America doesn’t want unity. It wants absolution without restitution
Renee Graham, Boston Globe
Throughout his campaign, and especially during his first speech as president-elect, Joe Biden stressed the need for unity. “Our nation is shaped by the constant battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses,” he said. “It is time for our better angels to prevail.”
Abraham Lincoln first summoned “the better angels of our nature” in his inaugural speech in 1861. A month later, the Civil War began; we’ve been waiting ever since for these rumored apparitions of our nation’s inherent goodness to prevail.
America has never wanted unity. It prefers absolution over restitution.
When this nation’s leaders speak of unity, that often means, “We need to move on,” even though unchecked trauma leaching from one generation to another prohibits any such thing. For many of us, especially Black and brown people, unity is a five-letter word for “Shut up and get over it.” That is how this nation regards calls for repair of systemic disenfranchisement.
Unity first requires dismantling white supremacy, the scaffolding of every American ill from systemic racism to police violence. It demands recompense for those whose lives it has stalled, even crushed. It insists on a sharp understanding of how to eradicate the most virulent preexisting condition — racism — that has inevitably led to disproportionate COVID-19 deaths in Black, brown, and Indigenous communities.
Before accord, there must be an accounting — otherwise, it’s like leaving a tick’s head embedded beneath the skin. The problem is less visible, but the host body remains sick and unsound.
In his speech, Biden seemed to speak very specifically about the horrors imposed these past four years. (And they aren’t over.) Of course, what we witnessed during the Trump years was an amplification of the racism and other hatreds that plagued this country long before a failed businessman became a failed president.
“Every day we hear about how society is splitting apart — a polarized Congress, a fragmented media market, a persistent schism among Americans over social issues. But really, how bad are the divisions?” Bob Cohn (now president of The Economist), wrote in The Atlantic.His conclusion: “Pretty bad.”
That was seven years ago. Trump did not create the divisions; he exploited the hell out of them.
About 10 millionmore people voted for Trump in the 2020 election than in 2016. Again, most of them are white. This I believe: They want to be feared, not understood, and their only definition of unity is aligning against anyone who doesn’t think like them. They’re willing to tear this nation apart with baseless, anti-democracy conspiracies to slake one man’s flimsy ego and their own relevance in an increasingly multiracial, multicultural nation.
Fox News is even chiding Democrats for lobbing “angry rhetoric at those who have worked with and for, and even those who simply support, Trump.” For the president’s propaganda network, achieving unity is a burden to be borne only by those who oppose the president. I don’t hear many Trump supporters reckoning with why they still support the worst president in modern American history.
For its entire existence, America has mostly walked away. From nearly 250 years of Black people in bondage to the genocidal “Trail of Tears” that forced thousands of Indigenous people from their lands in the 1800s; from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre during which white people killed hundreds and destroyed that Oklahoma city’s “Black Wall Street” to every barbarity the current administration concocted to punish those who sought only a better life, this nation continually opts for historical amnesia over atonement.
As the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted, “We can’t skip justice and get to peace.” Nor can we get there without equality.
Scars of this catastrophic presidency will lie alongside festering wounds long untended. There’s no shortcut to unity, a challenge in a nation that would rather be comfortable than truthful. This unfinished democracy will never be whole until all of its practitioners abandon the collective silence that cloaks their complicity. To move toward unity, white supremacy must first be demolished. America has shown no serious inclination to do that, and more than 72 million Trump voters serve as damning proof.
For the sake of this country, I wish Biden every success. I hope he understands that unity is not self-achieving. The most arduous labor must be done by those who have inflicted or benefited from the pain of so many others. Until then, do not ask me to forgive all this nation is too eager to forget.
I wrote the following essay, “Births of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson,” in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, but it could have been written today—two days into a still unsettled presidential election; two days of witnessing frenzied, nail-biting, soul-searching Democrats wondering what happened to the blue wave and why 68 million people actually voted for Trump; two days of threats from the White House that they will fight in the courts and in the streets before giving up power. And today Cedric Robinson, pioneering scholar of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” would have celebrated his eightieth birthday.
Today Cedric Robinson would have celebrated his eightieth birthday. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
The lessons I took from Cedric in the aftermath of Trump’s election still stand: our problem is not polling, or the failure of Democrats to mobilize the Black and Latinx vote (they came out, often at great risk to their health and safety), or a botched effort to reach working-class whites with a strong, colorblind class-based agenda. What Robinson identified as “the rewhitening of America” a century ago is what we’re seeing play out today.
But before reviving the tired race-versus-class debate, pay attention: Robinson was making an argument about racial regimes as expressions of class power and how racism undergirds class oppression. As I quoted Robinson before: “White patrimony deceived some of the majority of Americans, patriotism and nationalism others, but the more fugitive reality was the theft they themselves endured and the voracious expropriation of others they facilitated. The scrap which was their reward was the installation of Black inferiority into their shared national culture. It was a paltry dividend, but it still serves.” (The emphasis is mine.)
What we’ve seen is the consolidation of a racial regime based—as are all racial regimes—on “fictions” “masquerading as memory and the immutable.” Trump is saving white suburban women from Black rapists and drug dealers who want to take their Section 8 vouchers out to gated communities. He’s protecting our borders from “illegals” who have no claims whatsoever to this white man’s country. He’s shielding the nation from wicked critical race theorists and Howard Zinn with “patriotic education.” He responds to the assault on white supremacist mythologies by defending Confederate monuments. He dispatches federal military forces to crush antiracist protests and declares Kyle Rittenhouse a patriot for killing two unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters. And he dusts off the tried and true strategy of labeling all challengers to the regime “communists and socialists.” (When Biden brags “I beat the socialists!” and “I am the Democratic Party,” he plays right into the regime’s fictions—he is the neoliberal moderate taking back the country from rioters, fascists, and socialists.)
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. President Obama presided during the killing of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—ad infinitum. It was the mass rebellion against the lawlessness of the state—in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in New York, in Los Angeles, and elsewhere—that prompted Trumpian backlash.
We keep telling ourselves that Trump was elected as a backlash to a Black president, but really he was elected as a backlash to a Black movement. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity.
The massive vote for Trump and his fascist law-and-order rhetoric should also be seen as a backlash to a movement. Some of us believed Black Spring rebellion in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery signaled a national reckoning around racial justice. But rather than reverse the rewhitening of America, our struggles catalyzed and concretized the racial regime’s explicit embrace of white power. Once again, an unstable ruling class drapes itself in white sheets, puts on its badge and brings out its guns. Fear and racism feed off of insecurity. And in the face of a global pandemic, joblessness, precarity, and an economy on the verge of collapse, this paltry dividend still serves.
If we’d paid attention, we wouldn’t have expected a Biden landslide or a blue wave ripping the Senate from Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell grip. It is not a coincidence that Louisville is on fire over the murder of Breonna Taylor and countless others who died at the hands of police in McConnell’s state. Kentucky has always been a battleground. California is too, and we’re not necessarily winning. Voters just defeated affirmative action, rent control, and the labor rights of gig workers. And despite some important victories, California delivered a lot of votes to Trump. We need to face the fact that our entire country, and the world, is a battleground. Trump and McConnell have succeeded in packing the Supreme Court with reactionaries. Trump’s backers still run the Senate. Gun-toting men and women in red hats stand outside vote-tabulating centers, threatening to do whatever is needed to secure a Trump victory. They yell “stop the count.”
Even with a Biden victory, the failure of the blue wave will be attributed in part to a certain kind of identity politics—Black and Latinx voter turnout less than what was expected—or to the militancy of antiracist protests, or to left-leaning candidates who scared off white moderates by pushing for single-payer healthcare and a Green New Deal. We should not see these as problems for legitimate Democrats. We’ve been witnessing authentic small-d democracy in action. In the streets we’ve seen a movement embrace Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, queer feminism, and a horizontal leadership model that emphasizes deliberative, participatory democracy.
We have an electoral college, battleground states, and voter suppression because the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy.
This is the democracy Cedric Robinson insisted we embrace. He reminded us that the U.S. political order was built on anti-democracy, a theory of so-called enlightened governance that excludes the popular classes. This is why we have an electoral college, why we have battleground states, and why voter suppression was built into our country’s DNA. As I wrote three years ago, “today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.”
We’re already here. And there is no guarantee that a Biden-Harris White House will succeed in completely reversing this trend. Nor should we expect presidents and their cabinets to do this work. That would put us back where we started—with tacit acceptance of the principles of anti-democracy.
Cedric’s words from exactly twenty years ago still haunt: “For the moment . . . an unelected government has seized illegal powers. That must be opposed with every democratic weapon in our arsenal.”
Happy Birthday, Dr. Robinson.
March 6, 2017
Cedric Robinson was fond of quoting his friend and colleague Otis Madison: “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not Black people. For Blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient.” Robinson used the quote as an epigraph for a chapter in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning (2007), titled, “In the Year 1915: D. W. Griffith and the Rewhitening of America.” When people ask what I think Robinson would have said about the election of Donald Trump, I point to these texts as evidence that he had already given us a framework to make sense of this moment and its antecedents.
Robinson’s work—especially his lesser-known essays on democracy, identity, fascism, film, and racial regimes—has a great deal to teach us about Trumpism’s foundations, about democracy’s endemic crises, about the racial formation of the white working class, and about the significance of resistance in determining the future.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
The old African-American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” has a new, morbid twist: when white America catches the novel coronavirus, black Americans die.
Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality. According to a Reuters report, African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S. It is still early in the course of the pandemic, and the demographic data is incomplete, but the partial view is enough to prompt a sober reflection on this bitter harvest of American racism.
Louisiana, with more than twenty-one thousand reported infections, has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of the Northeast and the Midwest. When the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, announced recently that it would begin to provide data about the racial and ethnic breakdowns of those who have died, he included the grim acknowledgement that African-Americans, thirty-three per cent of Louisiana’s population, comprise seventy per cent of the dead.
The small city of Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, was the site of a heroic civil-rights standoff between the city’s black residents and its white police chief in the early nineteen-sixties. Today, more than twelve hundred people in the county have confirmedcovid-19 cases, and at least seventy-eight people have died. According to earlier reports, eighty-one per cent of the dead are African-American.
In Michigan, African-Americans make up fourteen per cent of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for thirty-three per cent of its reported infections and forty per cent of its deaths. Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and twenty-five per cent of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine per cent African-American. covid-19 is also ravaging the city’s suburbs that have large black populations.
The virus has shaken African-Americans in Chicago, who account for fifty-two per cent of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling seventy-two per cent of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.
As many have already noted, this macabre roll call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly. This is certainly true. These conditions—diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity—are critical factors, and they point to the persistence of racial discrimination, which has long heightened black vulnerability to premature death, as the scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore has said for years. Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans. Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race. These factors explain why African-Americans are sixty per cent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why black women are sixty per cent more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.
It is easy to simply point to the prevalence of these health conditions among African-Americans as the most important explanation for their rising death rates. But it is also important to acknowledge that black vulnerability is especially heightened by the continued ineptitude of the federal government in response to the coronavirus. The mounting carnage in Trump’s America did not have to happen to the extent that it has. covid-19 testing remains maddeningly inconsistent and unavailable, with access breaking down along the predictable lines. In Philadelphia, a scientist at Drexel University found that, in Zip Codes with a “lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes,” a higher number of tests were administered. In Zip Codes with a higher number of unemployed and uninsured residents, there were fewer tests. Taken together, testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.
Inconsistent testing, in combination with steadfast denials from the White House about the threat of the virus, exacerbated the appalling lack of preparation for this catastrophe. With more early coördination, hospitals might have procured the necessary equipment and staffed up properly, potentially avoiding the onslaught that has occurred. The consequences are devastating. In the Detroit area, where the disease is surging, about fifteen hundred hospital workers, including five hundred nurses at Beaumont Health, Michigan’s largest hospital system, are off of the job with symptoms of covid-19. Early in the crisis, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses were reduced to wearing garbage bags for their protection. Across the country, health-care providers are being asked to ration face masks and shields, dramatically raising the potential of their own infection, and thereby increasing the strain on the already overextended hospitals.
The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect. In mid-March, Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, lamented the covid-19 crisis and proclaimed that “we are all in this together,” but, weeks later, she closed the emergency room of the public Provident Hospital in the predominantly black South Side. Preckwinkle claimed that the closure would last for a month and was a response to a single health-care worker becoming infected with the virus. Leave aside the fact that nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have been testing positive for covid-19 across the country, and their facilities have not been shuttered. It is a decision that simply could not have been made, in the midst of a historic pandemic, in any of the city’s wealthy, white neighborhoods on the North Side.
Meanwhile, in Cook County Jail, three hundred and twenty-three inmates and a hundred and ninety-six correctional officers have tested positive for covid-19. Not only have officials not closed the county jail as a result but they also have yet to release a significant number of jailed people, even though the facility has the highest density of covid-19 cases in Chicago. These are the kinds of decisions that explain why there is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy—in the same city—between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville. They are also just the latest examples of the ways that racism is the ultimate result of the decisions that government officials make, regardless of their intentions. Preckwinkle is African-American, and the chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party, but her decisions regarding Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail will still deeply wound African-Americans across Chicago.
The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities is shocking, but it also provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged. The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility. In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy . . .
The local prosecutor, George E. Barnhill, concluded that no crime had been committed. Arbery had tried to wrest a shotgun from Travis McMichael before being shot, Barnhill wrote in a letter to the police chief. The two men who had seen a stranger running, and decided to pick up their firearms and chase him, had therefore acted in self-defense when they confronted and shot him, Barnhill concluded. On Tuesday, as video of the shooting emerged on social media, a different Georgia prosecutor announced that the case would be put to a grand jury; the two men were arrested and charged with murder yesterday evening after video of the incident sparked national outrage across the political spectrum.
To see the sequence of events that led to Arbery’s death as benign requires a cascade of assumptions. One must assume that two men arming themselves and chasing down a stranger running through their neighborhood is a normal occurrence. One must assume that the two armed white men had a right to self-defense, and that the black man suddenly confronted by armed strangers did not. One must assume that state laws are meant to justify an encounter in which two people can decide of their own volition to chase, confront, and kill a person they’ve never met.
But Barnhill’s leniency is selective—as The Appeal’s Josie Duffy Rice notes, Barnhill attempted to prosecute Olivia Pearson, a black woman, for helping another black voter use an electronic voting machine. A crime does not occur when white men stalk and kill a black stranger. A crime does occur when black people vote.The underlying assumptions of white innocence and black guilt are all part of what the philosopher Charles Mills calls the “racial contract.” If the social contract is the implicit agreement among members of a society to follow the rules—for example, acting lawfully, adhering to the results of elections, and contesting the agreed-upon rules by nonviolent means—then the racial contract is a codicil rendered in invisible ink, one stating that the rules as written do not apply to nonwhite people in the same way. The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal; the racial contract limits this to white men with property. The law says murder is illegal; the racial contract says it’s fine for white people to chase and murder black people if they have decided that those black people scare them. “The terms of the Racial Contract,” Mills wrote, “mean that nonwhite subpersonhood is enshrined simultaneously with white personhood.”
The racial contract is not partisan—it guides staunch conservatives and sensitive liberals alike—but it works most effectively when it remains imperceptible to its beneficiaries. As long as it is invisible, members of society can proceed as though the provisions of the social contract apply equally to everyone. But when an injustice pushes the racial contract into the open, it forces people to choose whether to embrace, contest, or deny its existence. Video evidence of unjustified shootings of black people is so jarring in part because it exposes the terms of the racial contract so vividly. But as the process in the Arbery case shows, the racial contract most often operates unnoticed, relying on Americans to have an implicit understanding of who is bound by the rules, and who is exempt from them.
The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.
Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, with its vows to enforce state violence against Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and black Americans, was built on a promise to enforce terms of the racial contract that Barack Obama had ostensibly neglected, or violated by his presence. Trump’s administration, in carrying out an explicitly discriminatory agenda that valorizes cruelty, war crimes, and the entrenchment of white political power, represents a revitalized commitment to the racial contract.
But the pandemic has introduced a new clause to the racial contract. The lives of disproportionately black and brown workers are being sacrificed to fuel the engine of a faltering economy, by a president who disdains them. This is the COVID contract.
As the first cases of the coronavirus were diagnosed in the United States, in late January and early February, the Trump administration and Fox News were eager to play down the risk it posed. But those early cases, tied to international travel, ensnared many members of the global elite: American celebrities, world leaders, and those with close ties to Trump himself. By March 16, the president had reversed course, declaring a national emergency and asking Americans to avoid social gatherings.
Over the weeks that followed the declaration of an emergency, the pandemic worsened and the death toll mounted. Yet by mid-April, conservative broadcasters were decrying the restrictions, small bands of armed protesters were descending on state capitols, and the president was pressing to lift the constraints.
As Matt Gertz writes, some of these premature celebrations may have been an overreaction to the changes in the prominent coronavirus model designed by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which had recently revised its estimates down to about 60,000 deaths by August. But even as the mounting death toll proved that estimate wildly optimistic, the chorus of right-wing elites demanding that the economy reopen grew louder. By April 16, the day the first anti-lockdown protests began, deaths had more than doubled, to more than 30,000.That more and more Americans were dying was less important than who was dying.
The disease is now “infecting people who cannot afford to miss work or telecommute—grocery store employees, delivery drivers and construction workers,” The Washington Post reported. Air travel has largely shut down, and many of the new clusters are in nursing homes, jails and prisons, and factories tied to essential industries. Containing the outbreak was no longer a question of social responsibility, but of personal responsibility. From the White House podium, Surgeon General Jerome Adams told “communities of color” that “we need you to step up and help stop the spread.”
Public-health restrictions designed to contain the outbreak were deemed absurd. They seemed, in Carlson’s words, “mindless and authoritarian,” a “weird kind of arbitrary fascism.” To restrict the freedom of white Americans, just because nonwhite Americans are dying, is an egregious violation of the racial contract. The wealthy luminaries of conservative media have sought to couch their opposition to restrictions as advocacy on behalf of workers, but polling shows that those most vulnerable to both the disease and economic catastrophe want the outbreak contained before they return to work.
This tangled dynamic played out on Tuesday, during oral arguments over Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’s statewide stay-at-home order before the state Supreme Court, held remotely. Chief Justice Patience Roggensack was listening to Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General Colin Roth defend the order.
“When you see a virus like this one that does not respect county boundaries, this started out predominantly in Madison and Milwaukee; then we just had this outbreak in Brown County very recently in the meatpacking plants,” Roth explained. “The cases in Brown County in a span of two weeks surged over tenfold, from 60 to almost 800—”
“Due to the meatpacking, though, that’s where Brown County got the flare,” Roggensack interrupted to clarify. “It wasn’t just the regular folks in Brown County.”
Perhaps Roggensack did not mean that the largely Latino workers in Brown County’s meatpacking plants—who have told reporters that they have been forced to work in proximity with one another, often without masks or hand sanitizer, and without being notified that their colleagues are infected—are not “regular folks” like the other residents of the state. Perhaps she merely meant that their line of work puts them at greater risk, and so the outbreaks in the meatpacking plants, seen as essential to the nation’s food supply, are not rationally related to the governor’s stay-at-home order, from which they would be exempt.
Yet either way, Roggensack was drawing a line between “regular folks” and the workers who keep them fed, mobile, safe, and connected. And America’s leaders have treated those workers as largely expendable, praising their valor while disregarding their safety.
“There were no masks. There was no distancing inside the plant, only [in the] break room. We worked really close to each other,” Raquel Sanchez Alvarado, a worker with American Foods, a Wisconsin meatpacking company, told local reporters in mid-April. “People are scared that they will be fired and that they will not find a job at another company if they express their concerns.”
Although, by the official tally, more than 70,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, many governors are rushing to reopen their states without sufficient testing to contain their outbreaks. (Statistical analyses of excess deaths in comparison with years past suggest that COVID-19 casualties are approaching and may soon exceed 100,000.) Yet the Trump administration is poised to declare “mission accomplished,” engaging in the doublespeak of treating the pandemic as though the major risks have passed, while rhetorically preparing the country for thousands more deaths. The worst-case scenarios may not come to pass. But federal policy reflects the president’s belief that he has little to lose by gambling with the lives of those Americans most likely to be affected.
“We can’t keep our country closed down for years,” Trump said Wednesday. But that was no one’s plan. The plan was to buy time to take the necessary steps to open the country safely. But the Trump administration did not do that, because it did not consider the lives of the people dying worth the effort or money required to save them.
The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, and the Trump administration’s failure to prepare for it even as it crippled the world’s richest nations, cannot be overstated. Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed. Tens of thousands line up outside food banks and food pantries each week to obtain sustenance they cannot pay for. Businesses across the country are struggling and failing. The economy cannot be held in stasis indefinitely—the longer it is, the more people will suffer.
Yet the only tension between stopping the virus and reviving the economy is one the Trump administration and its propaganda apparatus have invented. Economists are in near-unanimous agreement that the safest path requires building the capacity to contain the virus before reopening the economy—precisely because new waves of deaths will drive Americans back into self-imposed isolation, destroying the consumer spending that powers economic growth. The federal government can afford the necessary health infrastructure and financial aid; it already shelled out hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy Americans. But the people in charge do not consider doing so to be worthwhile—Republicans have already dismissed aid to struggling state governments that laid off a million workers this month alone as a “blue-state bailout,” while pushing for more tax cuts for the rich.
“The people of our country are warriors,” Trump told reporters Tuesday. “I’m not saying anything is perfect, and will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”
The frame of war allows the president to call for the collective sacrifice of laborers without taking the measures necessary to ensure their safety, while the upper classes remain secure at home. But the workers who signed up to harvest food, deliver packages, stack groceries, drive trains and buses, and care for the sick did not sign up for war, and the unwillingness of America’s political leadership to protect them is a policy decision, not an inevitability. Trump is acting in accordance with the terms of the racial contract, which values the lives of those most likely to be affected less than the inconveniences necessary to preserve them. The president’s language of wartime unity is a veil draped over a federal response that offers little more than contempt for those whose lives are at risk. To this administration, they are simply fuel to keep the glorious Trump economy burning.
Collective solidarity in response to the coronavirus remains largely intact—most Americans support the restrictions and are not eager to sacrifice their lives or those of their loved ones for a few points of gross domestic product. The consistency across incomes and backgrounds is striking in an era of severe partisan polarization. But solidarity with the rest of the nation among elite Republicans—those whose lives and self-conceptions are intertwined with the success of the Trump presidency—began eroding as soon as the disproportionate impact of the outbreak started to emerge.
The president’s cavalier attitude is at least in part a reflection of his fear that the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus will doom his political fortunes in November. But what connects the rise of the anti-lockdown protests, the president’s dismissal of the carnage predicted by his own administration, and the eagerness of governors all over the country to reopen the economy before developing the capacity to do so safely is the sense that those they consider “regular folks” will be fine.Many of them will be. People like Ahmaud Arbery, whose lives are depreciated by the terms of the racial contract, will not.
Listen to Adam Serwer talk about this story on Social Distance, The Atlantic’s podcast about life in the pandemic:
*Correction: An earlier version of this piece misdescribed a study showing disproportionately black counties were responsible for more than half of coronavirus cases in the United States by describing those counties as “majority black.”
ADAM SERWER is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
One day last fall, I sat down to create a new Facebook account. I picked a forgettable name, snapped a profile pic with my face obscured, and clicked “Like” on the official pages of Donald Trump and his reelection campaign. Facebook’s algorithm prodded me to follow Ann Coulter, Fox Business, and a variety of fan pages with names like “In Trump We Trust.” I complied. I also gave my cellphone number to the Trump campaign, and joined a handful of private Facebook groups for MAGA diehards, one of which required an application that seemed designed to screen out interlopers.
The president’s reelection campaign was then in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.
The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?
As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes—jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
After the 2016 election, much was made of the threats posed to American democracy by foreign disinformation. Stories of Russian troll farms and Macedonian fake-news mills loomed in the national imagination. But while these shadowy outside forces preoccupied politicians and journalists, Trump and his domestic allies were beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare that have kept the world’s demagogues and strongmen in power.
Every presidential campaign sees its share of spin and misdirection, but this year’s contest promises to be different. In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view—one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting. Both parties will have these tools at their disposal. But in the hands of a president who lies constantly, who traffics in conspiracy theories, and who readily manipulates the levers of government for his own gain, their potential to wreak havoc is enormous.The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history. Whether or not it succeeds in reelecting the president, the wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.
THE DEATH STAR
The campaign is run from the 14th floor of a gleaming, modern office tower in Rosslyn, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Glass-walled conference rooms look out on the Potomac River. Rows of sleek monitors line the main office space. Unlike the bootstrap operation that first got Trump elected—with its motley band of B-teamers toiling in an unfinished space in Trump Tower—his 2020 enterprise is heavily funded, technologically sophisticated, and staffed with dozens of experienced operatives. One Republican strategist referred to it, admiringly, as “the Death Star.”
Presiding over this effort is Brad Parscale, a 6-foot-8 Viking of a man with a shaved head and a triangular beard. As the digital director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, Parscale didn’t become a household name like Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway. But he played a crucial role in delivering Trump to the Oval Office—and his efforts will shape this year’s election.
In speeches and interviews, Parscale likes to tell his life story as a tidy rags-to-riches tale, embroidered with Trumpian embellishments. He grew up a simple “farm boy from Kansas” (read: son of an affluent lawyer from suburban Topeka) who managed to graduate from an “Ivy League” school (Trinity University, in San Antonio). After college, he went to work for a software company in California, only to watch the business collapse in the economic aftermath of 9/11 (not to mention allegations in a lawsuit that he and his parents, who owned the business, had illegally transferred company funds—claims that they disputed). Broke and desperate, Parscale took his “last $500” (not counting the value of three rental properties he owned) and used it to start a one-man web-design business in Texas.Parscale Media was, by most accounts, a scrappy endeavor at the outset. Hustling to drum up clients, Parscale cold-pitched shoppers in the tech aisle of a Borders bookstore. Over time, he built enough websites for plumbers and gun shops that bigger clients took notice—including the Trump Organization. In 2011, Parscale was invited to bid on designing a website for Trump International Realty. An ardent fan of The Apprentice, he offered to do the job for $10,000, a fraction of the actual cost. “I just made up a price,” he later told TheWashington Post. “I recognized that I was a nobody in San Antonio, but working for the Trumps would be everything.” The contract was his, and a lucrative relationship was born.
Over the next four years, he was hired to design websites for a range of Trump ventures—a winery, a skin-care line, and then a presidential campaign. By late 2015, Parscale—a man with no discernible politics, let alone campaign experience—was running the Republican front-runner’s digital operation from his personal laptop.
Parscale slid comfortably into Trump’s orbit. Not only was he cheap and unpretentious—with no hint of the savvier-than-thou smugness that characterized other political operatives—but he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder that matched the candidate’s. “Brad was one of those people who wanted to prove the establishment wrong and show the world what he was made of,” says a former colleague from the campaign.Perhaps most important, he seemed to have no reservations about the kind of campaign Trump wanted to run. The race-baiting, the immigrant-bashing, the truth-bending—none of it seemed to bother Parscale. While some Republicans wrung their hands over Trump’s inflammatory messages, Parscale came up with ideas to more effectively disseminate them.
The campaign had little interest at first in cutting-edge ad technology, and for a while, Parscale’s most valued contribution was the merchandise page he built to sell MAGA hats. But that changed in the general election. Outgunned on the airwaves and lagging badly in fundraising, campaign officials turned to Google and Facebook, where ads were inexpensive and shock value was rewarded. As the campaign poured tens of millions into online advertising—amplifying themes such as Hillary Clinton’s criminality and the threat of radical Islamic terrorism—Parscale’s team, which was christened Project Alamo, grew to 100.
Parscale was generally well liked by his colleagues, who recall him as competent and intensely focused. “He was a get-shit-done type of person,” says A. J. Delgado, who worked with him. Perhaps just as important, he had a talent for ingratiating himself with the Trump family. “He was probably better at managing up,” Kurt Luidhardt, a consultant for the campaign, told me. He made sure to share credit for his work with the candidate’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and he excelled at using Trump’s digital ignorance to flatter him. “Parscale would come in and tell Trump he didn’t need to listen to the polls, because he’d crunched his data and they were going to win by six points,” one former campaign staffer told me. “I was like, ‘Come on, man, don’t bullshit a bullshitter.’ ” But Trump seemed to buy it. (Parscale declined to be interviewed for this story.)
James Barnes, a Facebook employee who was dispatched to work closely with the campaign, told me Parscale’s political inexperience made him open to experimenting with the platform’s new tools. “Whereas some grizzled campaign strategist who’d been around the block a few times might say, ‘Oh, that will never work,’ Brad’s predisposition was to say, ‘Yeah, let’s try it.’ ” From June to November, Trump’s campaign ran 5.9 million ads on Facebook, while Clinton’s ran just 66,000. A Facebook executive would later write in a leaked memo that Trump “got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser.”Though some strategists questioned how much these ads actually mattered, Parscale was hailed for Trump’s surprise victory. Stories appeared in the press calling him a “genius” and the campaign’s “secret weapon,” and in 2018 he was tapped to lead the entire reelection effort. The promotion was widely viewed as a sign that the president’s 2020 strategy would hinge on the digital tactics that Parscale had mastered.
Through it all, the strategist has continued to show a preference for narrative over truth. Last May, Parscale regaled a crowd of donors and activists in Miami with the story of his ascent. When a ProPublica reporter confronted him about the many misleading details in his account, he shrugged off the fact-check. “When I give a speech, I tell it like a story,” he said. “My story is my story.”
In his book This Is Not Propaganda, Peter Pomerantsev, a researcher at the London School of Economics, writes about a young Filipino political consultant he calls “P.” In college, P had studied the “Little Albert experiment,” in which scientists conditioned a young child to fear furry animals by exposing him to loud noises every time he encountered a white lab rat. The experiment gave P an idea. He created a series of Facebook groups for Filipinos to discuss what was going on in their communities. Once the groups got big enough—about 100,000 members—he began posting local crime stories, and instructed his employees to leave comments falsely tying the grisly headlines to drug cartels. The pages lit up with frightened chatter. Rumors swirled; conspiracy theories metastasized. To many, all crimes became drug crimes.
Unbeknownst to their members, the Facebook groups were designed to boost Rodrigo Duterte, then a long-shot presidential candidate running on a pledge to brutally crack down on drug criminals. (Duterte once boasted that, as mayor of Davao City, he rode through the streets on his motorcycle and personally executed drug dealers.) P’s experiment was one plank in a larger “disinformation architecture”—which also included social-media influencers paid to mock opposing candidates, and mercenary trolls working out of former call centers—that experts say aided Duterte’s rise to power. Since assuming office in 2016, Duterte has reportedly ramped up these efforts while presiding over thousands of extrajudicial killings.
The campaign in the Philippines was emblematic of an emerging propaganda playbook, one that uses new tools for the age-old ends of autocracy. The Kremlin has long been an innovator in this area. (A 2011 manual for Russian civil servants favorably compared their methods of disinformation to “an invisible radiation” that takes effect while “the population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon.”) But with the technological advances of the past decade, and the global proliferation of smartphones, governments around the world have found success deploying Kremlin-honed techniques against their own people.
In the United States, we tend to view such tools of oppression as the faraway problems of more fragile democracies. But the people working to reelect Trump understand the power of these tactics. They may use gentler terminology—muddy the waters; alternative facts—but they’re building a machine designed to exploit their own sprawling disinformation architecture.
Central to that effort is the campaign’s use of micro-targeting—the process of slicing up the electorate into distinct niches and then appealing to them with precisely tailored digital messages. The advantages of this approach are obvious: An ad that calls for defunding Planned Parenthood might get a mixed response from a large national audience, but serve it directly via Facebook to 800 Roman Catholic women in Dubuque, Iowa, and its reception will be much more positive. If candidates once had to shout their campaign promises from a soapbox, micro-targeting allows them to sidle up to millions of voters and whisper personalized messages in their ear.
Parscale didn’t invent this practice—Barack Obama’s campaign famously used it in 2012, and Clinton’s followed suit. But Trump’s effort in 2016 was unprecedented, in both its scale and its brazenness. In the final days of the 2016 race, for example, Trump’s team tried to suppress turnout among black voters in Florida by slipping ads into their News Feeds that read, “Hillary Thinks African-Americans Are Super Predators.” An unnamed campaign official boasted to Bloomberg Businessweek that it was one of “three major voter suppression operations underway.” (The other two targeted young women and white liberals.)The weaponization of micro-targeting was pioneered in large part by the data scientists at Cambridge Analytica. The firm began as part of a nonpartisan military contractor that used digital psyops to target terrorist groups and drug cartels. In Pakistan, it worked to thwart jihadist recruitment efforts; in South America, it circulated disinformation to turn drug dealers against their bosses.
The emphasis shifted once the conservative billionaire Robert Mercer became a major investor and installed Steve Bannon as his point man. Using a massive trove of data it had gathered from Facebook and other sources—without users’ consent—Cambridge Analytica worked to develop detailed “psychographic profiles” for every voter in the U.S., and began experimenting with ways to stoke paranoia and bigotry by exploiting certain personality traits. In one exercise, the firm asked white men whether they would approve of their daughter marrying a Mexican immigrant; those who said yes were asked a follow-up question designed to provoke irritation at the constraints of political correctness: “Did you feel like you had to say that?”
Christopher Wylie, who was the director of research at Cambridge Analytica and later testified about the company to Congress, told me that “with the right kind of nudges,” people who exhibited certain psychological characteristics could be pushed into ever more extreme beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. “Rather than using data to interfere with the process of radicalization, Steve Bannon was able to invert that,” Wylie said. “We were essentially seeding an insurgency in the United States.”Cambridge Analytica was dissolved in 2018, shortly after its CEO was caught on tape bragging about using bribery and sexual “honey traps” on behalf of clients. (The firm denied that it actually used such tactics.) Since then, some political scientists have questioned how much effect its “psychographic” targeting really had. But Wylie—who spoke with me from London, where he now works for H&M, as a fashion-trend forecaster—said the firm’s work in 2016 was a modest test run compared with what could come.
“What happens if North Korea or Iran picks up where Cambridge Analytica left off?” he said, noting that plenty of foreign actors will be looking for ways to interfere in this year’s election. “There are countless hostile states that have more than enough capacity to quickly replicate what we were able to do … and make it much more sophisticated.” These efforts may not come only from abroad: A group of former Cambridge Analytica employees have formed a new firm that, according to the Associated Press, is working with the Trump campaign. (The firm has denied this, and a campaign spokesperson declined to comment.)
To bolster his case, Zuckerberg pointed to the recently launched—and publicly accessible—“library” where Facebook archives every political ad it publishes. The project has a certain democratic appeal: Why censor false or toxic content when a little sunlight can have the same effect? But spend some time scrolling through the archive of Trump reelection ads, and you quickly see the limits of this transparency.
The campaign doesn’t run just one ad at a time on a given theme. It runs hundreds of iterations—adjusting the language, the music, even the colors of the “Donate” buttons. In the 10 weeks after the House of Representatives began its impeachment inquiry, the Trump campaign ran roughly 14,000 different ads containing the word impeachment. Sifting through all of them is virtually impossible.
Both parties will rely on micro-targeted ads this year, but the president is likely to have a distinct advantage. The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign have reportedly compiled an average of 3,000 data points on every voter in America. They have spent years experimenting with ways to tweak their messages based not just on gender and geography, but on whether the recipient owns a gun or watches the Golf Channel.While these ads can be used to try to win over undecided voters, they’re most often deployed for fundraising and for firing up the faithful—and Trump’s advisers believe this election will be decided by mobilization, not persuasion. To turn out the base, the campaign has signaled that it will return to familiar themes: the threat of “illegal aliens”—a term Parscale has reportedly encouraged Trump to use—and the corruption of the “swamp.”
Beyond Facebook, the campaign is also investing in a texting platform that could allow it to send anonymous messages directly to millions of voters’ phones without their permission. Until recently, people had to opt in before a campaign could include them in a mass text. But with new “peer to peer” texting apps—including one developed by Gary Coby, a senior Trump adviser—a single volunteer can send hundreds of messages an hour, skirting federal regulations by clicking “Send” one message at a time. Notably, these messages aren’t required to disclose who’s behind them, thanks to a 2002 ruling by the Federal Election Commission that cited the limited number of characters available in a text.
Most experts assume that these regulations will be overhauled sometime after the 2020 election. For now, campaigns from both parties are hoovering up as many cellphone numbers as possible, and Parscale has said texting will be at the center of Trump’s reelection strategy. The medium’s ability to reach voters is unparalleled: While robocalls get sent to voicemail and email blasts get trapped in spam folders, peer-to-peer texting companies say that at least 90 percent of their messages are opened.
The Trump campaign’s texts so far this cycle have focused on shouty fundraising pleas (“They have NOTHING! IMPEACHMENT IS OVER! Now let’s CRUSH our End of Month Goal”). But the potential for misuse by outside groups is clear—and shady political actors are already discovering how easy it is to wage an untraceable whisper campaign by text.In 2018, as early voting got under way in Tennessee’s Republican gubernatorial primary, voters began receiving text messages attacking two of the candidates’ conservative credentials. The texts—written in a conversational style, as if they’d been sent from a friend—were unsigned, and people who tried calling the numbers received a busy signal. The local press covered the smear campaign. Law enforcement was notified. But the source of the texts was never discovered.
WAR ON THE PRESS
One afternoon last March, I was on the phone with a Republican operative close to the Trump family when he casually mentioned that a reporter at Business Insider was about to have a very bad day. The journalist, John Haltiwanger, had tweeted something that annoyed Donald Trump Jr., prompting the coterie of friends and allies surrounding the president’s son to drum up a hit piece. The story they had coming, the operative suggested to me, would demolish the reporter’s credibility.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this gloating—people in Trump’s circle have a tendency toward bluster. But a few hours later, the operative sent me a link to a Breitbart News article documenting Haltiwanger’s “history of intense Trump hatred.” The story was based on a series of Instagram posts—all of them from before Haltiwanger started working at Business Insider—in which he made fun of the president and expressed solidarity with liberal protesters.
The next morning, Don Jr. tweeted the story to his 3 million followers, denouncing Haltiwanger as a “raging lib.” Other conservatives piled on, and the reporter was bombarded with abusive messages and calls for him to be fired. His employer issued a statement conceding that the Instagram posts were “not appropriate.” Haltiwanger kept his job, but the experience, he told me later, “was bizarre and unsettling.”The Breitbart story was part of a coordinated effort by a coalition of Trump allies to air embarrassing information about reporters who produce critical coverage of the president. (The New York Timesfirst reported on this project last summer; since then, it’s been described to me in greater detail.) According to people with knowledge of the effort, pro-Trump operatives have scraped social-media accounts belonging to hundreds of political journalists and compiled years’ worth of posts into a dossier.
Often when a particular news story is deemed especially unfair—or politically damaging—to the president, Don Jr. will flag it in a text thread that he uses for this purpose. (Among those who text regularly with the president’s eldest son, someone close to him told me, are the conservative activist Charlie Kirk; two GOP strategists, Sergio Gor and Arthur Schwartz; Matthew Boyle, a Breitbart editor; and U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.) Once a story has been marked for attack, someone searches the dossier for material on the journalists involved. If something useful turns up—a problematic old joke; evidence of liberal political views—Boyle turns it into a Breitbart headline, which White House officials and campaign surrogates can then share on social media. (The White House has denied any involvement in this effort.)
Descriptions of the dossier vary. One source I spoke with said that a programmer in India had been paid to organize it into a searchable database, making posts that contain offensive keywords easier to find. Another told me the dossier had expanded to at least 2,000 people, including not just journalists but high-profile academics, politicians, celebrities, and other potential Trump foes. Some of this, of course, may be hyperbolic boasting—but the effort has yielded fruit.
In the past year, the operatives involved have gone after journalists at CNN, TheWashington Post, and TheNew York Times. They exposed one reporter for using the word fag in college, and another for posting anti-Semitic and racist jokes a decade ago. These may not have been career-ending revelations, but people close to the project said they’re planning to unleash much more opposition research as the campaign intensifies. “This is innovative shit,” said Mike Cernovich, a right-wing activist with a history of trolling. “They’re appropriating call-out culture.”
What’s notable about this effort is not that it aims to expose media bias. Conservatives have been complaining—with some merit—about a liberal slant in the press for decades. But in the Trump era, an important shift has taken place. Instead of trying to reform the press, or critique its coverage, today’s most influential conservatives want to destroy the mainstream media altogether. “Journalistic integrity is dead,” Boyle declared in a 2017 speech at the Heritage Foundation. “There is no such thing anymore. So everything is about weaponization of information.”
It’s a lesson drawn from demagogues around the world: When the press as an institution is weakened, fact-based journalism becomes just one more drop in the daily deluge of content—no more or less credible than partisan propaganda. Relativism is the real goal of Trump’s assault on the press, and the more “enemies of the people” his allies can take out along the way, the better. “A culture war is a war,” Steve Bannon told the Times last year. “There are casualties in war.”
This attitude has permeated the president’s base. At rallies, people wear T-shirts that read rope. tree. journalist. some assembly required. A CBS News/YouGov poll has found that just 11 percent of strong Trump supporters trust the mainstream media—while 91 percent turn to the president for “accurate information.” This dynamic makes it all but impossible for the press to hold the president accountable, something Trump himself seems to understand. “Remember,” he told a crowd in 2018, “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”Bryan Lanza, who worked for the Trump campaign in 2016 and remains a White House surrogate, told me flatly that he sees no possibility of Americans establishing a common set of facts from which to conduct the big debates of this year’s election. Nor is that his goal. “It’s our job to sell our narrative louder than the media,” Lanza said. “They’re clearly advocating for a liberal-socialist position, and we’re never going to be in concert. So the war continues.”
Parscale has indicated that he plans to open up a new front in this war: local news. Last year, he said the campaign intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers. Polls have long found that Americans across the political spectrum trust local news more than national media. If the campaign has its way, that trust will be eroded by November. “We can actually build up and fight with the local newspapers,” Parscale told donors, according to a recording provided by ThePalm Beach Post. “So we’re not just fighting on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC with the same 700,000 people watching every day.”
According to one longtime strategist, candidates looking to plant a negative story about an opponent can pay to have their desired headlines posted on some of these Potemkin news sites. By working through a third-party consulting firm—instead of paying the sites directly—candidates are able to obscure their involvement in the scheme when they file expenditures to the Federal Election Commission. Even if the stories don’t fool savvy readers, the headlines are convincing enough to be flashed across the screen in a campaign commercial or slipped into fundraising emails.
DIGITAL DIRTY TRICKS
Shortly after polls closed in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election last November, an anonymous Twitter user named @Overlordkraken1 announced to his 19 followers that he had “just shredded a box of Republican mail in ballots” in Louisville.
The original post was removed by Twitter, but by then thousands of automated accounts were circulating screenshots of it with the hashtag #StoptheSteal. Popular right-wing internet personalities jumped on the narrative, and soon the Bevin campaign was making noise about unspecified voting “irregularities.” When the race was called for his opponent, the governor refused to concede, and asked for a statewide review of the vote. (No evidence of ballot-shredding was found, and he finally admitted defeat nine days later.)
The Election Night disinformation blitz had all the markings of a foreign influence operation. In 2016, Russian trolls had worked in similar ways to contaminate U.S. political discourse—posing as Black Lives Matter activists in an attempt to inflame racial divisions, and fanning pro-Trump conspiracy theories. (They even used Facebook to organize rallies, including one for Muslim supporters of Clinton in Washington, D.C., where they got someone to hold up a sign attributing a fictional quote to the candidate: “I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”)
But when Twitter employees later reviewed the activity surrounding Kentucky’s election, they concluded that the bots were largely based in America—a sign that political operatives here were learning to mimic Russian trolling tactics.Of course, dirty tricks aren’t new to American politics. From Lee Atwater and Roger Stone to the crooked machine Democrats of Chicago, the country has a long history of underhanded operatives smearing opponents and meddling in elections. And, in fact, Samuel Woolley, a scholar who studies digital propaganda, told me that the first documented deployment of politicized Twitter bots was in the U.S. In 2010, an Iowa-based conservative group set up a small network of automated accounts with names like @BrianD82 to promote the idea that Martha Coakley, a Democrat running for Senate in Massachusetts, was anti-Catholic.
Since then, the tactics of Twitter warfare have grown more sophisticated, as regimes around the world experiment with new ways to deploy their cybermilitias. In Mexico, supporters of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto created “sock puppet” accounts to pose as protesters and sabotage the opposition movement. In Azerbaijan, a pro-government youth group waged coordinated harassment campaigns against journalists, flooding their Twitter feeds with graphic threats and insults. When these techniques prove successful, Woolley told me, Americans improve upon them. “It’s almost as if there’s a Columbian exchange between developing-world authoritarian regimes and the West,” he said.
Parscale has denied that the campaign uses bots, saying in a 60 Minutes interview, “I don’t think [they] work.” He may be right—it’s unlikely that these nebulous networks of trolls and bots could swing a national election. But they do have their uses. They can simulate false consensus, derail sincere debate, and hound people out of the public square.
According to one study, bots accounted for roughly 20 percent of all the tweets posted about the 2016 election during one five-week period that year. And Twitter is already infested with bots that seem designed to boost Trump’s reelection prospects. Regardless of where they’re coming from, they have tremendous potential to divide, radicalize, and stoke hatred that lasts long after the votes are cast.Rob Flaherty, who served as the digital director for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, told me that Twitter in 2020 is a “hall of mirrors.” He said one mysterious account started a viral rumor that the gunman who killed seven people in Odessa, Texas, last summer had a beto bumper sticker on his car. Another masqueraded as an O’Rourke supporter and hurled racist invective at a journalist. Some of these tactics echoed 2016, when Russian agitators posed as Bernie Sanders supporters and stirred up anger toward Hillary Clinton.
Flaherty said he didn’t know who was behind the efforts targeting O’Rourke, and the candidate dropped out before they could make a real difference. “But you can’t watch this landscape and not get the feeling that someone’s fucking with something,” he told me. Flaherty has since joined Joe Biden’s campaign, which has had to contend with similar distortions: Last year, a website resembling an official Biden campaign page appeared on the internet. It emphasized elements of the candidate’s legislative record likely to hurt him in the Democratic primary—opposition to same-sex marriage, support for the Iraq War—and featured video clips of his awkward encounters with women. The site quickly became one of the most-visited Biden-related sites on the web. It was designed by a Trump consultant.
FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE
As the president’s reelection machine ramps up, Democratic strategists have found themselves debating an urgent question: Can they defeat the Trump coalition without adopting its tactics?
On one side of this argument is Dmitri Mehlhorn, a consultant notorious for his willingness to experiment with digital subterfuge. During Alabama’s special election in 2017, Mehlhorn helped fund at least two “false flag” operations against the Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore. For one scheme, faux Russian Twitter bots followed the candidate’s account to make it look like the Kremlin was backing Moore. For another, a fake social-media campaign, dubbed “Dry Alabama,” was designed to link Moore to fictional Baptist teetotalers trying to ban alcohol. (Mehlhorn has claimed that he is unaware of the Russian bot effortand does not support the use of misinformation.)
When TheNew York Timesuncovered the second plot, one of the activists involved, Matt Osborne, contended that Democrats had no choice but to employ such unscrupulous techniques. “If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Osborne said. “You have a moral imperative to do this—to do whatever it takes.”Others have argued that this is precisely the wrong moment for Democrats to start abandoning ideals of honesty and fairness. “It’s just not in my values to go out there making shit up and tricking voters,” Flaherty told me. “I know there’s this whole fight-fire-with-fire contingent, but generally when you ask them what they mean, they’re like, ‘Lie!’ ” Some also note that the president has already handed them plenty of ammunition. “I don’t think the Democratic campaign is going to need to make stuff up about Trump,” Judd Legum, the author of a progressive newsletter about digital politics, told me. “They can stick to things that are true.”
One Democrat straddling these two camps is a young, tech-savvy strategist named Tara McGowan. Last fall, she and the former Obama adviser David Plouffe launched a political-action committee with a pledge to spend $75 million attacking Trump online. At the time, the president’s campaign was running more ads on Facebook and Google than the top four Democratic candidates combined. McGowan’s plans to return fire included such ads, but she also had more creative—and controversial—measures in mind.
For example, she established a media organization with a staff of writers to produce left-leaning “hometown news” stories that can be micro-targeted to persuadable voters on Facebook without any indication that they’re paid for by a political group. Though she insists that the reporting is strictly factual, some see the enterprise as a too-close-for-comfort co-opting of right-wing tactics.
When I spoke with McGowan, she was open about her willingness to push boundaries that might make some Democrats queasy. As far as she was concerned, the “super-predator” ads Trump ran to depress black turnout in 2016 were “fair game” because they had some basis in fact. (Clinton did use the term in 1996, to refer to gang members.) McGowan suggested that a similar approach could be taken with conservatives. She ruled out attempts to misinform Republicans about when and where to vote—a tactic Mehlhorn reportedly considered, though he later said he was joking—but said she would pursue any strategy that was “in the bounds of the law.”“We are in a radically disruptive moment right now,” McGowan told me. “We have a president that lies every day, unabashedly … I think Trump is so desperate to win this election that he will do anything. There will be no bar too low for him.”
This intraparty split was highlighted last year when state officials urged the Democratic National Committee to formally disavow the use of bots, troll farms, and “deepfakes” (digitally manipulated videos that can, with alarming precision, make a person appear to do or say anything). Supporters saw the proposed pledge as a way of contrasting their party’s values with those of the GOP. But after months of lobbying, the committee refused to adopt the pledge.
Meanwhile, experts worried about domestic disinformation are looking to other countries for lessons. The most successful recent example may be Indonesia, which cracked down on the problem after a wave of viral lies and conspiracy theories pushed by hard-line Islamists led to the defeat of a popular Christian Chinese candidate for governor in 2016. To prevent a similar disruption in last year’s presidential election, a coalition of journalists from more than two dozen top Indonesian news outlets worked together to identify and debunk hoaxes before they gained traction online. But while that may sound like a promising model, it was paired with aggressive efforts by the state to monitor and arrest purveyors of fake news—an approach that would run afoul of the First Amendment if attempted in the U.S.
Richard Stengel, who served as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under President Obama, spent almost three years trying to counter digital propaganda from the Islamic State and Russia. By the time he left office, he told me, he was convinced that disinformation would continue to thrive until big tech companies were forced to take responsibility for it. Stengel has proposed amending the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields online platforms from liability for messages posted by third parties. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter, he believes, should be required by law to police their platforms for disinformation and abusive trolling. “It’s not going to solve the whole problem,” he told me, “but it’s going to help with volume.”
There is one other case study to consider. During the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, pro-democracy activists found that they could defang much of the false information about their movement by repeatedly exposing its Russian origins. But this kind of transparency comes with a cost, Stengel observed. Over time, alertness to the prevalence of propaganda can curdle into paranoia. Russian operatives have been known to encourage such anxiety by spreading rumors that exaggerate their own influence. Eventually, the fear of covert propaganda inflicts as much damage as the propaganda itself.
Once you internalize the possibility that you’re being manipulated by some hidden hand, nothing can be trusted. Every dissenting voice on Twitter becomes a Russian bot, every uncomfortable headline a false flag, every political development part of an ever-deepening conspiracy. By the time the information ecosystem collapses under the weight of all this cynicism, you’re too vigilant to notice that the disinformationists have won.
POWERS OF INCUMBENCY
If there’s one thing that can be said for Brad Parscale, it’s that he runs a tight ship. Unauthorized leaks from inside the campaign are rare; press stories on palace intrigue are virtually nonexistent. When the staff first moved into its new offices last year, journalists were periodically invited to tour the facility—but Parscale put an end to the practice: He didn’t want them glimpsing a scrap of paper or a whiteboard scribble that they weren’t supposed to see.
Notably, while the Trump White House has endured a seemingly endless procession of shake-ups, the Trump reelection campaign has seen very little turnover since Parscale took charge. His staying power is one reason many Republicans—inside the organization or out—hesitate to talk about him on the record. But among allies of the president, there appears to be a growing skepticism.
Former colleagues began noticing a change in Parscale after his promotion. Suddenly, the quiet guy with his face buried in a laptop was wearing designer suits, tossing out MAGA hats at campaign rallies, and traveling to Europe to speak at a political-marketing conference. In the past few years, Parscale has bought a BMW, a Range Rover, a condo, and a $2.4 million waterfront house in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “He knows he has the confidence of the family,” one former colleague told me, “which gives him more swagger.” When the U.K.’s Daily Mail ran a story spotlighting Parscale’s spending spree, he attempted deflection through flattery. “The president is an excellent businessman,” he told the tabloid, “and being associated with him for years has been extremely beneficial to my family.”
But according to a former White House official with knowledge of the incident, Trump was irritated by the coverage, and the impression it created that his campaign manager was getting rich off him. For a moment, Parscale’s standing appeared to be in peril, but then Trump’s attention was diverted by the G7 summit in France, and he never returned to the issue. (A spokesperson for the campaign disputed this account.)
Some Republicans worry that for all Parscale’s digital expertise, he doesn’t have the vision to guide Trump to reelection. The president is historically unpopular, and even in red states, he has struggled to mobilize his base for special elections. If Trump’s message is growing stale with voters, is Parscale the man to help overhaul it? “People start to ask the question—you’re building this apparatus, and that’s great, but what’s the overarching narrative?” said a former campaign staffer.
But whether Trump finds a new narrative or not, he has something this time around that he didn’t have in 2016—the powers of the presidency. While every commander in chief looks for ways to leverage his incumbency for reelection, Trump has shown that he’s willing to go much further than most. In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, he seized on reports of a migrant caravan traveling to the U.S. from Central America to claim that the southern border was facing a national-security crisis. Trump warned of a coming “invasion” and claimed, without evidence, that the caravan had been infiltrated by gang members.
Parscale aided this effort by creating a 30-second commercial that interspersed footage of Hispanic migrants with clips of a convicted cop-killer. The ad ended with an urgent call to action: stop the caravan. vote republican. In a final maneuver before the election, Trump dispatched U.S. troops to the border. The president insisted that the operation was necessary to keep America safe—but within weeks the troops were quietly called back, the “crisis” having apparently ended once votes were cast. Skeptics were left to wonder: If Trump is willing to militarize the border to pick up a few extra seats in the midterms, what will he and his supporters do when his reelection is on the line?
It doesn’t require an overactive imagination to envision a worst-case scenario: On Election Day, anonymous text messages direct voters to the wrong polling locations, or maybe even circulate rumors of security threats. Deepfakes of the Democratic nominee using racial slurs crop up faster than social-media platforms can remove them. As news outlets scramble to correct the inaccuracies, hordes of Twitter bots respond by smearing and threatening reporters. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has spent the final days of the race pumping out Facebook ads at such a high rate that no one can keep track of what they’re injecting into the bloodstream.
After the first round of exit polls is released, a mysteriously sourced video surfaces purporting to show undocumented immigrants at the ballot box. Trump begins retweeting rumors of voter fraud and suggests that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers should be dispatched to polling stations. are illegals stealing the election? reads the Fox News chyron. are russians behind false videos? demands MSNBC.
The votes haven’t even been counted yet, and much of the country is ready to throw out the result.
NOTHING IS TRUE
There is perhaps no better place to witness what the culture of disinformation has already wrought in America than a Trump campaign rally. One night in November, I navigated through a parking-lot maze of folding tables covered in MAGA merch and entered the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, Mississippi. The election was still a year away, but thousands of sign-waving supporters had crowded into the venue to cheer on the president in person.
Once Trump took the stage, he let loose a familiar flurry of lies, half-lies, hyperbole, and nonsense. He spun his revisionist history of the Ukraine scandal—the one in which Joe Biden is the villain—and claimed, falsely, that the Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams wanted to “give illegal aliens the right to vote.” At one point, during a riff on abortion, Trump casually asserted that “the governor of Virginia executed a baby”—prompting a woman in the crowd to scream, “Murderer!”
This incendiary fabrication didn’t seem to register with my companions in the press pen, who were busy writing stories and shooting B-roll. I opened Twitter, expecting to see a torrent of fact-checks laying out the truth of the case—that the governor had been answering a hypothetical question about late-term abortion; that a national firestorm had ensued; that there were certainly different ways to interpret his comments but that not even the most ardent anti-abortion activist thought the governor of Virginia had personally “executed a baby.”
But Twitter was uncharacteristically quiet (apparently the president had said this before), and the most widely shared tweet I found on the subject was from his own campaign, which had blasted out a context-free clip of the governor’s abortion comments to back up Trump’s smear.
After the rally, I loitered near one of the exits, chatting with people as they filed out of the arena. Among liberals, there is a comforting caricature of Trump supporters as gullible personality cultists who have been hypnotized into believing whatever their leader says. The appeal of this theory is the implication that the spell can be broken, that truth can still triumph over lies, that someday everything could go back to normal—if only these voters were exposed to the facts. But the people I spoke with in Tupelo seemed to treat matters of fact as beside the point.
One woman told me that, given the president’s accomplishments, she didn’t care if he “fabricates a little bit.” A man responded to my questions about Trump’s dishonest attacks on the press with a shrug and a suggestion that the media “ought to try telling the truth once in a while.” Tony Willnow, a 34-year-old maintenance worker who had an American flag wrapped around his head, observed that Trump had won because he said things no other politician would say. When I asked him if it mattered whether those things were true, he thought for a moment before answering. “He tells you what you want to hear,” Willnow said. “And I don’t know if it’s true or not—but it sounds good, so fuck it.”
The political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote that the most successful totalitarian leaders of the 20th century instilled in their followers “a mixture of gullibility and cynicism.” When they were lied to, they chose to believe it. When a lie was debunked, they claimed they’d known all along—and would then “admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” Over time, Arendt wrote, the onslaught of propaganda conditioned people to “believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Leaving the rally, I thought about Arendt, and the swaths of the country that are already gripped by the ethos she described. Should it prevail in 2020, the election’s legacy will be clear—not a choice between parties or candidates or policy platforms, but a referendum on reality itself.
This article appears in the March 2020 print edition with the headline “The 2020 Disinformation War.”
MCKAY COPPINS is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Wilderness, a book about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
In the middle of the 20th century, organized labor kept capital from capturing a larger share of the wealth that American industries were creating. In recent decades, the absence of a strong union presence has allowed the 1 percent to funnel that wealth upward uncontested. We can’t fully address this situation until we link the struggle against racism to the struggle for the right of all workers to union representation.To build the power needed to secure labor-law reform and an overhaul of trade policies, we need to integrate the labor movement into a broader coalition that includes civil-rights activists, women’s-rights groups, and faith-based organizations.A strong constituency for such a change certainly exists, although it has not fully coalesced. Recent polling shows that about 87 percent of low-wage black workers approve of labor unions, a level of support almost 20 percent higher than among white workers. When women of color make up three-quarters of the workforce, unions win representational elections at a rate of 82 percent, compared with 35 percent in places where white men make up the majority.
Many seemingly unrelated groups have already begun working together to forge a broader movement to build black worker power. Last September in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Institute for Policy Studies hosted “Black Workers Matter: Organize the South,” a conference that brought together several national labor unions, the NAACP, the Moral Mondays movement, Black Lives Matter, and other civil-rights and religious activists.As the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays movement, has pointed out, linking civil rights and worker rights hardly counts as a new idea. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the labor movement to invest heavily in worker organizing in the South, and the rallying cry at the March on Washington was “jobs and freedom.” To make black economic equality a real possibility in the 21st century, we need to infuse that idea with fresh energy.
The Democratic Party’s establishment is in denial about the ways in which concentrated riches are warping society and contributing to the disunity it seeks to heal.
” . . . Just as the 2008 recession ushered in the election of the first black president, a subsequent white backlash, and a rebirth of left-wing populism led by figures such as Warren and Sanders, the economic hardships of the late 1870s inspired both worker activism and racist retrenchment. In times of economic hardship, it was not a difficult matter to discredit Reconstruction as an attempt to raise ignorant black laborers above white men who were entrepreneurial, responsible, and refined. Nor was it difficult to justify government intervention on behalf of Big Business while condemning such intervention on behalf of workers. The rich, after all, had earned it, or they wouldn’t be rich.
Foner documents how former antislavery figures such as Horace White of the Chicago Tribune “condemned agrarian and labor organizations for initiating ‘a communistic war upon vested rights and property,’ and insisted that universal suffrage had ‘cheapened the ballot’ by throwing political power into the hands of those influenced by the ‘harangues of demagogues.’” Antislavery publications such as The Nation “linked the Northern poor and Southern freedmen as members of a dangerous new ‘proletariat’ as different ‘from the population by which the Republic was founded, as if they belonged to a foreign nation.’” With Reconstruction ended, capital took advantage of the stability of its aftermath to expand convict leasing, a new regime of forced labor that white southerners would impose to replace slavery and keep the region’s black labor force captive and subordinate. Big industries—lumber, railroads, mining, and others—would take eager advantage of this system of neo-slavery to boost their profit margins.
The end of Reconstruction coincided with the Republican retreat from civil rights. But that retreat was precipitated by deep-seated fears over workers in the North and South seeking labor reform, income redistribution, and regulation of industry. “The South sensed the willingness of Big Business, threatened by liberal revolt, labor upheaval and state interference, to make new alliance with organized Southern capital if assured that the tariff, banks and national debt, and above all, the new freedom of corporations, would not be subjected to mass attack,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America. “Such a double bargain was more than agreeable to Southern leaders.” Racism not only threatens democracy and prosperity; it accrues tremendous benefits for those already leading lives of plenty.
America’s political parties are now as polarized as they were at the end of Reconstruction. And just as at the end of Reconstruction, a multiracial party whose ranks include both frustrated workers and wealthy capitalists finds itself at a crossroads, with no certain options for healing the nation’s divides or its own. As ever, America’s gilded class regards the possibility of higher taxes and redistribution as a greater threat than a resurgent racist authoritarianism that imperils America’s still-young experiment in multiracial democracy. The latter, after all, does not jeopardize its profits.
Into this divide steps Patrick, a man who went from poverty on Chicago’s South Side to the heights of both business and politics, practically an avatar of the old free-labor ideal that animated the 19th-century Republican Party, an ideal whose blindness to how concentrations of wealth warp politics and society leaves it ill-equipped to deal with the threats to democracy and prosperity America currently faces. The paradox for Democrats is that the candidates who understand this appear less likely to prevail in the general election, and those who have yet to grasp it may be better positioned to unseat the president.
In Polarized America, Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal argue that economic inequality and polarization reinforce each other. Economic suffering and ideology foment anger toward minorities, who are blamed for that economic suffering. The very wealthy exploit those divisions to sustain their streams of income, which in turn makes it less likely that redistributive legislation addressing that economic suffering can be passed . . .”
The cliché is that Americans have a short memory, but since Saturday, a number of us have been arguing over medieval religious wars and whether they have any lessons for today’s violence in the Middle East.
For those still unaware, this debate comes after President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where—after condemning Islamic radical group ISIS as a “death cult”—he offered a moderating thought. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”
It’s a straightforward point—“no faith has a particular monopoly on religious arrogance”—that’s become a partisan flashpoint, as conservatives harangue the president for “equating” crusading Christians to Islamic radicals, accuse him of anti-Christian beliefs, and wonder why he would mention a centuries-old conflict, even if it has some analogies to the present day.
What we have missed in the argument over the Crusades, however, is Obama’s mention of slavery and Jim Crow. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts his focus on religious justifications for American bondage, and it’s worth doing the same for its post-bellum successor. And since we’re thinking in terms of religious violence, our eyes should turn toward the most brutal spectacle of Jim Crow’s reign, the lynching.
For most of the century between the two Reconstructions, the bulk of the white South condoned and sanctioned terrorist violence against black Americans. In a new report, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—between 1877 and 1950, which the group notes is “at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported.”
For his victims, “Judge Lynch”—journalist Ida B. Wells’ name for the lynch mob—was capricious, merciless, and barbaric. C.J. Miller, falsely accused of killing two teenaged white sisters in western Kentucky, was “dragged through the streets to a crude platform of old barrel staves and other kindling,” writes historian Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. His assailants hanged him from a telephone pole, and while “the first fall broke his neck … the body was repeatedly raised and lowered while the crowd peppered it with small-arms fire.” For two hours his corpse hung above the street, during which he was photographed and mutilated by onlookers. Finally, he was cut down and burned.
More savage was the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child, killed for protesting her husband’s murder. “[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” writes Dray, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”
These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy. “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” writes historian Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940. “It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”
The God of the white South demanded purity—embodied by the white woman. White southerners would build the barrier with segregation. But when it was breached, lynching was the way they would mend the fence and affirm their freedom from the moral contamination, represented by blacks and black men in particular. (Although, not limited to them. Leo Frank, lynched in 1915, was Jewish.) The perceived breach was frequently sexual, defined by the myth of the black rapist, a “demon” and “beast” who set out to defile the Christian purity of white womanhood. In his narrative of the lynching of Henry Smith—killed for the alleged rape and murder of 3-year-old Myrtle Vance—writer P.L. James recounted how the energy of an entire city and country was turned toward the apprehension of the demon who had devastated a home and polluted an innocent life.”
James wasn’t alone. Many other defenders of lynching understood their acts as a Christian duty, consecrated as God’s will against racial transgression. “After Smith’s lynching,” Wood notes, “another defender wrote, ‘It was nothing but the vengeance of an outraged God, meted out to him, through the instrumentality of the people that caused the cremation.’ ” As UNC–Chapel Hill Professor Emeritus Donald G. Mathews writes in the Journal of Southern Religion, “Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness.” The “sacred order” was white supremacy and the “holiness” was white virtue.
I should emphasize that blacks of the era understood lynching as rooted in the Christian practice of white southerners. “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,” wrote NAACP leader Walter White in 1929, “No person who is familiar with the Bible-beating, acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire in the South, and who has seen the orgies of emotion created by them, can doubt for a moment that dangerous passions are released which contribute to emotional instability and play a part in lynching.” And while some church leaders condemned the practice as contrary to the Gospel of Christ—“Religion and lynching; Christianity and crushing, burning and blessing, savagery and national sanity cannot go together in this country,” declared one 1904 editorial—the overwhelming consent of the white South confirmed White’s view.
The only Southern Christianity united in its opposition to lynching was that of black Americans, who tried to recontextualize the onslaught as a kind of crucifixion and its victims as martyrs, flipping the script and making blacks the true inheritors of Christian salvation and redemption. It’s that last point which should highlight how none of this was intrinsic to Christianity: It was a question of power, and of the need of the powerful to sanctify their actions.
Still, we can’t deny that lynching—in all of its grotesque brutality—was an act of religious significance justified by the Christianity of the day. It was also political: an act of terror and social control, and the province of private citizens, public officials, and powerful lawmakers. Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina defended lynching on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and President Woodrow Wilson applauded a film that celebrated Judge Lynch and his disciples.
Which is all to say that President Obama was right. The vastly different environments of pre–civil rights America and the modern-day Middle East belies the substantive similarities between the fairly recent religious violence of our white supremacist forebears and that of our contemporary enemies. And the present divide between moderate Muslims and their fanatical opponents has an analogue in our past divide between northern Christianity and its southern counterpart.
This isn’t relativism as much as it’s a clear-eyed view of our common vulnerability, of the truth that the seeds of violence and autocracy can sprout anywhere, and of the fact that our present position on the moral high ground isn’t evidence of some intrinsic superiority.
Inside the “Most Incarcerated” Zip Code in the Country 53206, a heavily African American neighborhood north of downtown Milwaukee, suffers from all manner of ills—not least of which are the myths of criminality that continue to surround it.
Robinson’s family came to Milwaukee from Chicago in the 1980s because, as Robinson put it, “Chicago was getting out of pocket.” With crime rising and jobs disappearing in the Windy City, she told me, “my mom wanted a better place for us to live.” But Robinson’s mother could never have anticipated the crucibles awaiting her daughter in Wisconsin—the array of social and political deficits associated with the five numbers that came at the end of her listed address: 53206, now notoriously known as the most incarcerated zip code in the country.
The neighborhood’s rectangular outline sits like a brick just north of the Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in downtown Milwaukee, where the 2020 Democratic National Convention will be held next summer. In addition to its high incarceration rates, 53206, a heavily African American district, suffers from every manner of social ill, from socioeconomic stagnation to poor health. The Democratic primary field is teeming with proposals to address these ingrained injustices, and the party’s eventual candidate will also have a personal incentive to pay attention to what is happening in 53206: Its residents, among others in Milwaukee, may well prove to be the key to Democrats’ hopes of winning the battleground state of Wisconsin and unseating Donald Trump in the presidential election.
As long as those residents can gain access to the ballot, that is.African Americans represent nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee’s population, but their political clout has been diminished by laws that suppress the black vote. There is also the problem of African Americans choosing not to vote: Black turnout in Wisconsin dropped nearly 19 percent between the 2012 to the 2016 elections—a clear sign that, despite their historic need to mobilize black voters, Democrats haven’t been meeting the challenge especially well of late.