Was America Always This Way?

I think what a lot of us have been struggling with recently is the question of how a country that reelected Barack Obama could have come so close to also reelecting Trump — or, conversely, how a country that very nearly reelected Trump in the midst of outright social and economic catastrophe could also have reelected a Black dude with a middling economy not even a decade before. How could a country that was “always this way,” that always had so many people willing to throw away democracy and lives and the economy in order to keep white supremacy in the White House, have also reelected Obama in 2012? It seems impossible for many of us to imagine that Obama’s America and Trump’s America are not only the same place, but also by and large made up of the same people.

Trump’s overt racism, sexism, authoritarianism, and overall vulgarity have proven to be a remarkably effective turnout operation for white voters, even without all the ballyhooed micro targeting that was supposed to be able to sway close elections. This undeniable fact raises many disturbing questions. If we were always this country, if the deep wells of white supremacy that Trump “activated” were always there, does that mean that Romney could have won in 2012 if he’d only been more racist? If he’d only been a brazen, vulgar, Trumpian figure rather than an avatar of the old school genteel white patriarch, would that have won him the White House? Even worse, could Trump himself have beaten Obama if he’d run in 2012? After all, Obama ’12 only beat Clinton ’16 by 60k votes total, whereas Trump ’16 beat Romney ’12 by over 2 million.

The answer, I think, is no. The Trump path to victory in 2016 was not open in 2012, even if you disregard the influence of Comey’s shenanigans, WikiLeaks dumps of Russian espionage, the differences between Obama and Clinton’s relations with the media, and so on. Why? Because in 2012, Shelby County v. Holder hadn’t happened yet.

A person could be forgiven for thinking of voter suppression as a thing the left has always complained about, that has always been with us, and therefore something that has barely changed over the years. Such a person would be wrong. The 2013 Shelby County decision opened the door to a new wave of voter suppression the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the ’60s. Since that decision, states have been free to close hundreds of polling places, often without warning, to impose new voter ID laws even as they close DMVs, and to purge hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls, a policy the court officially condoned in 2018’s Husted ruling. The Republican Party’s brazenness in pursuing a whites-only electoral strategy owes everything to these decisions.

Much ink has been spilled about negative partisanship over the last few years, with commenters right and left agreeing that Donald Trump has had a particularly polarizing effect on the electorate, jazzing up both his base and his opposition, culminating this year in the highest-turnout election in living memory. In 2012, the last time a Democrat won Florida, it was not unreasonable for Republicans like Romney to worry that going full racist would end up turning out more voters against the GOP than for it. The famous “2012 Election Autopsy” urged national Republicans to abandon the politics of white racial grievance, arguing pretty reasonably that a party that went 1 for 6 in the presidential popular vote was not on a sustainable path (it’s now 1 for 8).

But the Court came to the rescue and provided a different path to victory: doubling down on voter suppression. If you can rally and radicalize your own base while keeping half the people you turn off from ever reaching a polling booth, brazen white supremacy stops being such an automatic loser. In 2016, in a perfect storm of Russian interference, sexism in media, meaningless but scary-sounding FBI announcements, and high third-party margins, it was just barely enough to eke out an electoral victory amid yet another popular vote loss, this one a loss by over 2 percentage points and over two and a half million votes. This year, even with record suppression and the unprecedented gutting of the US postal service, it wasn’t enough.

This is not a victory lap. With a 6-3 Supreme Court and no guarantee of a Senate majority, the Suppress Your Way To Victory path remains, and with it, despite all demographic change, the Rally Racist Whites path. If you think demographic change is bound to overcome legalized voter suppression, I’d encourage you to look up the demographics of the antebellum South. It’s not enough to have the majority on your side, you need the law on your side too. Until we can change the structure of our voting systems, or at least guarantee that they won’t get even worse, the Trumpian path to power will remain. If we can return our small-d democratic infrastructure back even to 2012 levels, that path will almost certainly disappear.

To return to the original question, was white America always this open to racism and demagoguery? Yes. Most certainly. Was that always a viable path to conservative victory? No.

So, have we seen the last of the Romney/Ryan genteel racist? Considering all the genteel racism even on the other side of the aisle, I doubt it. But I suspect that with another Romney-style presidential candidate, Republicans’ white rural turnout problem would return in full force. After Trump’s loss, future Republican candidates will have to reweigh the risks and rewards of relying purely on white supremacy and grievance politics. Or, as famous Twitter personality dril would put it: