It has become increasingly clear to me after the tragedy of Charlottesville, Va., that Donald Trump not only has no interest in being president of the entire country but also is specifically tailoring his so-called presidency to the white racial-grievance apparatus.
This week he reinforced his racial rhetoric, appealing to loss of history and heritage. He defended Confederate monuments and mocked those who agreed to remove them. He tried to rewrite his own history of standing up for white supremacists.
This is the man we have: one who doesn’t want to lead a country but wants to rule a tribe.
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Most of the people who support him are just fine with his approach and behavior. These people baffle the throngs who see a man unfit for office and possibly inching closer to diagnosable insanity.
But I think that if people want to understand what is happening here, to understand why Trump’s support is so strong in some quarters, we need to broaden the scope of inquiry beyond just the Rust Belt states that he won by razor-thin margins and beyond border states where the wall would have great impact.
We also need to look at Southern states that he carried by enormous margins. We have to look at states like Alabama.
In doing so, we have to examine the history of Alabama and see how white supremacy tracks across time and culminates with Trump.
The original capital of the Confederacy was in Montgomery, Alabama. Of course, the South lost and Reconstruction commenced. But Alabama was divided between the anti-secession populists of the north and the counties in the south, as the Journal of Negro History pointed out in a 1949 article titled “Populism and Disfranchisement in Alabama.” After two elections for governors in which the populists did surprisingly well, coming within striking distance of winning, the flaming racist Democrats (that was the party of racists then) called a constitutional convention in 1901 with the express purpose of using the threat of the black vote – “Negro domination” was a phrase used – to make sure that the populists never had a chance again.
This to me was the most striking passage from the article:
“The Democratic State Executive Committee met in Montgomery on April 19 for the purpose of getting reports from the field and to brief candidates for delegates to the proposed convention. Emmet O'Neal, later to become governor of the state, stated that ‘the paramount purpose of the constitutional convention is to lay deep and strong and permanent in the fundamental law of the State the foundation of white supremacy forever in Alabama, and that we ought to go before the people on that issue and not suggest other questions on which we differ.’ Candidate Thomas J. Long, from Walker County, reminded his fellow candidates that ‘the way to win the fight is to go to the mountain counties and talk white supremacy … I don’t believe it is good policy to go up in the hills and tell them that Booker Washington or Councill or anybody else is allowed to vote because they are educated. The minute you do that every white man who is not educated is disfranchised on the same proposition.”
Does this sound familiar? It’s the racial anxiety, divide-and-conquer tactics perpetually used on poor whites to persuade them to vote against their economic interests and for some mythological racial interest: You may be poor, but at least you’re not black. You should have advantage even over people more qualified than you. The lines are legion.
Almost 60 years after this constitutional convention, Alabama became ground zero for the civil rights movement. It is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. It is the place where the soil was soaked on Bloody Sunday. It is where the four little girls were killed in the church bombing. It is where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” It was the home of Bull Connor.
Alabama was the battlefield on which the war over race was fought, and to a disturbing degree, that remains the case.
After Congress finally passed a bill making King’s birthday a federal holiday in 1983, Alabama was one of three states to take the outrageous step of combining King Day with Robert E. Lee Day. That’s right: Alabama celebrates these two divergent historical figures on the same day.
The landmark 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision in which the Supreme Court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed to combat racial discrimination at the polls, was about Alabama.
Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that “our country has changed,” but in their dissenting opinion in the case, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan pointed to recordings from an FBI investigation that “captured conversations between members of the state legislature and their political allies.” They continued: “Members of the state Senate derisively refer to African-Americans as ‘Aborigines’ and talk openly of their aim to quash a particular gambling-related referendum because the referendum, if placed on the ballot, might increase African-American voter turnout.”
In 2014, a voter ID law passed in 2011 went into effect in Alabama. The law required student, tribal or state-issued IDs – including Alabama driver’s licenses or nondriver ID cards issued by the Alabama Department of Motor Vehicles – in order to vote.
The very next year, Alabama moved to close 31 driver’s license offices, disproportionately in black areas. As The Birmingham News/AL.com columnist John Archibald pointed out at the time:
“Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver’s license office closed. Every one.”
Furthermore, CNN’s KFile reported this week that former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the leading candidate to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, is a birther who has continuously questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship, including doing so “three months after then-Republican nominee Donald Trump conceded that Obama was born in the U.S. after pushing the racially charged birther conspiracy for years.”
(Interestingly, Moore was not the candidate Trump supported in the primaries to fill the seat.)
Feelings about Obama’s birth and religion are important because as Philip Klinkner, a Hamilton College professor, wrote in Vox before the election:
“You can ask just one simple question to find out whether someone likes Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton: Is Barack Obama a Muslim? If they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.”
As AL.com reported roughly a month before the election:
“Trump, according to the odds on ESPN-owned FiveThirtyEight.com, is polling strongest in Alabama compared to any other state in the U.S. The website’s latest forecasts, updated on Monday, place Trump’s odds of winning Alabama at 99.5 percent, which is better than all other deep red states: Mississippi (94.3 percent), Oklahoma (99.2 percent), Idaho (98.8 percent), Arkansas (97.9 percent) and West Virginia (98.9 percent).”
Indeed, Trump did exceedingly well in the state, with Alabama being one of the top 10 states where he won by the biggest margins. After the election, AL.com called Trump “the king of Alabama” and pointed out:
“The Republican president-elect, according to uncertified final numbers, defeated Democrat challenger Hillary Clinton by a 28.3 percent differential, the largest margin of victory in a presidential race held within the state since 1972.”
The site added, “Trump’s overall vote totals in Alabama also set an all-time high.”
Just this year, after New Orleans took down some Confederate monuments, Alabama passed a law prohibiting the removal of monuments in the state.
If you want to know why Trump resonates with his base, look no farther than Alabama. When you want to know to whom Trump is appealing with his unhinged racial rants, look no farther than Alabama.
As goes Alabama, so goes Trump’s America.