Are Republicans Complicit? Yes, since January 20, 1981.

People are reacting to President Trump complaining about immigration from “shithole countries” like Haiti. Many are saying that Republican Senators in the room like Tom Cotton are now more complicit in Trump’s racism by their silence.

But I think this reflects a confusion borne of the conventional wisdom preached by high school teachers, college professors, and, of course, journalists since the end of World War II: that reading the newspaper is a good way to understand politics.

I think a few things are going on:

1. GOP electeds are absolutely complicit. But they have been for a long time.

2. The sudden vogue of the term “white supremacy” is decidedly unhelpful and obscures the role of the media in creating the present moment.

3. The Post War media frame of “balance” has always been dramatically ill suited to the Post War rise of asymmetrical parties. (Book version I'm meaning to read, here.)

4. Our present historical moment actually crystallized on January 20, 1981, but no one noticed because the newspapers didn’t notice.

A. Jacob Javits, Republican Senator from New York, officially retired at the end of the 96th Congress on January 3, 1981. He had refused to endorse Barry Goldwater’s campaign for President and was the last remaining Republican in the Senate who had voted Yay on the Civil Rights Act Of 1964.

B. Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address clearly and explicitly announced that the GOP was now the party of White Supremacy and Wealth. How? By echoing George Wallace’s attacks on a powerful federal government. People say Reagan was advocating “small government,” but that is not what he said, actually. 

First, George Wallace at “the schoolhouse door” standing opposed to the integration of the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963:

The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. This intrusion results solely from force, or threat of force, undignified by any reasonable application of the principle of law, reason and justice. It is important that the people of this State and nation understand that this action is in violation of rights reserved to the State by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alabama.

Ronald Reagan, similarly arguing for States Rights against the intrusion of the Federal Government, January 20, 1981:

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government. ... It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

C. The press had no idea what was happening and, observing the need to give Reagan, despised by all their readers, “fair treatment,” reinforced the legitimacy of Reagan’s White Supremacy by labeling it a call for “an Era of National Renewal” and gave credence to his voodoo economics by credulously and uncritically repeating his claims that freezing the Federal workforce would cause economic growth.

Why didn’t the press see what was happening? Notice the author of the inauguration piece about federal hiring freeze? Howell Raines is the journalist, a man who grew up in Alabama while George Wallace was governor. He would later win a Pulitzer Prize writing about the black housekeeper, the mammy, who raised him. That essay has been well praised. But a white man from Alabama, the future Executive Editor of the New York Times, writing about Reagan’s inauguration didn’t have anything to say about the State’s Rights speech that he delivered. 

Did Raines hear the echoes of his own past? When George Wallace was opposing integration at the University of Alabama, Howell Raines was a Junior at one of Birmingham’s two “white colleges”, Birmingham-Southern College. The news of the day? BSC expelled a student, Marti Turnipseed, for taking part in the Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, it really doesn't matter what Howell Raines understood. There was simply no fair and balanced way for the New York Times to report the truth: that an explicitly racist party had won the White House. So they didn't.