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Editorial: Senator’s ‘white nationalist’ gaffe gets at a wider problem within the GOP



It was in August of 2017 that then-President Donald Trump, speaking after a deadly showdown between avowed white supremacists and anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, shocked the nation by blithely declaring that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict.

It wasn’t that most Americans were so naïve as to believe racism no longer infected the national bloodstream, even at the top levels of politics. But it was nonetheless jolting to hear a sitting president publicly offer anything other than the unequivocal condemnation that the “Unite the Right” rally of tiki-torch-carrying racists so clearly called for. It was a profound break with 21st-century political norms that required national leaders to at least talk the talk of anti-racism to remain viable to mainstream America.

For a measure of just how much those norms have further eroded in the half-dozen years since Charlottesville, consider recent comments by Sen. Tommy Tuberville. In a radio interview in May, the Alabama Republican accused Democrats of “attacking our military, saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists.”

When asked whether white nationalists should be allowed in the military, Tuberville answered: “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans.”

He doubled down in a CNN interview Monday. “My opinion of a white nationalist — if somebody wants to call them a white nationalist — to me, is an American,” he said, adding: “Now, if that white nationalist is a racist? I’m totally against anything that they want to do, because I am 110 percent against racism.”

For the record, white nationalism is racism. It’s the dictionary definition of the term, as Tuberville himself finally acknowledged in backtracking on his comments a day later.

Tuberville’s original comments came during a discussion about his hold on Pentagon appointments in protest of the military policy of helping troops travel out of states with abortion bans to obtain abortion services.

That’s a genuine debate, but Tuberville’s adjacent complaint that the military is forcing “CRT” (critical race theory) on the troops is as fabricated as when Republican politicians around the country allege it’s going on in classrooms. It simply isn’t happening. But the party has figured out that just warning over and over again that white kids are being exposed to discussions about race pushes a useful button with the base.

There are other buttons. “Woke,” the GOP’s bogeyman-du-jour, is a word that originated in Black culture to describe vigilance against racism. It’s unlikely there’s a serious Republican politician in America today who would publicly define it that way as they disparage the word — but its definition has become so conveniently squishy that they don’t have to. “Woke” can mean any ominous thing right-wing voters want it to mean, and it’s clear that many define it in racial terms.

Sitting members of Congress such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona openly consort with overtly racist activists such as white nationalist organizer Nick Fuentes, and pay no price within the party.

Red-state legislatures around the country are busily reshuffling their election laws to disenfranchise urban (read: Black) voters.

The GOP’s current presidential frontrunner is a former president who was more openly racist in office than any predecessor in the modern era. (Remember his advice to American-born congresswomen of color that they “go back” to the “crime-infested places from which they came”?)

None of this is to deny that progressives today are often too quick to allege racist motives in their opponents. Loosely throwing around such a serious charge shuts down constructive debate and becomes counterproductive for progressives themselves in a boy-cries-wolf kind of way.

But it would take bedsheet-sized blinders to fail to see that racial tension truly is being leveraged within broad swaths of the GOP today more cynically than probably at any time since Richard Nixon’s infamous “southern strategy.” It’s unbecoming of the party of Lincoln, and Republicans of conscience should be calling it out at every turn.

— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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