Columnist Bill Newman: Democracy is on the ballot

  • In this Sept. 26, 2020 photo, members of the Proud Boys, including leader Enrique Tarrio, second from left, gesture and cheer on stage as they and other right-wing demonstrators rally in Portland, Ore. President Donald Trump didn’t condemn white supremacist groups and their role in violence in some American cities this summer. Instead, he said the violence is a “left-wing” problem, and he told one far-right extremist group to “stand back and stand by.” His comments Tuesday night were in response to debate moderator Chris Wallace asking if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups. Trump’s exchange with Democrat Joe Biden left the extremist group Proud Boys celebrating what some of its members saw as tacit approval.   AP Photo/John Locher

Published: 10/2/2020 12:07:12 PM

At this week’s presidential debate the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, asked Donald Trump, “Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down ... Are you prepared to specifically do that?”

Trump’s answer: “Sure, I’m prepared to do that … ,” prompting Wallace to press on. “Then do it, sir. Say it. Do it. Say it.”

Trump’s response: “You want to call them? What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name, go ahead — who would you like me to condemn?”

Wallace complied. “White supremacists, white supremacists and white militia.”

Biden added, “Proud Boys.”

Trump’s answer? He wouldn’t condemn or even criticize white supremacists or white militias. As for one of the most notorious of those terrifying paramilitary organizations, the Proud Boys, he intoned, “Proud Boys, Stand back and stand by … ”

Stand by?

South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, suggested that the president misspoke and that he “should correct it.” Scott then paused and added, “If he doesn’t correct it, then I guess he didn’t misspeak.” Trump didn’t correct his statements.

Even Senator Mitch McConnell, who stomachs almost everything Trump dishes out, demurred this time, noting the obvious, that it was “unacceptable to not condemn white supremacists.”

Trump has tried to mitigate the damage from the maelstrom he created by doing what he does best. He lied.

Twice. First he proclaimed that he has “always denounced any form of white supremacy.”

In August, 2017, at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and right-wing militias came together to protest the impending removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and to promote their far-right agenda.

The images of that rally are chilling. Many at this alt-right gathering carried firearms. They proudly and vehemently paraded with giant swastikas and signs with racist slogans. Over and over again, they chanted “Jews will not replace us, Jews will not replace us.” You couldn’t miss the Ku Klux Klan robes or the MAGA hats.

One right-winger, James Alex Fields Jr., rammed his car into the crowd of counterprotesters. Fields injured dozens and killed one, Heather Heyer. Trump’s response? You had “very fine people on both sides.” Does he think we don’t remember?

Back to the present. The day after the debate, Trump asserted that he didn’t know who the Proud Boys are. You can believe what you saw and heard with your own eyes and ears, or you can believe Trump. Sadly and frighteningly, many millions will excuse, not care or agree — some overtly, others secretly — with what Trump said and what he refused to say.

Of course, Trump’s refusal to condemn white supremacists continues his long history of racism: lawsuits for his refusal to rent apartments to people of color, birthism, his demand for the death penalty for the Central Park Five — wrongly convicted and ultimately freed young African-American men — the Muslim ban, locking Central American immigrant children in cages. The list goes on and on and on. Racism in America runs deep, and Trump effectively mines America’s racist vein.

One way that Trump’s racism has manifested itself is in his utter indifference to the disproportionate suffering that the coronavirus, and his administration’s failed response to it, has inflicted on communities of color. The COVID-19 death rate for Black Americans, for example, is over twice that of whites. How ironic that he’s now contracted the virus, which, as we all know, is an enemy that cannot be bullied away or paid off or vanquished by lying.

The context for Tuesday’s dog whistle is a possibly close election that Trump has vowed to contest as rigged unless he is proclaimed the winner. His disinformation campaign about mail-in ballots has succeeded in convincing many Americans to distrust and reject the election results if he loses. He has attempted to gut the post office so that mail-in votes won’t be counted, knowing that twice as many Democrats will vote by mail as Republicans. He continues to encourage supporters and militias to intimidate citizens voting in person.

Other voter suppression efforts continue full speed ahead. The bill to provide needed funds for election security never saw the light of day in the Senate — malevolence made more poignant last week by the FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before Congress about Russia’s heightened interference with the 2020 election. And let’s not forget the hypocritical rush to confirm another Supreme Court justice, whom Trump has said he is counting on to provide the fifth vote to install him for another term when he challenges the election results in court.

At Tuesday’s debate, there was talk, to the extent you could hear any of it through the din, about what effectively is on the ballot. What’s on the ballot is fascism (a word that until now I have resisted using in my columns about this administration) and its handmaiden, racism, and the future of democracy. Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of power made his instructions to the Proud Boys on Tuesday to “stand by” particularly ominous.

Authoritarians generally cloak themselves with a veneer of legitimacy, usually by conducting an election. In 2020, if citizens vote to oust this authoritarian by an overwhelming margin, he could be denied any plausible basis to claim to the courts, state legislatures, the federal House of Representatives, militias and the military that he won the election, that he should remain in power.

In the next month, we must do everything within our power to get out the vote throughout the country. We must contribute to this effort as if our lives depend on it. Because the life of our democracy does.

Bill Newman is a Northampton-based lawyer and radio show host.



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