “certain areas” of Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis — all cities with large, historic black populations — as ground zero for election theft.
“You know what I’m talkin’ about,” he said to the crowds with a rhetorical wink and nod that is beyond satire.
Certainly Trump’s behavior is unprecedented in modern times, and at this level of American government, but if you cast a wider historical net there are worrying precedents for his behavior and his scapegoating of black and brown people. Trump’s desecration of democracy has prompted much high-minded talk from liberals and conservatives alike about how “peaceful transfers of power” have defined the United States since the Revolutionary War. At the presidential level, perhaps (and that, too, depends on how you want to count the Civil War), but at state and local levels? Not quite.
The Wilmington Coup of 1898 is perhaps one of the most gruesome examples of this. An ethnic cleansing led by white militias against Wilmington, North Carolina’s democratically elected, biracial civic government, and a black-owned local newspaper, it laid the foundation for Jim Crow and drove a stake through the ethos of Reconstruction, already on its last legs by the end of the 19th century. These riots began from a conviction that the election of black men to positions of political authority, and the extension of the franchise to freed slaves, constituted a theft of local elections in the South. Following the successful coup, which burnt down many black-owned homes and businesses, and claimed dozens of lives, the Democrat-dominated state legislature passed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other pillars of the Jim Crow voting restrictions that would hang over the South for another 60 years. (A historian talking about the Wilmington Coup on Twitter posted this contemporaneous political cartoon, should you want to see how horrifying this got.)
In the 1900 elections, white insurrectionist and former congressman Alfred Moore Waddell put matters starkly to other white voters in North Carolina:
“You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared and you will do your duty . . . Go to the polls tomorrow, and if you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”
Using race as a test of legitimacy for voting is, in many ways, a terrifying and time-honored tradition of American democracy. Many Trump supporters have gotten the memo. One told the Boston Globe:
“If she’s in office, I hope we can start a coup. She should be in prison or shot. That’s how I feel about it . . . We’re going to have a revolution and take them out of office if that’s what it takes. There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed.”
Still another made poll-policing his mission: “I’ll look for . . . Mexicans. Syrians. People who can’t speak American . . . I’m going to go right up behind them. I’ll do everything legally . . . I’m going to make them a little bit nervous.” It’s hard not to hear a polite echo of Waddell’s words here.
Meanwhile, in response to right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham’s criticism of Trump’s refusal to accept the election results, one Trump supporter wrote the following: “There’s another option. It’s called the Second Amendment. If you think we will tolerate this you’re mistaken. #TrumpPence2016”
As reported in the Toronto Star, another supporter has talked about buying ammo to prepare for “war” in the case of Hillary winning, writing on Facebook, “Liberals will have targets on their backs, as their behaviors are pretty much evident . . . race wars will begin as well, as your skin color will be your uniform!”
It is, frankly, naive to suggest that Trump’s supporters would not know their targets by the color of their skin. And equally naive to think that all this hatred started with Trump. Republican scaremongering about “illegal immigrants” (i.e. Latinos) illicitly getting the vote so that they can elect Democrats goes back several years. The rash of voter ID laws pushed by Republican governors and legislatures were meant to target minority voters, a fact that was recently exposed in North Carolina. In this case, a federal appeals court exposed the fact that the North Carolina government actually conducted research into minority voting patterns and then crafted their law explicitly to target them.
All of this and more provided the context for Trump to make his remarks. Like so much else about his campaign, it is the loud, vulgar, but logical conclusion of Republican politics.
We have advance warning about where this is going, not just from American history, but from averted tragedies in our present. Just last week, white nationalist terrorists from a Kansas militia group were charged with plotting to bomb an apartment complex that housed Somali Muslims. They had planned to do so the day after the election to “wake people up.” In the context of a 2016 election choked with racist campaigning, it’s hard not to see what the risks are. Elections where voters of color have been decisive — just look at the Democratic primaries this very year — are often subject to specious claims about their illegitimacy.
Trump is priming his supporters to see minority neighborhoods as hotbeds of election thievery, casting doubt on the legitimacy of black and Latino voters, and even folding xenophobic scaremongering about Syrian refugees into his electoral conspiracy. It all strikes a resonant chord with some terrible moments in American history, where the legitimacy of non-white voters has always been contested. It’s not hard to imagine Trump supporters crowding polling stations to intimidate non-white voters, or worse, attacking polling places in minority neighborhoods. It is in this specific way that Donald Trump is creating an anti-democratic climate; after all, the right of minorities to exercise the franchise is also a “fundamental pillar of democracy.” That, in particular, could come under violent assault on or after November 8.
The violent fantasies of white men with guns, yearning for “revolution,” should never be underestimated.
Lead image: flickr/Bruce Charles