Brett J. Talley: In 2016, liberals have attacked Donald Trump and his supporters, accusing them of racism
By weaponizing racism, the left transforms what should be a serious accusation into just another political trick, he writes.
Editor’s Note: Brett J. Talley is a lawyer, author, one-time writer for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and former speechwriter for Sen. Rob Portman. He is deputy solicitor general at the office of Alabama’s attorney general. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Blaming racism for a lost election is nothing new for some on the left. The tea party wave in 2010 was ascribed to racism, even as Republicans captured Senate seats in a number of states President Obama won. And President Obama’s re-election in 2012 didn’t stop Democrats from blaming racism for their defeat two years later. So it’s no surprise that as the results came in for Donald Trump, charges of racism followed. CNN contributor Van Jones called Trump’s victory a “whitelash,” while CNN’s Fareed Zakaria argued racism was a pillar of Trump’s electoral success.
But although some Democrats have seldom faced a defeat they couldn’t attribute to the personal failings of the voters, the 2016 election may be unique to the extent in which the left weaponized charges of racism. In 2016, in their view, racism wasn’t just an amorphous problem, but an inherent flaw in the American body politic that prevented liberal politicians from marching to victory. The left alleged that the candidate himself was a racist, leveling the same charge against his advisers and campaign staff. Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” speech labeled half of Trump’s supporters — more than 30 million Americans — as “irredeemable” racists.
That Trump won states and voters that had twice gone to President Obama hasn’t stopped Democrats from doubling down. As Trump has laid out his Cabinet, new charges of racism have emerged, with little evidence to support them.
Steve Bannon was deemed a white nationalist and an anti-Semite based on disputed allegations made by his ex-wife during divorce proceedings and the content and comments found on Breitbart, the far-right website he was executive chairman of before working for the Trump campaign.
Democrats attacked Gen. Michael Flynn, calling him a racist and an Islamophobe after taking his comments – which stated that he believes radical Islamic terrorism is an existential threat to America – out of context. Similar allegations focused on crying Islamophobe have also been made against Rep. Mike Pompeo in the days after Trump’s announcement that he intends to name him director of the CIA.
Sessions, a senator for 20 years, former Alabama attorney general, and United States attorney for the Southern District of Alabama during the Reagan administration, would seem to be the perfect nominee. But Sessions is also a vocal opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants, a position that is anathema to the progressive movement.
Sessions’ opponents immediately raised the specter of racism to oppose him, and the press played along. Chris Cuomo asked Kellyanne Conway on CNN’s “New Day” whether Sessions was a racist. Others were less circumspect. Salon referred to Sessions and Trump as “two peas in a racist pod,” while Slate lamented that “Jeff Sessions’ racism sadly doesn’t matter.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called stopping Sessions’ nomination “a moral question.”
One might expect that those leveling these charges against a distinguished US senator would have powerful evidence. But you’d be wrong. Instead, Sessions’ name has been dragged through the mud on the basis of 30-year-old accusations of racism made after his 1986 nomination for a federal district judgeship. These charges consisted of largely unsubstantiated, half-remembered statements from private conversations. DOJ lawyers, including one of the witnesses whose statements were used against Sessions, testified that Sessions was not only not a racist, but had doggedly pursued civil rights cases even when they were unpopular.
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But it didn’t matter. It was one of the first times the race card was played, and it worked. Sessions was blindsided by the allegations, and his nomination failed in committee.
But even if these accusations of racism — which Sessions has long disputed — were fair game in 1986, it borders on absurd that they are the basis for opposing Sessions now. Sessions’ detractors have presented not a shred of evidence from the past three decades that Sessions is a racist.
Never mind that Sessions pressed for the death penalty against a Ku Klux Klan leader during his time as Alabama attorney general. Never mind that Sessions filled perhaps the most important position in his office, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary, with an African-American lawyer who worked with him for nearly a decade. Never mind that Sessions voted to confirm Eric Holder, spearheaded an effort to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, and joined civil rights leaders in Selma to honor the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Either those leveling charges of racism against Sessions don’t know these things or they don’t care. That’s the price of weaponizing racism. It transforms what should be a serious accusation made only on the basis of irrefutable evidence into little more than a tool in the left’s political bag of tricks, a way to undermine their opponents with the ultimate smear. The irony is that in using race in this manner, the charge of racism has lost much of its potency. The left has played that card so long on so many people in so many instances that today it is met with little more than an eye roll.
But that the attack usually fails makes it no less contemptible. They may be your political enemies, but they are people, too. One of Sessions’ chief antagonists during his 1986 confirmation hearings was then-Republican Sen. Arlen Spector, whose vote helped scuttle Session’s nomination. But in his later years, Spector began to regret that decision and all that it implied, calling it the one vote he had made as senator that was a mistake. “I have since found,” he remarked candidly, “that Sen. Sessions is an egalitarian.”