Racist appeals are heating up in the last few weeks before the midterms

Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) hinted at a rally in Nevada this month that blacks are criminals.

A day later, Arizona Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) appeared to be referring to a conspiracy about immigrants linked to white nationalists — a conspiracy echoing at least two GOP candidates for the US Senate to have.

And in Wisconsin and North Carolina, Democratic Senate candidates faced a barrage of crime ads that included mugshots of black suspects.

As the campaign heats up in the final weeks leading up to November’s midterm elections, it openly appeals to racist animus and resentment. And the scathing remarks appear to be met with less rebuff from Republicans than in years past, suggesting some candidates in the first post-Trump election cycle have been influenced by the ex-president’s norm-breaking example.

“Anyone with a title in the party could say something — senator, governor, anybody,” said Michael Steele, a former Republican National Committee chairman, who noted a deafening silence in the party following Tuberville’s comment. “Anyone could stand up and say, ‘Can we please stop this?’ But they won’t.”

At the Nevada rally Trump threw for the state’s Republican frontrunners in the city of Minden last Saturday, Tuberville called the Democrats “pro-crime.”

“They want crime,” he continued. “They want crime because they want to take what you have. You want to control what you have. They want redress because they think the people who committed the crime are to blame.”

For decades there has been a debate in the country about whether to give redress or compensation to the descendants of people enslaved in the United States. By invoking it, Tuberville seemed to be associating blacks with crime in a battleground state where Republicans are fighting for a Senate seat — and potentially a majority in the chamber.

The remark drew condemnations from civil rights activists and Democrats, but most national Republicans remained silent or responded mildly.

“I’m not going to say he’s racist,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when asked about the comment. “But I wouldn’t use that language, be more polite.”

A spokesman for Tuberville did not respond to a request for comment.

The racial slur comes as Democrats are dealing with their own scandal in Los Angeles, where Democratic city council members and a union leader have been recorded making racist remarks. Two of them resigned this week after Democrats, including President Biden, urged them to do so.

“Here is the difference between Democrats and MAGA Republicans. When a Democrat says something racist or anti-Semitic, we hold Democrats accountable,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “If a MAGA Republican says something racist or anti-Semitic, they will be hugged by cheering crowds.”

A day after Tuberville’s comment, Greene appeared to invoke a version of the “surrogate” conspiracy theory at a Trump rally in Arizona for GOP Senate nominee Blake Masters and other Republicans.

“Joe Biden’s five million illegal aliens are poised to replace you, to replace your jobs, to replace your kids at school, and as they come from all over the world, they’re replacing your culture as well,” she said in one seeming to echo a white nationalist conspiracy theory that claims elites, and sometimes Jews in particular, are importing immigrants to “replace” whites. “And that’s not good for America.”

Republican Senate candidates, including Ohio’s JD Vance and Arizona’s Blake Masters, have used language similar to Greene’s.

Jonathan Greenblatt, the executive chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, which works to fight anti-Semitism, said it was “staggering” to see a concept similar to that being hailed by white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017 – “Jews will not replace us! ” – find their way into the political mainstream in this election cycle.

“It’s not new to see anti-Semitism or overt racism in politics,” Greenblatt said. “What’s new is that after years … in which it was clear that politicians must reject prejudice in order to be credible in public life, it has now been normalized in a way that is actually quite stunning.”

A spokesman for Greene disputed the validity of the ADL’s criticism, saying the organization knew nothing about illegal immigration.

Greenblatt has also criticized Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who has attacked his Jewish opponent for sending his children to an “elite” Jewish day school, and has advertised on the far-right social media site Gab, where the man is accused of killing 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh published an anti-Semitic tirade in 2018.

Earlier this month, Trump used racist language when referring to Elaine Chao, the Taiwan-born former Secretary of Transportation in his administration and wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), calling her “Coco Chow” McConnell in an angry statement target. The insult was met with relative silence by Republicans, who were anxious to avoid a row with the former president ahead of the midterm elections.

“The President likes to give people nicknames,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said on CNN when asked to respond to the attack. After being pressured, he said that being racist was never acceptable and that he hoped no one would be. McConnell also declined to respond in a CNN interview this week.

Trump’s use of racist language as a candidate sometimes drew backlash from other Republicans, such as when former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wisconsin) called Trump’s attacks on a judge because of his Mexican heritage “textbook” racism. But the former president’s example has inspired other candidates and pushed the boundaries of what counts as acceptable political discourse, observers say.

“Trump has mobilized an electorate that is partially prone to being upset by racist appeals, and politicians see that, especially on the right,” said Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. “And just like any other competitive environment, you see what works and you copy it.”

Robert C. Smith, a political scientist who has studied race and politics, said that after the civil rights movement in the United States, racist speech tended to be condemned by both parties. “That seems to be slipping away now, and the only thing that’s changed since then is the emergence of Trumpism,” Smith said.

To some, Tuberville’s comment about associating black people with crime felt like validation of what they see as the more subtle racist undertones in the crime-focused ads that Republican candidates and groups have run to attack Democrats as soft-criminal. Democrats are vulnerable on this issue given the rise in homicides in many large Democrat-run cities, and Republicans say they are simply highlighting an issue that affects all Americans regardless of race.

However, some of the ads have been criticized for playing on racial fears. Cheri Beasley, a former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice who was running for the US Senate, faced at least $2 million in assault charges calling her soft on crime, according to an AdImpact analysis. One such ad, paid for by the conservative Club for Growth PAC, features a mug shot of a black sex offender and blames Beasley for not being monitored. (In 2019, Beasley joined a majority of the court in ruling that criminals cannot be subjected to GPS tracking for life simply for having committed multiple offenses.)

Steele dubbed the Beasley spot “dressed up Willie Horton,” referring to an ad supporting Republican George HW Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis. The use of a black criminal’s mug shot in this ad became a classic example of “dog whistle” racism in politics. Similar ads featuring mug shots of black suspects have also targeted Democratic Senate nominee Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin. (Beasley and Barnes are black.)

According to Fording, such ads are designed to subtly activate racial prejudice and arouse anger and fear, which is often more effective than overtly racist messages.

“There’s a lot of political science research that suggests these appeals will work,” he said.

Club for Growth PAC President David McIntosh defended the ad in a statement. “At every level of politics, liberal Democrats in North Carolina are being scolded for being soft on pedophiles,” he said. “If you want to pretend that race has anything to do with police going after child sex offenders, you’re going to be in for quite a surprise on election night.”

Civil rights activists say they hope the environment will improve after the Midterms but fear each new attack will further undermine standards for how people speak about race and religion in public life.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be very easy to put the genie back in the bottle,” Greenblatt said.

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