If you’ve been paying attention to the Presidential race, you’ve probably noticed a couple of things: Trump’s tiny kitten paws with the delicate macaroni nubs he calls fingers.
But after that, you’ve probably noticed a couple more things:
- The GOP rhetoric — particularly but by no means exclusively Trump’s — has gotten incredibly racist.
- Conservatives go into defensive rage fugues when that racism is pointed out.
The reason for the first part of that equation is that Republicans have been pursuing the Southern Strategy (pick up racist white people under the assumption that they’ll outweigh everyone else) since 1964 and they can’t or won’t let it go. That’s partly because they’re afraid to let go of a strategy that has undeniably worked in the past, even as demographics, thank goodness, are rapidly making it unworkable. They’re also worried that retooling will mean a) a few years of definitely losing while they figure out what the party is about, b) going even harder into crazy angry Evangelical/Dominionist territory just as the nation is noticing that The Gays don’t actually cause hellfire to rain from the sky and do make excellent brunches and popular entertainment, and/or c) having everyone notice that Republicanism quietly shifted from bedrock conservatism to becoming a vehicle to take crazy fiscal risks in order to keep shoveling money up to the already-rich. Which, when it finally gets all laid out, is going to be a bit of a tough sell.
Another problem with dropping the Southern Strategy, of course, is that in the process of courting white racists over the last half-century, the Republican party has, in fact, picked up a bunch of white racists, and those guys like the court-the-racists plan just fine. (This also applies to the hardcore religious anti-LGBT bigots that the Republicans have been courting since the 70s, and whom GOP is just now beginning to notice may be a problem as well.)
But why do all of these bigots to have so much trouble realizing that they’re bigots?
Yes, the Stormfront and KKK creeps know they’re racists and are monstrously proud of it, but what about the others? Why do they spend so much time insisting that they have nothing but love in their hearts as they’re calling for a giant wall and screaming to ban Muslims?
Some of it is cynical optics, yes, but there is, in fact, some genuine hurt (and defensiveness, and then more hurt) that comes up when you point out the party’s increasingly obvious festering bigotry, no matter how delicately you do so. What’s the deal?
I submit that a lot of it has to do with ‘70s and ‘80s sitcoms.
Back when TV writers and producers occasionally tried to Make Things Better, they waited until the 70s when there was enough weight on the side of racism being bad to get it past the networks and then did their best to help out by making television that posited that bigotry is something we must all stand against.
But, as you’ve doubtless noticed, the public at large is pretty terrible with subtlety. Archie Bunker of All in the Family was created to say overtly bigoted things to show everyone how obviously, comically awful bigotry is. Instead, he was embraced by the American heartland for his bold and refreshing honestly. Sound familiar? Perhaps Trump should bring the term “dingbat” back into play. (Nobody tell him that idea.)
And the episodic format of television was problematic. Since the writers wanted to project an overall message that prejudice is bad to a public that they couldn’t depend on to be patient or nuanced, they couldn’t risk working with complex characters who gradually showed the rotting core of bigotry over the course of a season. One episode, taken out of context, might inadvertently suggest that racism is OK or that the racist in question was basically an OK guy which maybe meant he had a legitimate point of view, which would be hurtful to some audiences and precisely the wrong kind of reinforcement to others.
So what we ended up with were in line with Very Special Episodes, only with racists stopping in for a visit instead of drugs. The shows hit hard and fast to make sure we knew that racists are awful in every possible way, and everyone agreed on that.
Sitcom racists never held back on a terrible thought and frequently abused their wives and children as well. They were mean, dumb, and hurt everyone in their paths. Sometimes they had sudden revelations about how wrong they had been just before the end credits, and sometimes they didn’t. But the important thing was that the beloved main characters always learned that prejudice is wrong. It wasn’t usually a finesse move, but it was supremely well-intentioned.
And, as a broad attempt to change the culture, sitcoms did OK with spreading the ideas that good people are not bigots and that bigots are completely and unreservedly awful, so don’t be one.
The problem with that is that almost nobody sees himself as even a complex bad guy, let alone as someone who’s completely and unreservedly and simplistically awful. And, while there definitely are plenty of mean, dumb, abusive bigots, the majority of them—many of the ones we kept seeing during RNC week—aren’t so much consciously dedicated to racism as they are frightened and misinformed and screwing up hard. And they genuinely do go home and do their best to be good to their families and think of themselves as people who just support an abstract fairness to everyone, not as people who are refusing to listen to perfectly reasonable requests by black citizens to not be shot quite so much at routine traffic stops. Even though they are those people.
The quiet definitely-not-a-bigot bigots don’t recognize themselves in those sitcom racists. Or at least they can think of reasons why they shouldn’t, because sitcom racists are terrible in every way. And that becomes a problem when it comes to trying to talk about real-life prejudice: Since these real-life bigots are not terrible in every way, they can draw the conclusion that they are not bigots, and thus the things they do and think cannot be bigoted.
And the cynics of the Republican party—Paul Ryan and the Fox News guys—have spotted both the latent bigotry and the need for an intellectual out, and they foster both. Which is why you hear the oddly ‘90s railing against “political correctness” again, because if liberals are being PC police, they’re the ones to blame for being overly sensitive, not you for cheering when Trump says Mexican immigrants are rapists. (Which he didn’t even mean that way, and besides, he’s just bold and unfettered and honest, right?)
It’s why you heard the Obama administration called “arrogant” so many times during the Republican convention. Because a lot of people in today’s GOP are very uncomfortable with a black guy being in charge. It’s hard to place, but it makes them feel anxious. It definitely doesn’t feel like that “great” America they’re trying to get back to. A sitcom racist would call Obama “uppity,” but they’re not those square, mean sitcom racists and they’re not saying that. They’re just saying “arrogant,” which is a perfectly normal thing to be resentful of, and plausibly has nothing to do with President Obama being a black man. I mean certainly. Not plausibly, certainly.
The open racists know what “arrogant” is code for and hear it as such right in the front of their minds. But a lot of people in the GOP really would prefer to tell themselves there isn’t a code because they know that people who say and think “uppity” by definition aren’t nice, and they don’t like the connection to that sitcom guy. And they can’t be a person like that sitcom guy, because didn’t they just run the church rummage sale and give Kaylen the nicest birthday party last week?
And thus you have the parade of Republicans who with a weird, contorted form of sincerity tell you that they love the trans folk whom they are trying to keep from ever being able to pee in a public bathroom. And who whine that it’s unjust to call them callous and bigoted for blocking Syrian refugees or hateful for opposing gay marriage. It’s not hate or fear or racism, they’ll say, it’s just respect for tradition or a reasonable concern about terrorism or a deep conviction that potential molesters have been holding back all this time, just waiting for a legal loophole so they can dress up as women and go charging into public bathrooms.
If you’re working under the assumption that nothing you and Trump and your party do is racist, it does put you in a place that’s soothingly free of self-examination. In that context, accusations of bigotry are just a cudgel that the left wields to try to embarrass you and win the news cycle. That’s why you’ll hear many conservatives assert that calling someone a racist is worse than actually being a racist.
Yes, it takes some serious mental gymnastics, and yes, that furious knee-jerk defensiveness happens because that twinge of uncomfortable recognition is there, way deep down. You can see the little bit of panic and backward scramble before the shields go up. The fact that the dangers that they (wrongly) think their loved ones need protecting from tend to be nonwhite people and Muslim people and LGBT people does seem to occasionally give pause… because it might make them look sort of like one of those sitcom bigots. And that’s worrying to the point of lashing out.
So what do we do? There is a sickening, terrifying wave of bigotry and actual steps toward fascism sweeping both the U.S. and Europe. The fact that a demagogue who has singled out a religion for fear and scapegoating is positioned to take power in the U.S. should be scaring the piss out of every last one of us, but we can’t speak the name of the problem without immediately shutting people’s ears. We have a huge national problem with racism, both plain and institutionalized, but we can’t try to talk about it without people screaming that it’s the people who try to talk about race who are racists. And we’re still being reminded of how much love and tolerance is fueling the vicious legislative LGBT backlash.
We need to invent a new word.
The nation knows that bigotry is bad. It knows it so thoroughly and in such a harsh, binary way that only the Stormfront creeps will admit to even the possibility of it, which is not productive.
So let’s invent our own “arrogance” dodge to talk about bigotry. A new word that connotes “something concerning that should be discussed but is definitely the result of good people perhaps being a teensy bit misled but, nevertheless, we seriously need to discuss this.” Which will be frustrating and tongue-biting and JESUS CHRIST, WILL YOU JUST QUIT BEING ANGRY FEARBALLS FOR TEN MINUTES, but it might at least create a space to start talking again. We need something something cute and nonthreatening yet official sounding. Snorfulence? Let’s work from there.