National unity would be required to address climate change and the scourge of extremism, particularly racist extremism. Not anything terribly controversial on its face.
Yet some nonetheless managed to wring out some controversy.
“If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said during an interview on Fox News, “calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book.”
Paul also apparently objected to Biden’s saying that “there is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.”
“Calling us people who don’t tell the truth,” Paul continued. “ ‘And going forward we’re not going to have manufactured or manipulated truth.’ That’s another way of saying ‘All of my opponents manufacture or manipulate the truth and are liars.’ ”
In that last sentence, Paul does explicitly what he did implicitly on the issue of race: conflate Biden’s constrained criticism with a broad attack on Republicans generally. Biden never specifically mentioned who was telling those lies, although the focus was obvious. He never even called out the extremism he was targeting as being right-wing. But for Paul, the implication was clear: Biden thinks Republicans are racist liars.
He’s not alone. Ever since coverage of the storming of the Capitol earlier this month noted that some participants were overt supporters of far-right or white nationalist groups, there has been an effort to suggest that this meant that all supporters of former president Donald Trump fall within that category — and will be targeted as a result.
One of the champions of this idea has been Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. For days, he has been claiming that criticism of the Capitol rioters amounted to criticism of the right broadly, and that the military presence at the inauguration was meant not to protect against stated threats from the far right but, instead, to maintain compliance.
On Wednesday night, Carlson, too, derided Biden’s call for combating extremism.
“If Joe Biden can bring unity to this country, he will be a legitimately great president,” Carlson said. “But there’s a catch. There always is a catch. We’re going to bring America together, Joe Biden told us today — but not everyone is going to be included.”
Excluded are those extremists and terrorists. Worrisome to Carlson because he speculates that the labels will be applied broadly.
“What is it, exactly?” he asked. “Now that we’re waging war on white supremacists. Can somebody tell us in very clear language what a white supremacist is?” Biden, he later continued, “has now declared war. So we should know specifically and precisely who exactly he has declared war on. We have a right to know that innocent people could be hurt in this war. They usually are.”
It’s all overwrought, particularly given what Biden actually said. Biden wasn’t looping Republicans generally in with white supremacists and extremists. Carlson is doing that. Paul is doing that.
But that, too, is part of an established tradition.
Remember in the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton described Trump supporters as “deplorable?” You certainly do; it was adopted with relish by Trump supporters. What most people don’t remember, though, is that Clinton wasn’t describing Trump supporters as deplorable in general, just a subset of them.
“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said at an event in 2016. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”
Clinton later apologized for the breadth of her statement, given that she claimed that “half” of Trump supporters fit into that basket. But it seems unlikely that it was the scope that prompted the blowback. Trump supporters took criticism of part of their group as criticism of the group overall.
To one of Carlson’s points, it is the case that there is vagueness to terms such as “white supremacist.” It is also the case that the term can be used as a political critique in a broad — and, at times, overly broad — sense. The allegation that someone is racist is a damning one in American culture, and so it is, at times, deployed to attack political opponents. But it is also the case that racism persists as an undercurrent in society, usually in ways that defy simple identification. Racism is far less often manifested as white power symbology and Klan hoods, and far more often as attacks on non-White groups or support for systems that perpetuate advantages for White Americans.
Because systemic and institutional racism is often hard to see or recognize, that makes it easier to dismiss as nonexistent. Which, in turn, makes it easier to dismiss criticism of things as racist as precisely the sorts of political attack described above. It’s much easier to assume that your political opponents are simply calling you a racist to hurt you than to examine your assumptions about race on the off chance that they have a point. So, Trump supporters specifically and many Republicans broadly became used to viewing criticism of overt racists on the right as bad-faith attacks of the right as racist.
It’s clear that there is an element to much of the political right and Trump’s support that derives from specific concerns about race. Trump supporters and Republicans have repeatedly indicated that they are more concerned than most Americans about being the targets of “reverse racism”; that is, racism targeting White people. One of the predictors of Trump support before the 2016 election was a sense that Whites are losing out. White Republicans see Whites, Blacks and Hispanics as facing about the same levels of discrimination. The Trump administration overtly sought to address the idea that White Americans were being disadvantaged by immigration from largely non-White countries even as it often cast non-White people as dangerous.
It’s important to note that this is clearly not what Biden was talking about. He was talking about the rise of white nationalist extremism and violence of the sort that has been manifested occasionally in recent years and which the Department of Homeland Security (under Trump) identified as the most significant terrorism threat in the country. He was talking about the sort of extremism that contributed to what happened at the Capitol.
There is some undercurrent of sympathy among Republicans generally for what happened there. Most Americans reject the mob’s actions in storming the Capitol, though, as a Washington Post-ABC News poll found, 15 percent of Republicans at least somewhat support the storming of the Capitol itself. A HuffPost-YouGov poll taken shortly after the attack found that most Republicans viewed the mob’s actions as being mostly right or simply having gone too far in pursuit of a valid point.
But again, that white nationalists and far-right extremists were mixed into the Capitol mob has been portrayed as a suggestion that all of those who participated in pro-Trump protests are racist and extremist. Why? Because it is at times politically useful to portray criticism of racists as criticism of Republicans, for the same reason that it is at times politically useful to portray people as racists.
This is Carlson’s shtick: They, the elites, are attacking you as racist when you’re just an average American with real concerns. It’s how he has built and sustained his audience and expanded his power in conservative media.
The part of Biden’s speech most directly targeting Carlson wasn’t the part about the white nationalists. It was the part about lies being told for power and profit. Carlson appears not to have heeded the message.