Inevitably, when some Republican gets sick and tired of hearing himself or his comrades called racist, he's tempted, as Senator Cruz or Texas was yesterday, to talk as if it means something today that southern Democrats once supported the Ku Klux Klan. What do they expect to happen when they say this? Do they expect black Americans to say, "OMG, we didn't know that! The Democrats must be the real racists in this country!" Do they expect 21st century Democrats to think that the words and actions of long-ago Democrats, many of whose descendants, genetic and spiritual, are in the GOP today, disqualify them from discussing racially-charged issues or calling Republicans racist? To be honest, I'm not sure there's any strategic or even tactical purpose to these periodic outbursts. They're more like knee-jerk reactions, and if they send any message it's to Republicans themselves. They're the only ones who believe it, at least. What they believe, to be more specific, is that there's been an insidious continuity in Democratic attitudes toward blacks despite the dramatic partisan realignment fifty years ago that saw blacks abandon the "party of Lincoln" for the "party of the Klan." The idea is that Democrats have always wanted to keep blacks a state of dependent subjugation. Before the Civil Rights movement, this was done through Jim Crow laws and economic exploitation, enforced by the Klan. Today, of course, it is the dread Welfare State that perpetuates black bondage to the Democracy. Democrats actively discourage aspirations to self-reliance in the black community, so the charge reads, because self-reliant blacks would have no reason to vote Democratic, having realized at last how unfair Democratic policies are to self-reliant people. Some Republicans will go further and claim that Democrats are racists in at least a patronizing, paternalistic way, accusing them of thinking blacks incapable of succeeding on their own. And since no Democrat would speak any of these alleged truths in broad daylight, they keep blacks in line by waving the bloody shirt of Republican racism when it's the GOP, according to this account, that wants to liberate them, just as Lincoln did.
The Democratic countercharge, that Republicans, freshly prodded by the nebulous "alt-right," want to reduce blacks and others to second-class citizenship in fact if not by law, is, of course, equally unfair. Yes, there certainly are Trump voters and more conservative Republicans who resent aspects of the black presence in American life. But to argue that they seek to relegate non-whites to some racially or culturally defined inferior category reserved for them is surely wrong. Few Trump voters, apart from real old-timers (who probably were Democrats once) or fringe figures who have no influence over the President or even Steve Bannon, really believe in hierarchies of race. They definitely believe in hierarchies, however, even if only on the simplest level of "winners" and "losers," and they'll happily relegate millions of white men into the "loser" category without shedding a tear of racial or cultural solidarity. If anything, Democratic race rhetoric distracts working-class white Republicans from this prospect; as long as Democrats simply damn them for supporting Trump, without telling them why it's not in their specific interest to support him, they can keep on believing that Trump's the one who really cares for "real" Americans like themselves. Until Democrats or others on the left can figure out that the general threat Trumpism represents to all Americans matters more than the particular threats he may pose to particular groups, Republicans will be free to continue, after their paradoxical if not perverse fashion, to claim the moral high ground by not caring whether any particular person lives or starves.