As the political media delirium of the Republican nominating contest has descended on South Carolina, it has done so against the backdrop of a year of extreme racial violence.
In April 2015, in what was perhaps the most blatantly unjustified of all the recorded police killings of black men to emerge since Ferguson, a video surfaced of a white policeman shooting an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, multiple times in the back as he fled the officer following a traffic stop in North Charleston. Last June, on the day after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist, whom photographs later showed posing with the Confederate flag, entered a black church in Charleston, one of the oldest and most storied in the American south , and after sitting with its pastor and eight other congregants, listening to them talk and pray for an hour, stood up and murdered them all.
In the wake of the slaughter – more lethal than any single act of white resistance during the entire civil rights era – South Carolina’s legislature reluctantly acceded to Governor Nikki Haley’s proposal that the battle flag of the Confederacy be removed from the statehouse grounds.
This decision did not sit well with Evelyn Nunn, a woman in her late 60s, whom I visited last weekend at her one-storey brick house along a rural stretch of Route 20, outside Greenville. In her front yard stood a flagpole flying the battle flag, ragged around the edges, and a sign that said Trump. “She’s a good governor, but I was disappointed in her for that,” Nunn said, genially. “But as long as we get to keep our monuments, I guess it’s all right.”
Nunn is an active supporter of Donald Trump who emails advice to his campaign regularly and evangelizes for him on Facebook. When I asked if she had voted for George W Bush, she said: “Oh, sure I did. I didn’t know any better.”
In the multi-front slugfest barrelling into this Saturday’s South Carolina primary, the most dramatic theater of operations has undoubtedly – with apologiesto Ted Cruz and the pope – been the battle between Trump and the Bush family. By insisting on the debate stage last Saturday that George W Bush did not “keep us safe”, as his brother Jeb likes to say, given that 9/11 happened on W’s watch and that he “lied” about weapons of mass destruction, Trump has blasted off whatever veneer remains of his loyalty to Republican party orthodoxy.
As Trump himself wrote decades ago in The Art of the Deal, controversy sells. His withering attack on the neo-con catechism in the middle of a primetime debate dominated days of news coverage, and turned the former president’s first appearance on the campaign trail into a referendum on the Iraq war . (Trump’s darling poll numbers once again suffered no consequence .)
The Bush campaign and its patronage network would have us believe that a divisive, foul-mouthed conman is duping the media into ignoring the one sober candidate who is ready to lead the United States in troubled times. Jeb’s father is said to be confounded by the “rude” Mr Trump, while his mother cut a remarkably tone-deaf ad , in which, bedizened with pearls, she raises her slender nose at those who talk about “how popular they are, or how great they are”, as if no member of her clan has ever engaged in the unseemly business of self-promotion.
But the Bushes have long been aristocrats with knives in their pockets. In politics since the 1950s and in the White House for 16 of the last 28 years, this dynastic family embodies more than any other the transformation of the Republican party from a coalition of north-eastern social liberals and economic elites to one of southern, religious conservatives and free-market extremists.
Jeb’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, was a liberal Republican senator from Connecticut who took a stance against Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. His son, former president George HW Bush, moved to Texas and to the right, opposing the Voting Rights Act and supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964. In order to run as Ronald Reagan’s vice-president, he subsequently abandoned his liberal support for abortion rights, and became a staunch opponent of them.
HW’s son George, in turn, completed the pilgrimage of the party by running as an Evangelical with a Texas drawl committed to privatizing social security and slashing the taxes his father had been pilloried for agreeing to raise. And Jeb went to macabre lengths in proving his own devotion to the pro-life agenda as governor of Florida, personally intervening to prevent the husband of Terri Schiavo, a brain-dead woman, from taking his wife off life support.
Along this path came the willingness to employ – always at arm’s length – not only the kind of racially charged demagoguery that Trump brandishes openly, but the staging of false controversy for political gain that is the real estate executive’s modus operandi.
It is not just the Republican party’s general extremism that has created such a vast public space for a demagogue to fill. The Bush family’s political behavior, in all its disdainful violence, prepared the way for Trump. The difference being that where the Bushes used henchmen, Trump is his own – and all the more effective for it.
The names of the Bush family’s henchmen – South Carolina native Lee Atwater and his protégée Karl Rove – are well known, as are most of their exploits. Atwater got his start attacking a congressional candidate for having a history of mental illness ( Trump chose this tactic for a journalist ) and capped his career as George HW Bush’s campaign manager in 1988, during which the infamous Willie Horton ad was used to try to terrify white voters with the glowering face of a black rapist (Trump’s tried that , too), whom Michael Dukakis was supposedly responsible for setting loose.
In an interview at the end of his life that’s famous among political journalists, Atwater described the use of race in American politics thusly:
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.
It is a brutally accurate and succinct description of how first southern Democrats and then southern Republicans (and then, it must be added, Bill Clinton) wove appeals to racial hostility into the very fabric of their policy agendas.
In 2000, during the South Carolina primary, Rove picked up the baton on George W Bush’s behalf and helped spread rumors that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. As one of Rove’s helpers, former state attorney general Charlie Condon described the tactic at the time: “There is a tradition of it, it is accepted behavior, and frankly it works.”
Bush won the primary, but in order to win the presidency – after losing the popular vote – he required another intervention by the family retainers: a fake riot at the Miami-Dade election offices during the Florida recount, which set off a media frenzy about election chaos, ginning up national anxiety and creating the demand for the quickest possible resolution. As Trump says, controversy sells.
And so does violence. At a Trump rally this week next to the Greenville airport, 3,000 white people in the cavernous TD Convention Center gave some of their loudest applause of the night when the reality TV star offered a rousing endorsement of torture, saying that “waterboarding is fine, and a lot of things that are a lot tougher are fine, and that’s OK with me.”
Of all the instances of Trump employing openly what the Bushes have authorized but disavowed, this is perhaps the most damning to both parties. While strenuously seeking to keep secret the memos that permitted the CIA to engage in torture, George W Bush ran for re-election in 2004 as the strong-man savior the country needed to protect itself from another terrorist catastrophe, all while his campaign and its various tendrils belittled and effeminized a Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, much as Trump has ridiculed John McCain.
By unleashing torture, and profiting from the whiff of it, even as he denied it, Bush personally created the opening for Trump’s whole-hearted endorsement of authoritarian violence.
Beyond specific tactics and policies, there remains another, in some ways more insidious connection between the stratagems of the second Bush presidency and the rise of a reality TV star to leading candidate for president.
It can be seen in an interview that Karl Rove gave to Ron Suskind for Esquire during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. In typically hands-off fashion, he was identified only as a “senior administration official”. As Suskind later described it :
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’
What Rove was describing is perhaps the most damaging long-term effect of the most recent Bush administration on American democracy: the deliberate and manipulative delinking of the action of the sovereign from the shared sense of a “discernible reality”.
I will never forget, in 2003, listening on the radio to an interview with the mother of a soldier who had died in Iraq. She was asked what her reaction was to reports that there were no weapons of mass destruction. “I don’t believe that,” she said, beginning to cry. “I won’t believe that. Because then his death would be meaningless.” This, I thought, is what strong ideology does: by wedding the force of our strongest emotions to ideas detached from reality, it forces the mind to avoid the truth. At which point, people truly are subjects of the “empire”.
What Rove was also unwittingly describing, of course, is what has become the psychic logic of the Trump candidacy: “We act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
To make all this detachment from reality possible, both the Bushes and Trump require just two ingredients: anxiety and fear, which all the 2016 Republican candidates, including Jeb, have encouraged voters to feel at every turn. At a Marco Rubio rally the other day inside a high school gym in Easley, the young senator went so far as to simply instruct the nearly all-white audience on the matter. “You are afraid,” he told them. “You are scared.”
In the manifesto Dylann Roof left behind on his website after the Charleston murders, he wrote that he was “truly awakened” by the Trayvon Martin case, and how “obvious” it was that the killing of that black boy had been justified: “This prompted me to type in the words ‘black on white crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.”
In the endless blitz of outrage that Trump has enacted and stoked for the last eight months, one November episode involved a tweet, which the Dylann Roofs of the world can only have cheered, featuring a picture of a masked black gunman beside a series of bogus statistics highlighting WHITES KILLED BY BLACKS. Where the Bushes used dog whistles, Trump simply barks. Meanwhile, amid the unprecedented documentation of unarmed black men being killed by police in South Carolina and elsewhere , Trump said in one recent debate : “Police are the most mistreated people in this country.” He has repeated the line at rally after rally.
There is discernible reality, and there is ideology. No one in modern politics has managed to divorce the two as completely and effectively as Donald Trump.
Among the many reasons, then, that Jeb Bush – earnest, entitled, tense – has been unable to overcome his chief tormentor is that he, like all the rest of us, can find no way to contain the open use of the forces his own family unleashed while trying to disown.
As for those Trump supporters I met, some are legitimately fed up with the degraded world left to them by war and recession. But a few still seem, like the candidate himself, to know on some level that what is being sold is a mirage.
Alongside all the disappointments Evelyn Nunn has had with the other Republicans she has voted for, her one savior has been the South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson, who shouted at Barack Obama during his first State of the Union address, simply: “You lie!” The rest of them, she told me, have just “sat on their hands”.
Looking out over her winter-brown yard with its faded Confederate flag and shiny campaign sign, she said of the man she plans to vote for on Saturday: “Maybe it’s all a fantasy. But if he can do half of what he’s saying, I’ll take it.”
- Adam Haslett , author of You Are Not a Stranger Here and Union Atlantic, will publish his new novel, Imagine Me Gone , in May
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