Remember in The Untouchables, the Brian De Palma film, how whenever the good guys discovered some new nefarious thing Al Capone had done, Malone (Sean Connery) would stare at Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and ask: “And what are you prepared to do about it?”
That’s the question now for the Democrats, about Donald Trump’s racism. What are they prepared to do about it?
The Democratic Party I’ve watched over the last 25 or so years would conclude: Do nothing. Let Trump damage himself. And let’s not touch race. It’s a third rail.
No, not this time. This is too much. The President of the United States is a racist. It’s beyond dispute. It’s been beyond dispute for years, of course, but after those Sunday morning tweets, and his astonishing doubling-down on them on Monday, when he said that the four congresswomen of the Squad “hate our country—they hate it with a passion,” it is way beyond dispute.
The President of the United States is a racist. And the Democrats need to make it an issue. They need to attack him as a racist. They need to nail every Republican to the wall. They need to make this an issue in 2020. If they don’t play hardball here, they will lose.
Trump’s ploy is obvious. He wants to make this about AOC, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib. Make them the face of the Democratic Party, and make people believe they’re “communists,” as both he and Lindsey Graham said Monday, echoing some of the most disgusting demagoguery this country has ever known.
That’s what Trump wants. And if the Democrats don’t answer it, they will lose. If they leave it to the Squad to defend themselves, as they gamely attempted to do Monday evening, not only will the four of them be ostracized—but Democrats, the whole party, will lose. This can’t just be Donald Trump vs. The Squad. It has to be Donald Trump vs. the entire unified Democratic Party, and it can’t be about the four of them, it has to be about him.
It is his racism that’s the issue. People were shocked that Ilhan Omar used the words “pussy” and “shithole” at the Squad’s Monday evening press conference. No—they’re not her words. Don’t be shocked at her. They’re the words of the President of the United States. Be shocked at him.
I hope the Democrats are up to this fight. Some will point to history to say this issue isn’t “a winner” for us—and from a cold-blooded political perspective, they won’t be entirely wrong. The sick reality is that racial demagogues usually win. Richard Nixon invented the Southern Strategy in 1968, to get white Southerners to ditch a century of loyalty to Democrats and vote Republican. It worked. He won. George Wallace carried the deep South states, but Nixon won Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Florida. No Republican had ever won those five states.
Ronald Reagan gave a major 1980 campaign speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, near where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered 16 years before. He said: “I believe in states’ rights.” He won. Not solely because of that, obviously. But it was a huge moment. Impossible to miss the point of it.
You know the history. Lee Atwater, Willie Horton, all the rest. But here’s the key thing. As the name “Southern Strategy” makes clear, making racist arguments and using racist euphemisms (“law and order”) was just that—a strategy.
But with Trump, it’s no strategy, and it’s not just about the South. It’s the essence of who he is—a hateful, toxic man who fancies himself a totalitarian leader of an all-white cult. That’s a big difference. Nixon and the others were being cynical to win elections. Trump isn’t being cynical. Trump believes he is saving the white race, and he’s gotten millions of Americans to buy into it in an almost mystical sort of way. He is their savior. That’s much more dangerous to democracy than cynicism.
So, what are the Democrats prepared to do?
They need to make Trump’s racism a core issue for two reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do. This is one of those moments when history is standing there watching. Racial poison is the worst kind of poison there is in this country, and the highest office-holder in the land is spreading it everywhere. You can’t just make the normal political calculations about that.
The second reason is that today, it can work. Racial demagogues have usually won in the past. But it’s a different country now. Yes, there are a lot of racists out there, and that’s who Trump is playing to. They love these tweets, they love him saying the Squad hates America, they get off on seeing brown children sleeping in cages, and all the rest of it.
But millions of other Americans, including I think many millions of white Americans, must be sickened by this. They don’t have to like AOC and Ilhan Omar or agree with them. But it’s just unacceptable that a president would behave like this.
Trump will keep at this. He’ll say more and more twisted things. Democrats will need to respond with outrage, yes, and with pressure on Republicans; but they must also set a different example for voters of what it means to be an American. AOC did this very effectively Monday evening. The other three were perfectly fine, and their denunciations of Trump were on point. But AOC began her time at the podium to talk about visiting Washington as a little girl. Her father, she said, “had me look at the Washington Monument, and he had me look at the Capitol… He said, ‘This belongs to all of us. This belongs to you and me.’”
The Democrats are coming off a week of horrible feuding. I hope now they all see the stakes of division. Pelosi’s decision to have a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks is a good start. Now let’s hear the presidential contenders weigh in with more than tweets.
If Democrats stand together here, and stand for their core principles, I feel certain that 51 percent of the American people will stand with them. Most people do not want a president who is a racist. The Democrats’ job is to not let them forget that.