Don’t let his reluctant disavowal of a white nationalist group fool you—the real battle begins in the Senate.
n the presidential appointments made so far by Donald Trump, the president-elect has signaled his willingness to feed his base of angry white people the race war they crave, if only thus far by means of posturing. But early next year, a race war of words will break out on the Senate floor, and there is little escaping the conclusion that this is what the next occupant of the Oval Office wants.
For his chief of staff, Trump selected a talented propagandist whose specialty is fanning the flames of outrage through the use of incendiary themes. As chief executive of Breitbart News, Stephen K. Bannon oversaw a web empire which, he boasted, provided “a platform for the alt-right,” the Trump-loving white supremacist movement that the president-elect was finally shamed into disavowing on Tuesday by the editorial board of The New York Times. Trump’s national security advisor will be General Michael Flynn, who has claimed that Islam is not a true religion, and tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” While those comments are best categorized as religious bigotry, it is notable that most Muslims are either brown or black.
The appointments of neither Flynn nor Bannon require Senate confirmation. But the nomination of Jeff Sessions, the U.S. senator from Alabama, to the post of attorney general is another matter. In 1986, Sessions won the distinction of being the first nominee in 48 years to be denied Senate confirmation to the federal bench when racially loaded comments he made came to light in his confirmation hearing. A former colleague, who is African American, alleged that Sessions called him and other black attorneys “boy,” which Sessions denied. But the senator did not disavow comments ascribed to him in which he said that he used to think the Ku Klux Klan was OK until he learned that its members smoked pot (Sessions disdains marijuana and its users), or that the NAACP was “un-American” for trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people.” All of this, and likely more revelations along these lines, will be aired once again in 2017, in what promises to be a riveting Senate confirmation hearing. And that’s likely exactly the way the president-elect and his advisers want it.
Were Trump not looking to shore up his white-power bona fides with his base, he could have easily avoided the likely spectacle of the Sessions confirmation hearing by simply granting the campaign loyalist a plum job that does not require the advice and consent of the Senate: a job like chief White House counsel, or counselor to the president.
In addition to playing the race card with the Sessions nomination, Trump will also again bring his demonstrated need to dominate and abuse women to the fore. After the Access Hollywood video leak revealed Trump’s boast of grabbing women by the genitals, Sessions said that he wouldn’t characterize such behavior as sexual assault. “It think that’s a stretch,” he told the Weekly Standard. The website of the Department of Justice, which Sessions, as attorney general, has been tapped to lead, defines sexual assault this way: “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Perhaps a new definition is in the works.
ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 19, a gathering of white supremacists in the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C., applauded the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency as a victory for their cause.
“Donald Trump’s campaign was the first step towards identity politics in the United States,” said Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, the white nationalist organization that sponsored the confab. At a press conference convened in conjunction with the NPI gathering, Spencer explained, “Donald Trump is the first [Republican presidential candidate] who doesn’t say ‘I’m going to stick up for capitalism’ or ‘I’m going to stick up for the Constitution.’ He said, ‘I’m going to stick up for you—the people who voted for me.’ This is something new.” The people who voted for Trump, of course, are mostly white.
It was Spencer who rebranded a collection of white supremacist, anti-Islam, and misogynist activists as the “alt-right.” By the end of the NPI conference, attendees would be saluting him in the Nazi style as he concluded a full-bore anti-Semitic speech with the words, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”
On Tuesday, Trump abruptly canceled a scheduled meeting with editors and writers of The New York Times after the paper’s editorial board called on him to personally disavow the support of the NPI conference organizers and attendees. (On Monday, Trump’s transition team spokesperson Hope Hicks had issued a statement disavowing the group’s support.)
During the campaign, Trump retweeted posts from the Twitter accounts of white supremacists and other members of the so-called alt-right, amplifying their voices to his millions of followers.
Before the day’s end, the president-elect reversed himself, going to the Times’s headquarters for the meeting with the paper’s journalists, and disavowing and condemning the white nationalists who had so saluted him.
It really shouldn’t have been so difficult a call. Come January, when the Senate takes up its confirmation schedule, the real race and sex war will unfold in the upper chamber of the United States Congress.