Donald Trump, the most likely 2016 Republican presidential nominee, is probably not a racist – at least not the David Duke kind.
But he is most certainly a selective bigot.
That subtle, yet important distinction is why it’s been so easy for Trump to take over a party that has refused for a generation to deal with race in its full complexity.
While Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, was able to make political inroads at the state level in Louisiana, he would not have been allowed to sniff the party’s most important position then or now. To the party’s credit, no one using overt racism and white nationalism could.
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Unfortunately, that’s a pretty low bar. And that’s why Trump’s brand of bigotry has been so useful to him among Republicans. Too many in the party have convinced themselves that absent the dogs and water hoses and the occasional Dylann Roof, racism is effectively a thing of the past, not something to grapple with in the 21st century.
When racial bigotry morphed, the GOP largely became blind to it and believed those who weren’t blind were the real troublemakers. Or they deflected by talking about the late-Sen. Robert Byrd in the Democratic Party – seemingly unaware that Byrd spent most of his adult life making amends for the racism of his youth and that no Democratic presidential candidate would have survived in 2016 even for a day if he began his campaign talking about Mexican rapists.
Trump swam through that sea of GOP denial right to the top of the GOP. No one should be shocked that a man who was sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s for trying to keep black people out of his rental units would kick off his campaign by ginning up fear of Mexicans.
Of course a man whose history includes smearing Native Americans when they tried to build a casino in 2000 would play coy on national TV about Duke.
White supremacists are giddy about the possibility of President Trump, even broadcasting from his rallies and allegedly assaulting protesters, because they understand what he represents. They’d rather have Duke because while racial bigotry is their reason for breathing, it is simply a tool for Trump.
But they know that Trump is willing to step on the neck of every minority member if he believes that’s what it takes to “make America great again” – because that’s what they believe – or increases his personal power and influence.
What the GOP failed to understand was that the majority of Republicans didn’t have to be racist in order for racial bigotry to sprout. There simply had to be enough susceptible to having their fear and legitimate frustration exploited. And for a variety of reasons, that angst is most easily manipulated through veiled racial attacks, the kind for which the perpetrator can feign ignorance by saying I have black friends or I’ve never used the n-word.
Jim Crow remained alive for a century, not because most Americans were racist, but because too many people rendered themselves blind to its ugliness and harmful effects and did not do enough to root it out before being forced to act by the Civil Rights Movement.
Most Republicans aren’t racist. Hopefully Trump’s rise will make more of them realize that that was never enough.
Isaac J. Bailey is a former columnist and editor for the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News. On Twitter: @ijbailey