Not because he’s a politician, liar, hypocrite, opportunist or slimeball—although those things are arguably true—but for his deliberate incitement of the electorate to racial animus, Mitt Romney has confirmed his own eternal reservation in that special corner of hell occupied by Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace and an ignominious host of demagogues famous for roiling racial hatreds in the service of political gain.
As recently as 1990, the addled gasbag Jesse Helms—panicked that he might lose his Senate race to Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt—ran a television ad that showed a pair of white hands opening a rejection letter as the narrator ominously intoned, “You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
Helms’ race-baiting took a page from Richard Nixon’s successful "Southern strategy”: use veiled racism to cleave working-class whites away from their New Deal political home to a newly welcoming, faux populist GOP. Republicans since have followed Nixon’s playbook, conjuring racist specters such as:
• Ronald Reagan’s injection of “welfare queens” into his 1976 presidential campaign—which didn’t win him the nomination but did insert a tenacious racist and classist slander into the American political lexicon (with dire consequences for the poor)
• Bush Sr. ’s black boogie man, Willie Horton
• Bob Corker’s 2006 U.S. Senate ad featuring a dolled-up white Playboy Bunny spreading thumb and pinky to her ear, soliciting African-American Senate candidate Harold Ford, with a wink, to “Call me!”
And now, we have Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s reptilian introduction of racial stereotypes and appeals to white working-class victimhood into the 2012 presidential race.
One Romney ad directed at seniors declares that Obama cut $700 billion out of Medicare in order to divert the money to pay for an “exotic” program, Obamacare, “that’s not for you.” Translation: The president has cut your healthcare to help undeserving black people. A companion ad alleges that Obama quietly eliminated work requirements from welfare to make life more pleasant for lazy people whose lifestyles others are forced to underwrite: “You won’t have to work. You won’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”
That neither of these ads is true detracts not the least from their purpose and effect, which is to stir racial resentment among swing segments of the Democratic electorate. If the unifying principle of the Occupy movement is broad solidarity through class, the reactionary countermove is to split and further parse and divide the 99% along racial, nativist, regional, cultural, religious and microeconomic faultlines. In doing so, Republicans are reverting to a time-tested strategy in line with 19th century railroad mogul Jay Gould’s boast that he could “hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
During the 2008 campaign, when Obama seemed in jeopardy of losing support among union members in crucial blue-collar states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, then-Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka took the issue of racial division head on in an address to a meeting of the United Steelworkers. In what became a powerful viral video, he said, “You see, brothers and sisters, there’s not a single good reason for any worker—especially any union worker—to vote against Barack Obama. There’s only one bad reason to vote against him: because he’s not white.” The appeal was credited with enlisting majority-white former Hillary voters across the Rust Belt to actively support the first major-party African-American nominee for president in our nation’s history.
Exposing Romney’s lies won’t hurt, but neither will it be enough to undo the emotional impact on the voters he’s targeting with these bigoted messages. For all the belittlement and scorn directed at the community organizer from Chicago, Tea Party Republicans plainly have learned from Saul Alinsky’s dictum: “The organizer dedicated to changing the life of a particular community must first rub raw the resentments of the people of the community; fan the latent hostilities of many of the people to the point of overt expression.”
The resentments of middle- and working-class voters are known well to the radical Right, whose policies and governance stoked them. The trick accomplished by the agents of reaction is to rub raw legitimate economic, social, and status grievances, then—through deflection, xenophobia and suspicion—direct these hostilities against other victims of the same oppression.
The harsh reality is that since 2009, the Tea Party has been beating us at our own game. They’ve co-opted our methods and enlisted tens of thousands of middle- and working-class people who should be voting with us, not with the 1%. Approaches that point the finger of blame and condescension or suggest that a vanguard of intellectuals, academics or activists knows better than they do what’s good for them will only drive these brothers and sisters further into the arms of the octopus.
Taking a cue from Trumka’s 2008 speech, committed progressives ought to consider where and with whom our time will be spent best over the next couple of months. Some of us might conclude it’s within our own neighborhoods, families and institutions, where we’ve failed most as organizers and where our greatest challenges remain.