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Trump's Kenosha visit and 2020 strategy echo fearmongering of racists like George Wallace

If a "law and order" message demonizing protest worked in the 1960s, the Trump campaign thinks it can work again now.
President Donald Trump speaks with officials at Mary D. Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images

For the past 13 years, since before Barack Obama was elected president, in part by breaking through the "Solid South," we have been working to build moral fusion coalitions for transformative change in American public life. When we saw millions of Americans — Black, white, brown, Asian and Indigenous — marching together against police violence and systemic racism this summer, we knew we were witnessing the kind of coalition that has the potential to transform this nation. The Trump campaign knew it, too.

We knew we were witnessing the kind of coalition that has the potential to transform this nation. The Trump campaign knew it, too.

Taking a page from the last time a movement like this grabbed the attention of mainstream America, in the 1960s, President Donald Trump and company went on the offensive. If a "law and order" message that demonizes protest worked then, they think, it can work again now. "To stop the political violence, we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence," Trump told Wisconsin law enforcement officials on Monday. "Reckless far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist."

And history demonstrates that we must not discount such a strategy; fear has been a powerful force in our common life. We need people who have suffered from divide-and-conquer politics for the past 50 years to see through the lies and stand together against a con that hurts all of us. Indeed, this is the only way we have ever pushed toward a more perfect union.

At the Republican National Convention last week, Trump sounded so much like George Wallace in 1968 that he could be charged with plagiarism. "Our system is under attack," Wallace told a crowd of supporters at Madison Square Garden in 1968, when he ran as a third-party candidate for president after gaining national attention as a ruthless defender of Jim Crow segregation in Alabama. "Anarchy prevails today in the streets of the large cities of our country, making it unsafe for you to even go to a political rally," he said.

Like Trump, Wallace also went to great lengths to claim that he was the least racist person in politics. "I want to say before I start on this any longer that I'm not talking about race," Wallace said. "The overwhelming majority of all races in this country are against the breakdown of law and order as much as those who are assembled here tonight." But Wallace knew — and Richard Nixon and the Republican Party learned from him — that "law and order" appealed to white people's racial fears in ways that would compel them to vote for decades in defense of an unjust system.

Just three years earlier, standing outside Wallace's governor's office in the Alabama State House, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had explained how the Southern aristocracy used racial fear to pit poor white people against poor Black people. Exposing the fraud of systemic racism, King declared that "it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man." The GOP's so-called Southern strategy was designed to ensure that poor white people heard Wallace's message, not King's, for a half-century.

Image: George Wallace
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, center left, blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama as he turns back a federal officer trying to enroll two Black students at the university campus in Tuscaloosa on June 11, 1963.AP file

The politicians who used this narrative to appeal to white voters have sold out poor and working-class Americans of every race. Inequality in America is greater today than at any other point since the beginning of the 20th century, and the coronavirus has sent us spiraling into an economic and public health crisis that only reveals how poor, Black and brown people suffer first and worst in our broken and unjust system. Black Americans are three times more likely than white Americans to die from COVID-19. More Black Americans are killed by police each year in America today than were lynched at the height of the Jim Crow era. At the same time, employment remains down 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels for people making less than $14 an hour, even as employment has increased for those making more than $32 an hour.

Trump did not create the poverty and inequality that COVID-19 has exposed. But his policies have exacerbated our systemic inequities, even as his failed response to the coronavirus has needlessly killed tens of thousands of Americans and left us scrambling to deal with outbreaks as most other nations, including China, have mostly suppressed the virus and returned to a semblance of normal.

In the spring of this year, Trump's campaign made it clear that he planned to run for re-election on the promise of voodoo economics.

In the spring of this year, Trump's campaign made it clear that he planned to run for re-election on the promise of voodoo economics — the myth that a stock market boosted by tax cuts means the economy is doing well for everybody. Trump was, in fact, slow to respond to the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in China because he did not want the emerging public health crisis to damage a trade deal with China that he hoped would boost U.S. markets. Six months later, Trump cannot run on his record. If most people look honestly at what he has done for them and their communities, they will not vote for him again.

Therefore, Trump knows that his only hope is to divide and distract. It does not matter that the horrors he warns of in "Joe Biden's America" are, in fact, happening on his watch. Fear is a powerful force, and people who have been taught to fear any challenge to the systems of our common life can easily be led to believe that, however bad things are now, they could get worse.

But we cannot play that game. We are less safe today than we were four years ago. Our president has failed to protect us from a deadly virus, our senators have refused to provide needed relief, and our elites for decades have defended a system that benefits them while most of us have become poorer and more indebted.

In this season, Americans can and must refuse to be manipulated. In a nation that promises freedom of speech, we will march when we want to and we will protest and criticize any elected leaders who fail to serve the people. We will not succumb to the violence of provocateurs, nor will we allow our militant nonviolence to be criminalized. We know that the force of a nonviolent movement is greater than the division that has been sown. Our cause is as righteous as the original Tea Party, the Underground Railroad, the sit-in movement of 1960 and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Trump wants us to turn our focus from racist policing and his administration's bad policies to guys riding around in trucks. No, thank you. When Trump supporters are riding around with flags and guns, lies and loud mouths, we will stand tall in all of our diversity and power and look at them not with fear, but pity. These people are being used to advance an agenda that does not benefit most of them. Trump, we know you would like to make the young man killed in Portland, Oregon, a martyr for your cause, but he is simply one more victim of a political strategy that will only lead to more violence if you are re-elected.

So we must stand together to say: Your political days are numbered. We are not falling for any of your attempts to change the subject or distract us with the extremism of your supporters. In fact, we intend to win them over by exposing how your racism and authoritarianism are hurting them, too. We know the Southern con of George Wallace, and we know the fusion politics of Dr. King. We have seen both before, and we know that people can come together to heal our divisions and build a more perfect union.

When you spread lies to stir up violence in our streets, we will march on under the banner of truth. We will not allow you to remake us in the image of your fears. Mothers have linked arms in Portland to demonstrate our power. Fathers who have lost their precious children have renounced violence while demanding change. Athletes who come from communities that are suffering are standing with us because they do not stand with you. No nonviolent act is more powerful than voting, and we cannot wait to vote together in November for the healing of this nation. Trump, you have reminded America how powerful fear can be. We intend to show you, as Dr. King and the movement showed George Wallace, that love and justice are still more powerful.