Leonard Pitts: Trump framing election as a referendum on white people

FILE - In this June 28,1968 file photo, presidential candidate, former Alabama Gov, George Wallace arrives in Boston. If President Donald Trump making racism a cornerstone of his reeleciton campaign sounds familiar, that’s because another presidential candidate did the same half a century ago. And George Wallace saw the strategy resonate with many. Wallace was elected governor of Alabama in 1962 and declared, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” (AP Photo, File)

If you are a regular here, you may have heard this story before. But it bears repeating.

In 1958, George Wallace ran for governor of Alabama against John Patterson, a fire-breathing segregationist. Wallace, though also a segregationist, was considered enough of a racial moderate to be endorsed by the NAACP. So naturally, he was trounced.

Sometime afterward, as recounted by biographer Marshall Frady, a rueful Wallace made a defining declaration to a room full of politicos: “John Patterson out-nigguhed me. And boys, I’m not goin’ to be out-nigguhed again.”

As history shows, he never was. Which is to say Wallace, who became governor in 1963, was never again found deficient in stoking racial animosity for political gain. He understood its power to drive white voters to the polls.

As is beyond obvious by now, Donald Trump does, too. His Twitter attack on Baltimore over the weekend -- "a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess," "a very dangerous & filthy place" -- was but the latest in a long line of racist invective designed to gin up white support.

The tweets -- they came in a rebuke of Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Trump critic whose district includes much of the city -- set in motion a sequence both predictable and unavoidable: condemnation from those still possessed of working souls, rationalization from those who are not. Baltimore is a troubled place, said his enablers. How is it racist to say that?

But America is full of troubled places. The Fifth District of Kentucky, for instance, has the nation's second-highest rate of opioid use, its second-lowest median income, its highest poverty rate and its lowest life expectancy. But unlike majority-black Baltimore, the Fifth is one of the whitest (over 96 percent) places in the country, its congressional delegation uniformly white and Republican.

So you'll never hear Trump disparage that region in terms that otherize and dehumanize its people. Its desperate condition notwithstanding, he'll never call it a place "where no human being would want to live." No, that kind of abuse is reserved for black and brown places with black and brown leaders.

That said, Trump himself is not what should trouble us most. After all, we've seen his type before. He is a throwback, retro as a Jordan jersey, latest iteration of a long line of racist blowhards stretching back to Wallace and beyond.

No, what should trouble us -- what should leave white people in particular offended -- is Trump's implicit bet that what worked for Patterson in 1958, what worked for Wallace in 1962, what worked for Nixon in 1968, what worked for Bush in 1988, will work for him, now. As low an opinion as Trump holds of black and brown people, his opinion of white people is nothing to write home about.

He is wagering his presidency, after all, that they share his patronizing disdain for people of color, his atavistic fear of the coming America, his slimy bigotry. He is betting that if you use every hateful word but the one that begins with "n," if you thereby give them room to rationalize and equivocate, you'll find that white people are essentially the same now as 60 years ago.

Is he right?

That's the question upon which the future teeters. It's been said that Trump is framing this election as a referendum on race. What he's really doing, albeit unintentionally, is framing it as a referendum on white people, on how they have changed -- or have not -- in the past 60 years. Trump is betting on the latter. He thinks white people are an ignorant rabble, readily roused by appeals to their basest, most racist selves.

Fifteen months from now, we'll see how many prove him right.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

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