Accusations of racism have become a badge of honour in Donald Trump’s America

WASHINGTON — On Sunday, The New York Times began a three-part profile of Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who is arguably the second-most influential person in right-wing American politics. “Mr. Carlson has constructed what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news,” read the story beneath a headline that said he’d “stoked white fear” to become successful.

In response, Carlson posted a photo on Twitter that showed him holding up the paper and grinning so wide you’d think he’d won the lottery.

If you’ve been following American politics the past few years, you needn’t ask why Carlson is so happy to be called a racist. For many Republicans in the post-Donald Trump era, the accusation has become something of a badge of honour.

Take J.D. Vance, who has won Trump’s (sometimes confused) endorsement in Ohio’s Republican primary for an open Senate seat, a race in which voters will go to the polls Tuesday.

Back in 2016, Vance was a Trump critic and first-time author who rose to fame for his memoir about coming up from the rural Rust Belt to graduate from Yale Law School and work in Silicon Valley. “Hillbilly Elegy” was a runaway bestseller, and the most successful of a genre of books you might call “explaining Trump’s appeal to my liberal friends” — a book-length version of those newspaper reporting trips to diners to talk about economic insecurity, except told in the first person by the son of an opiate addict.

In the book, Vance was proud to identify as one of “the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent,” a cultural tradition in which he said there was much to love, but which had some “bad” traits: “We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”

Fast-forward to this year, and Vance has become a candidate for Senate who sought and received Trump’s endorsement and wants to, in the words of The New York Times, “be the patron saint of Trumpism.” Now, rather than explaining the resentments and culture of the rural Rust Belt, he’s embodying those things and giving unapologetic voice to them.

“Are you a racist?” Vance asks in a TV ad for his candidacy. “Do you hate Mexicans?”

He isn’t exactly endorsing racism or hatred of Mexican immigrants, but he is proudly embracing the accusations hurled at the voters he wants to represent. “The media calls us racist for wanting to build Trump’s wall,” he says in the ad, which then ties immigration to “illegal voters pouring into this country” and the opiate epidemic. “Whatever they call us,” he ends, “we will put America first.”

Tuesday’s Ohio primary is interesting for a lot of reasons. It has candidates from the warring Trump-averse and Trump-adherent branches of the Republican Party. It will be an early test of the former president’s endorsement power in this election season. The election to follow in November will be interesting to Canadians because Ohio is a competitive border state, where the kind of trade Canada’s economy relies on is a hot-button issue.

But among the most interesting things to observe is Vance’s public transformation into a Trump supporter, most notably when it comes to racial rhetoric.

Trump spent four years in office — and many more before — indulging in rhetoric on immigration, policing and extremist nationalist groups that struck even members of his own party as unacceptably racist. At every turn, he doubled down and his supporters only loved him more for it. Some of those supporters are consciously racist — or hold views that fit the progressive definition of it. Others are so used to hearing the label in shocked reactions that it no longer carries any sting. A big part of today’s Republican messaging is to broadly dismiss any discussion of racism as “critical race theory,” claiming that it is the real racism and can be safely scoffed at.

Or embraced, as in the case of Vance. Or laughed at, as in the case of Carlson.

To critics on the left, this looks like a case of Trump having demonstrated you can openly cater to racists without paying a political price, with others now following his example. Critics on the right like The Bulwark’s Charlie Sykes will say there’s a “boy who cried wolf” effect resulting from years of accusing figures like George W. Bush and Mitt Romney of blatant racism. But the result, as Sykes noted recently, is that after years of winking and dog-whistling to the racists among their supporters, Republican politicians are now openly appealing to them. Pointing that out, even with a laundry list of evidence as the Times did with Carlson, just provokes laughter.

As recently as 2015, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke felt the need to deny being a racist — and remained a marginal figure even within the Republican Party. Since then, Vance has gone from calling his culture’s fear of outsiders “bad” to appealing to voters with the question, “Are you a racist?” — and suggesting those so-labelled are his people. The result? Vance narrowly led in the polls going into primary day.

The American political left is accused — often understandably, especially on social media — of being over-sensitive. By contrast, the American right has become completely and proudly insensitive — to the point where you can call its mainstream leaders racists and, rather than argue, they just laugh about it and put it in their commercials.


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