Racist appeals heat up in final weeks before midterms

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Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) suggested at a rally in Nevada this month that Black people are criminals.

A day later in Arizona, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) appeared to refer to a specious conspiracy theory about immigrants that has been associated with white nationalists — baseless claims that at least two GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate have echoed.

And in Wisconsin and North Carolina, Democratic candidates for the Senate have faced a barrage of ads on crime that feature mug shots of Black defendants.

As the campaign heats up in the final weeks before November’s midterm elections, so have overt appeals to racial animus and resentment. And the toxic remarks appear to be receiving less pushback from Republicans than in past years, suggesting that some candidates in the first post-Trump election cycle have been influenced by the ex-president’s norm-breaking example.

“Anybody who’s got a title in the party could say something — senator, governor, anybody,” said Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, who noted a deafening silence in the party after Tuberville’s comment. “Anyone could stand up and say, ‘Can we stop this please?’ But they won’t.”

At the Nevada rally that was staged by Trump in the town of Minden last Saturday for the state’s top Republican candidates, Tuberville called Democrats “pro-crime.”

“They want crime,” he continued. “They want crime because they want to take over what you got. They want to control what you have. They want reparations because they think the people that do the crime are owed that.”

A debate over whether to provide reparations, or compensation, to the descendants of people enslaved in the United States has existed in the country for decades. By invoking it, Tuberville appeared to link Black people to crime in a battleground state where Republicans are fighting to gain one Senate seat — and with it potentially the majority in the chamber.

The remark drew condemnations from civil rights leaders and Democrats, but most national Republicans stayed silent or offered only mild responses.

“I’m not going to say he’s being racist,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked about the comment. “But I wouldn’t use that language, be more polite.”

A spokesman for Tuberville did not respond to a request for comment.

The racial invective has come at a time when Democrats are dealing with their own scandal in Los Angeles, where Democratic city council members and a labor leader were recorded making racist statements. Two of them resigned this week, after Democrats including President Biden called on them to do so.

“Here’s the difference between Democrats and MAGA Republicans. When a Democrat says something racist or antisemitic, we hold Democrats accountable,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “When a MAGA Republican says something racist or antisemitic, they are embraced by cheering crowds.”

A day after Tuberville’s comment, Greene appeared to invoke a version of the “replacement” conspiracy theory at a Trump rally in Arizona for GOP Senate candidate Blake Masters and other Republicans.

“Joe Biden’s five million illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world, they’re also replacing your culture,” she said, in what seemed to echo a white nationalist conspiracy theory that claims elites, and sometimes more specifically Jewish people, are importing immigrants to “replace” White people. “And that’s not great for America.”

Republican Senate candidates, including J.D. Vance in Ohio and Masters in Arizona, have used language that is similar to Greene’s.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, which works to counter antisemitism, said it has been “stunning” to see a concept akin to the one shouted by white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017 — “Jews will not replace us!” — make its way to the political mainstream in this election cycle.

“It is not new to see antisemitism or overt racism in politics,” Greenblatt said. “What is new is after years … in which it was clear that to be credible in public life politicians had to reject prejudice, it’s now been normalized in ways that are really quite breathtaking.”

A spokesman for Greene disputed the validity of the ADL’s criticism, saying the organization does not know anything about illegal immigration.

Greenblatt also has criticized GOP Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has attacked his Jewish opponent for sending his children to an “elite” Jewish day school and has advertised on the far-right social media site Gab, where the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 posted an antisemitic rant.

Early this month, Trump used racist language in referring Elaine Chao, the Taiwanese-born former secretary of transportation in his administration and the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calling her “Coco Chow” in an angry statement targeting McConnell. The slur was met with relative silence by Republicans eager to avoid a fight with the former president ahead of the midterm elections.

“The president likes to give people nicknames,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said on CNN when asked to respond to the attack. After he was pressed, he said that it is never acceptable to be racist and that he hoped no one would be. McConnell also declined to respond in a CNN interview this week.

Trump’s use of racist language as a candidate sometimes prompted pushback from other Republicans, as when former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) called Trump’s attacks on a judge because of his Mexican heritage “textbook” racism. But the former president’s example has inspired other candidates and pushed the boundaries of what is considered acceptable political discourse, observers say.

“Trump mobilized a constituency that is partly susceptible to being riled up by racialized appeals, and politicians see that, especially on the right,” said Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. “And just like any other sort of competitive environment, you see what works and you copy it.”

Robert C. Smith, a political scientist who has studied race and politics, said that after the civil rights movement in the United States, racist remarks tended to be met with condemnation from both parties. “Now that appears to be slipping away, and the only thing that’s of significance that’s changed since then is the emergence of Trumpism,” Smith said.

For some, Tuberville’s remark linking Black people to crime felt like confirmation of what they see as the more subtle racial undertones in the crime-focused ads that Republican candidates and groups have been running to attack Democrats as soft on crime. Democrats are vulnerable on the issue, given a rise in homicides in many large, Democratic-led cities, and Republicans say they are simply highlighting a problem that affects all Americans, regardless of race.

But some of the ads have drawn criticism for playing on racial fears. Cheri Beasley, a former North Carolina Supreme Court justice running for the U.S. Senate, has faced at least $2 million in attack ads calling her soft on crime, according to an AdImpact analysis. One such ad, paid for by the conservative Club for Growth PAC, features the mug shot of a Black sex offender and blames Beasley for his being unmonitored. (In 2019, Beasley joined a majority of the court in ruling that offenders cannot be subjected to GPS monitoring for life solely because they have committed multiple crimes.)

Steele called the Beasley spot “dressed-up Willie Horton,” referring to an ad run in support of Republican George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis. That ad’s use of a Black offender’s mug shot became a classic example of “dog whistle” racism in politics. Similar ads featuring mug shots of Black defendants have targeted Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin, as well. (Beasley and Barnes are Black.)

Fording says such ads are designed to activate racial biases subtly and arouse anger and fear, which is often more effective than overt racist messages.

“There’s a lot of political science research that suggests that those appeals will work,” he said.

The president of the Club for Growth PAC, David McIntosh, defended the ad in a statement. “At every level of politics, liberal Democrats in North Carolina are getting called out for being soft on pedophiles,” he said. “If they want to pretend race has anything to do with letting police track child sex predators, they’re going to be in for quite a surprise on election night.”

Civil rights leaders say they are holding out hope that the environment will improve after the midterms but worry that each new attack further erodes the standards for how people in public life talk about race and religion.

“I don’t know if it’ll be very easy to put the genie back in the bottle,” Greenblatt said.


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