In 2015, then Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison predicted on ABC’s Sunday program “This Week” that if Republicans were not careful, Donald Trump would become that party’s presidential nominee
This bit of political realism was met with derisive laughter by the show’s host, George Stephanopoulos, and the other guests. And herein lay the first major clue of the downward spiral of American democracy that would follow for the next four years and beyond.
The laughter of everyone on that panel, except Ellison, came from white people. The reason for their laughter was their refusal to see America for what it is. Like most white Americans, they refused to recognize the degree of racial hatred that has simmered below the surface of our society for decades.
White people are not required to recognize the dangerous rot that is white supremacy and systemic racism in America. But for people of color, being able to recognize and avoid or deflect these phenomena is a matter of survival, and all too often, literally a matter of life and death.
Keith Ellison, like many people of color in this country, saw the appeal Donald Trump held for millions of white Americans. Trump, an unabashed racist, constantly and loudly blew dog whistles of bigotry, and his name became the rallying cry for white grievance politics.
To a certain segment of white America emerging from the confusing eight years of a Black presidency, Trump was the medicine they needed to relieve them of their perceived assault on whiteness. Whiteness had always been their castle keep, that last line of defense to protect their sense of self-worth. They believed in their hearts that if all else failed them, at least they were white – and that gave them worth. But the very existence of the Obama presidency threatened to shatter that last line of defense because a Black man had reached the highest position of power and esteem in the nation – something most white men had failed to do. At first, attempts were made to separate Obama from his blackness, and white supremacists clung to his white mother like castaways clinging to one of the few pieces of flotsam after the capsizing of their pleasure cruiser. But eventually, this effort was abandoned, and Obama was labeled as a foreign born, illegitimate interloper.
With this white discontent stirring, Donald Trump stepped forward, claiming to have proof that Obama was not born in the United States and making highly charged attacks against the Black president and his administration. In Trump, white supremacists found not only their rescuer, but one who also would right their whites-only ship of state so that they could continue their dominance.
Donald Trump was so strident in his racism and misogyny and presented his unethical and antisocial behavior so brazenly that many people came to believe he was an aberration poisoning the well of democracy in this country. But the truth is, Donald Trump is a product of today’s hate-filled America, not the creator of it.
The people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were wound up and emboldened by Trump, but the sentiments that led them to attack the seat of democracy had been stewing for years. And now, whipped up into a lather and tasting blood, this segment of American society intends to press its attack on everything they consider to be “un-American.” These people have targeted Critical Race Theory and a woman’s right to an abortion They also are targeting immigrants, liberals and their institutions, people of color and their cultures and anything that is contrary to the mid-20th century notion of a white, male dominated America.
And as these hate-fueled Trump supporters run amuck across the country, political leaders are either enabling them for the sake of their own personal ideology or a hoped-for political benefit, or they are standing aside, clucking their tongues and assuring a horrified public that things are not as bad as they seem and will work out in the end.
Facing the dire consequences of inaction, it is the time for the people to act. We must tell self-serving and timid politicians that enough is enough. If the majority of people in this country believe in justice and the right of all people to live with dignity and the ability to live the best lives that they can without infringing upon their neighbors’ ability to do the same, then it is time we stand and be counted among the brave and the just. The level of vitriol is rising in this country, and it will not go away on its own. Positive action is required to turn this tide.
It is time to stop underestimating these dangerous people. The federal government, under the current Biden Administration, acknowledges that white supremacists and the militia groups they spawn are the top national security threats, but these extremists are finding friends in the state and federal legislatures, executive mansions and courts. The arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but the current trend of American politics is bending towards enabling racists, misogynists and xenophobes while strangling the rights of anyone who does not fit easily into their narrative of America.
It is time to get serious. We must get rid of weak, ineffective politicians whose only answer to our grievances is for us to vote for them and return them to offices where they have done so little for so long. A politician who tells us to vote and do nothing more is akin to the preacher who tells us to pray and do nothing more. It has been said that prayer without action is no prayer at all. And voting without action is no vote at all. If we do not take action to create the society we want, we have not only the politicians to blame – we must also blame ourselves.
As people who call this country our home, it is impossible for us to simply be witnesses. We must either be activists, or we will victims. We can no longer wait to decide which we will be.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.