The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican convention is paving a path for White voters to again choose Trump

President Trump greets supporters during a campaign event at North Star Aviation on Monday in Mankato, Minn. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Noah Rothman and I don’t agree on much. But the associate editor of Commentary Magazine aptly described what President Trump and the Republican Party are up to with their Potemkin village of a convention this week: They are setting up a permission structure for squeamish White voters to pull the lever again for Trump.

Much has been made about the president losing the support of suburban women, White working-class women and senior citizens. They don’t like the baby jails on the southern border with Mexico. They certainly don’t like his coarse tone on Twitter, on the campaign trail or at the White House. And the awareness of pervasive racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd in May has made them wary of a president who traffics in White grievance and exacerbates racial tensions.

Yet Trump has been willing to use the flames we have seen from Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Kenosha, Wis., to scare White people into voting for him. Never mind that the vast majority of protests on behalf of Black lives in those cities and across the nation have been peaceful, and have nothing to do with those violent clashes. That doesn’t matter when the goal is to stoke White fear of Black people, which, sadly, is easier than many want to admit.

If you wondered how the McCloskeys ended up on your screen, the message wasn’t aimed at you

Trump has featured African American supporters, such as Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, and other people of color in an effort to sand down the racism, xenophobia and white nationalism that have been hallmarks of his presidency. The question the convention and Trump’s reelection campaign seem to want viewers to ask themselves is, “How can the president be a racist when Cameron supports him and he’s done so much to help Black people?” That’s how a permission structure takes hold, and that’s how Trump is trying to win reelection.

The Democratic ticket of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) must take a jack hammer to that permission structure once the RNC is over. It is imperative not only because the November election is a choice between more “American carnage” with Trump and a new beginning with Biden-Harris, but also because what’s on the ballot is a choice between American democracy and White supremacy.

Trump demonstrated the power of white supremacy during the 2016 presidential election. From calling Mexicans “rapists” to calling for a “Muslim ban” and everything in between, his overwhelmingly White supporters thrilled over his callous utterances. As one perfectly coifed White woman told a correspondent from the BBC, “I like the fact that he is not afraid to say what we’re all thinking.” They liked the fact that he said the quiet part out loud.

Republicans’ ‘uplifting’ convention turned into a rage-fest

Don’t think for a moment that that sentiment has gone away or that it has lost its power because some of those same voters might be aghast at his bullying, his failed response to the coronavirus pandemic, the cratered economy or his trampling of the rule of law. Many of those voters are looking for a thread of an excuse to vote for Trump again.

The 2020 election thus presents the American people with a choice. Are they okay with a president who cages babies at the border, inflames racial tensions, and bullies private citizens and public officials on social media and at rallies? Or are they going to side with the American ideal set down in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and made more real through the blood, sweat and tears shed by Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and countless dearly departed and still-living civil rights leaders?

Follow Jonathan Capehart's opinionsFollow

Which vision of America will Americans choose? My honest answer is I don’t know. I doubted the power of white supremacy on White Americans in 2016. I won’t make that mistake again. And neither should you.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast

Watch Opinions videos:

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (Video: The Washington Post)

More on white supremacy from Jonathan Capehart:

Dear White people, please read ‘White Fragility’

From ‘White fragility’ to ‘White rage’: The broken promise of America

How White identity permeates policymaking outside of Washington