Nostalgia for an idyllic past that never really existed has been a powerful force in American politics. Republicans have known this for a long time. That’s why they keep promising to magically return to 1950s "Beaver Cleaver" America where happy white families lived in houses behind white picket fences surrounded by people exactly like themselves without all different kinds of people changing everything all the time.
Suddenly Democrats have discovered the political power of nostalgia as well, only theirs is a nostalgia for the America that really did exist until Donald Trump became president two-and-a-half years ago. It wasn’t perfect, but most Americans believed their country at least aspired to be not only a great country, but a decent one. It sure didn’t openly encourage Klansmen and neo-Nazis to march in its streets with flaming torches chanting hateful slogans.
Two days of rioting in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 by the largest gathering in modern history of armed, violent, right-wing, racist fringe groups ended with the killing of a young woman and scores of serious injuries. Powerful, frightening images of savage beatings in the streets with Nazi flagpoles were the centerpiece of former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry into the race for president. Every Democratic candidate offers some variation of the same message about the absolute necessity of restoring human decency to the American presidency.
Biden said when Trump claimed there were “some very fine people on both sides” — those spreading violent racial hatred and those protesting against it — “in that moment I knew the threat to our nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
Trump’s response to Biden once again revealed his determination never to alienate the violent, un-American, white supremacists who have become an important part of his political base. In their terrifying night march onto the University of Virginia campus carrying torches, they didn’t just chant “Jews will not replace us!” and “Into the ovens!” They also chanted: “Hail Trump!”
Trump continues to mischaracterize those who descended upon Charlottesville. In an interview on right-wing radio, Trump declared: “Many of those people were from the University of Virginia. They were from all around the neighborhood and the area … There were a lot of good people in that group.”
No, there weren’t. Local residents were overwhelmingly the victims of that violent invasion including Heather Heyer, who was killed, and 19 others seriously injured when James Fields, Jr., a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi from Ohio, drove his speeding car into a crowd.
Only two organizers connected to the two days of violence were known ever to have attended UVA. One was Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi who organized a Washington celebration weeks after Trump’s election featuring stiff-arm Nazi salutes and Spencer shouting: “Let’s party like it’s 1933!” The other was Jason Kessler, the local permit holder for the “Unite the Right” rally. Kessler invited hate groups from around the country including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. UVA students protesting the march onto their campus were injured when the marchers began swinging fiery torches at them. Those arrested for violence came from as far away as California and Oregon.
Returning to the time before the nation’s president would publicly praise the “very fine people” participating in such violent, ugly events will be a powerful motivation for every decent American to vote in the 2020 presidential election, not just Democrats.
Most elected Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House are too cowardly to call out Trump’s intentional pandering to the most disgusting racist fringe groups. The party has depended on racist votes to win elections ever since Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy won over Southern white Democrats alienated by their former party’s support for civil rights. But many decent, well-educated Republican voters are still capable of shame.
Trump’s open appeals to racists are more publicly embarrassing than the subtle Republican code words of the past. Respectable Republicans today hate being associated with David Duke, the aging former Imperial Wizard of the KKK who was in Charlottesville praising Trump as the Klan’s president. Or Arthur Jones — not the former Milwaukee police chief — but the former neo-Nazi candidate for Milwaukee mayor in the 1970s who resurfaced as the losing Republican nominee for Congress in a southwestern Chicago suburban district in the 2018 midterms.
The desire for a return to normalcy in America will be one of the most compelling issues in 2020 for all voters, Democrats, independents or decent Republicans. And I insist decent Republican voters still exist. Those who may have voted for an unfit candidate simply to shake up politics now see how dangerous it is to have an ignorant, unstable president intentionally fanning the flames of racial and religious hatred.
Heaven help us if they don’t. Biden is right to warn that eight years of Trump “will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
Joel McNally writes a regular column for The Capital Times.
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