Jared Yates Sexton is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University. He is the author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage.
The accounting begins as soon as the polls close, and with every election, there’s a whole host of winners and losers to be named, goats to be saddled with defeats and no end to the heroes claiming the victories. Before the night’s over, the races of the future are being dreamed of and careers are eulogized, but certainly, in the wake of the 2018 midterms, there’s a fact that must be reckoned with and puzzled over: In this election, the American people lost.
Inevitably, the discussion of winners and losers settles on what campaign moves paid off and which strategies fell short, but in this particular case, there’s no debating the results. The 2018 midterms, long heralded as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency, were a failing enterprise for the United States of America as prejudice and fear ruled the day.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Mr. Trump peddled a truly repugnant and factually untrue narrative revolving around a caravan of migrants from Central America who may or may not be planning on crossing the U.S. border in the future. He called them dangerous while his allies in the media questioned whether they might carry diseases or bring crime in with them. To thwart this imagined threat, Mr. Trump ordered thousands of troops to the border, wasting their time and our money. It was a disgusting technique, one that should have earned a long-heralded rebuke, but Mr. Trump has shown there’s little consequence in this country for lies or racist behaviour.
That certainly appears to be the case in my state of Georgia, where Secretary of State Brian Kemp seems to have won a close victory over Democrat Stacey Abrams after purging the state’s voting rolls of thousands of African-Americans. That was bad enough, but Mr. Kemp’s direction of the election saw a mishandling of polling places, particularly in minority-heavy areas, as well as a last-second warning that the New Black Panther Party was planning on intimidating his voters. From the moment this race was set, the racism at its heart has been in full view of the world, and yet it’s likely that Mr. Kemp will prevail.
These are not isolated incidents. Around the country, Republican candidates relied on blatant racism as a campaign tool, some of them going so far as to question their Democratic opponents’ loyalty to the country, employing prejudiced advertising, and, in the case of Iowa congressman Steve King, winning a race after giving an explicitly intolerant interview to a white supremacist group founded by a former SS officer. For Mr. King, that’s nothing new. The most blatant white supremacist in Congress, he’s questioned what other racial groups have contributed to culture and regularly espouses opinions that seem to reflect the theory of “White Genocide” that holds sway with extremist groups around the world. And yet, he’ll return to Washington for his ninth term in Congress.
It would be inaccurate to call Mr. King an aberration in the modern Republican Party. In fact, it might be closer to the truth to call him something of a pioneer. He’s explored the far realms of identity and racial politics in America and has shown his party just how extreme and bigoted a Republican can be without consequence. As a white supremacist in theory and action, Mr. King was one of the men to lay the groundwork for President Trump’s victory and continued war on minorities.
Republicans have continued to benefit wildly for a variety of reasons, including their base’s willingness to buy into their racist worldview and the continued assistance of their propaganda arms in cable news and syndicated radio. But largely the blame can be placed at the feet of America’s inability to come to terms with its problematic history and present, and its insistence on maintaining a sanitized myth in which prejudice has been largely overcome. It’s this myth that has powered the current age of partisanship and made it possible for the GOP to position itself as the representative of voters who would rather overlook their own inherent privilege and continued intolerance.
Though Democrats made inroads on Tuesday and recaptured the House of Representatives, it’s undeniable that the United States of America is sharply divided between two realities. Some will call it partisanship or tribalism, but it’s a separation of worlds that hinges on a disagreement as to the role of racism in society. On one hand, voters continue to cast their ballots with the hope that we may better our union by recognizing our deficiencies and working to repair the systemic damages of the past, and on the other is a conglomeration of the damned that is intent on denying the existence of prejudice while continuing to hide behind it and offer it power.
The 2018 election was defined by that division as much as, if not more than, the contest that saw Donald Trump win the White House. Regardless of how you count the votes or assign the blame, it’s hard to imagine the United States of America won’t continue to lose elections as a collective until it does the hard and necessary work of confronting its past, rejecting the influence of bigots, and thus ensuring its future.