The Democratic Party’s Racial Reckoning
The day after the first presidential debate, all anyone wanted to talk about was the coup de grace: Alicia Machado, “Miss Housekeeping,” “Where did you find this? Where did you find this?” But the most remarkable exchange of that night had come earlier, when with a few blunt words Hillary Clinton reduced Donald Trump to peevish incoherence and, remarkably, conveyed the distance her party has traveled in the past quarter-century. If you listened carefully, you would have heard a kind of Sister Souljah moment, in reverse.
It happened after moderator Lester Holt pressed Trump on his birtherism. “Mr. Trump,” he said, “for five years you perpetuated a false claim of the nation’s first black president was not a natural-born citizen. You questioned his legitimacy. In the last couple weeks, you acknowledged what most Americans have accepted for years: the president was born in the United States. Can you tell us what took you so long?”
Trump tried to shift blame, pinning birtherism on the Clinton camp and its conduct during the 2008 Democratic primary. This is false. But more interesting than Trump’s answer was Clinton’s response. She didn’t just dismiss his claim. She pushed back in the strongest way possible. Trump “has really started his political activity based on this racist lie that our first black president was not an American citizen,” Clinton said. “There was absolutely no evidence for it, but he persisted.” She continued, tying the birtherism to a larger critique: “[R]emember, Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination, because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African Americans, and he made sure that the people who worked for him understood that was the policy. He actually was sued twice by the Justice Department. So he has a long record of engaging in racist behavior.” Clinton’s message was simple: From the beginning of his business career to the launch of his political one, Trump swam in a rank pool of prejudice and racist insinuation. And then, with Trump established as both a beneficiary and catalyst of American bigotry, she dropped the story of Machado, a former Miss Universe, on his head. “[O]ne of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest,” Clinton said. “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina.”
In the narrative of this election, Donald Trump is the “politically incorrect” one in the race. He says what “people are thinking” and isn’t afraid of the reaction. For the most part this is nonsense. Trump’s political incorrectness is just a cover for run-of-the-mill prejudice. If people don’t blame Mexico for “sending rapists” over the border, it’s not because they’re cowed; it’s because it isn’t true. If there’s an actual norm restricting honest discussion for fear of giving offense, it’s around white racism. Hence the storm of criticism for Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment, condemned because it violated political custom—don’t attack the other side’s voters—not because it was untrue. “No. 1 rule of presidential politics. Okay to mock your opponent. Never a good idea to mock the electorate,” said Michael Barbaro of the New York Times on Twitter.
Clinton’s gaffe was to talk about bigotry plainly, without euphemism. And what’s striking, given that backlash, is that she’s continued to name and shame Trump’s racism. ...