OPINION — Remember the time when Trent Lott got in a heap of trouble for remembering the time?
It was 2002, and the Senate Republican leader representing Mississippi was waxing nostalgic for what he considered the good old days at a 100th birthday celebration for South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Carried away by the moment — and in remarks that recalled similar words from 1980 — Lott said: “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
No surprise that those for whom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run represented the bad old days objected. Segregation was the heart of the platform for Thurmond’s States’ Rights Democratic Party (a.k.a. the Dixiecrats).
What was surprising was how far the condemnation of Lott reached, all the way to columns in The Wall Street Journal and the conservative National Review. This was despite Lott’s apologies, including an awkward interview on Black Entertainment Television, during which he pledged support for affirmative action and regret for a vote cast against the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lott stepped down from his leadership position, so loath was the GOP to appear racially insensitive, though the cynical still judged the party’s questionable deeds rather than Lott’s inconvenient words.
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Back to the … past?
Flash forward, or backward, to 2018, to a U.S. president whose hot racial rhetoric — about Muslims, “low-IQ” African-Americans, Mexican-American judges and more — is a trademark rather than a flaw, and to his political acolytes who follow the playbook with precision. What once might have destroyed a candidate’s chances have only made them stronger or, at least, defiant.
Ron DeSantis, who has resigned his House seat to focus on his for run for Florida governor, ascended to his place on the ballot by supporting Donald Trump unconditionally, including in an ad helping his obliviously complicit toddler daughter build a wall with toy blocks. DeSantis started his general election campaign with what many judged a racially charged comment directed toward his Democrat opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who happens to be African-American.
DeSantis judged his experienced and educated opponent as someone who was “articulate,” who “performed” well in Democratic debates, but warned Florida voters not to “monkey this up” by electing him — clumsily and presumably combining the terms “mess this up” and “monkey around” or indulging in a bit of racial demagoguery, take your pick. Then The Washington Post reported he had spoken four times at conferences organized by a conservative activist who has said that “African-Americans owe their freedom to white people and that the country’s ‘only serious race war’ is against whites.”
It looks to be a close contest.
The banner of states’ rights, which has long signaled contempt for federal civil rights laws, is working its way back into political dialogue and policy, contentiously in the fight over Confederate monuments, state laws forbidding their removal, and politicians, incongruously exemplified by Rep. Steve King from the great southern state of Iowa, proudly defending the Stars and Bars.
(That hypocrisy has always been present in the history of America and race, such as the aforementioned Thurmond declaring “there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the n---- race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches,” and also, as an adult, fathering a daughter with his family’s teenage, black, powerless maid.)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose judicial nomination was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 over accusations of racism, may have a contentious relationship with his boss. But he has found a new calling, fulfilling the administration’s promises to roll back even legal immigration, quash the criminal justice reform that consent decrees with police departments and discretion in sentencing represented, and reverse the Obama administration’s support of voting rights and affirmative action.
As the pendulum swings
How and whether America learns to live with the diversity that has shaped and built it, is as current an issue as ever, not only in politics but in culture and sports, and the mix of it all. In Congress itself, three-quarters of House members have no top staffers of color, according to a report this week from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
Rep. James E. Clyburn would not find the state of the nation surprising. When I interviewed him in 2014 on the release of his book “Blessed Experiences: Genuinely Southern, Proudly Black,” the South Carolina Democrat spoke of the pace of change in America: “The country from its inception is like the pendulum on a clock. It goes back and forward. It tops out to the right and starts back to the left — it tops out to the left and starts back to the right. I can tell you the country has topped out to the right, and the country is moving back to the left.” And remember, he said, it “spends twice as much time in the center.”
The 78-year-old assistant minority leader of the House has lived a lot of that progress and pushback, from his childhood in segregated Sumter, South Carolina, through the civil rights movement — he met wife-to-be Emily in jail after both were arrested for protesting for civil rights — to his election to Congress in 1992. And his path reflects so many others.
Looking to this year’s midterms, Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president, is back on the campaign trail, as is the president who made lies about Obama’s birthplace the issue on which he built his political brand and base.
If more Americans who reflect the future show up in November, a new path could be forged. If not, well, even Clyburn might admit that pendulum can’t swing much farther.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.