Arun Venugopal: It's The Takeaway. I'm Arun Venugopal in for Tanzina Vega. On Wednesday, mainstream news was dominated by coverage of new revelations surrounding President Trump's mishandling of the pandemic. A conversation the President had with journalist Bob Woodward back on February 7th has emphasized the severity of the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump: It's a very tricky situation.
Bob Woodward: Indeed, it is.
President Trump: It goes through air, Bob. That's always tougher than the touch. The touch, you don't have to touch things, right? The air, you just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. That's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your-- even your strenuous flus.
Arun: The President has consistently downplayed the threat in public.
President Trump: I really think, doc, you want to treat this like you treat the flu. We think we have it very well under control. We pretty much shut it down.A lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat. We're in very good shape.
Arun: This is hardly the first reporting detailing how the Trump administration has misled the public during the pandemic, but this latest information comes to light as the country's death toll from COVID-19 is now over 190,000 with Black and brown people still dying at much higher rates. Meanwhile, in a piece published by The Atlantic yesterday, staff writer Adam Serwer focused on what he sees as President Trump's failures in another area: responding to the summer's racial justice uprising. According to Serwer, Trump has misread the moment by continuing to make racist appeals to his base of white Americans.
Those comments had included painting demonstrators as radicals and emphasizing calls to restore law and order. Because polling from over the summer indicated that a majority of the US population supported the racial justice movement, the President's divisive approach might not be so effective this time around. Serwer looks in his new piece at different turning points around civil rights in US history. He finds some lessons for policymakers to keep in mind if they truly want to capitalize on public support for racial equality right now.
Arun: Adam Serwer is on the line with me now to talk about his new article. Adam, thanks for being here.
Adam Serwer: Thanks for having me.
Arun: You say that President Trump misread the moment that the support among a majority of Americans is much greater than he may have anticipated when he, I guess, dug in his heels against Black Lives Matter. Are you surprised by the moment and the willingness or the support that Americans have for Black Lives Matter?
Adam: First of all, I wasn't surprised, but I also want to emphasize the video of George Floyd begging for his life while the police essentially stand on his neck and do nothing. I think it really deeply affected a lot of people, but it wasn't the only thing that affected a lot of people. These videos have been coming out for many years now. I think that Americans have slowly shifted their perceptions about the reality of racially-discriminatory policing and racism itself in the United States.
The polls all show that even though some-- There have been polls that have shown some decline in support for Black Lives Matter people. Americans are generally sort of sticking to the realization that racism still deeply shapes American life. The President's response was essentially-- he only really ever has one solution to problems, which is violence. He's either trying to intimidate someone to get them to shut up or he's threatening to use state force against them.
That's been true since the 2016 campaign when he said he wanted to ban Muslims or he said he was going to do mass deportation and build a wall to prevent undocumented immigrants from coming in when he sent troops to the border. There's nothing really particularly out of character about the President responding to racial justice protests by emphasizing that police, at one point, even the military, should respond with an iron fist.
It just wasn't where the country was because they recognize-- Even though the protesters sometimes did things that they didn't like, they recognize the justice of the cause that they were advocating for, which is that people should not be mistreated by armed agents of the state who are paid with taxpayer dollars. They should have the same rights as everyone else.
Arun: You try to make some connections. Well, you do make connections, not between today and an era that a lot of people like to look out with 1968, the chaos at that time in the late '60s, but a much earlier era, which is reconstruction and the parallels you see between then and now. What are some of the notable connections?
Adam: There were a lot of commentators making comparisons between Nixon 1968 and Trump's campaign now because they're both using the phrase "law and order," but Nixon's law and order was an attempt to triangulation. George Wallace was running at the time and his rhetoric about shooting people who were looting and stuff like that. His rhetoric was much closer to Trump's rhetoric in the sense that it was advocating the use of state violence against protesters and collapsing all the protesters, whether peaceful or otherwise, into radicals that needed to be put down with armed force.
Nixon's law and order was both saying, "I'm going to suppress civil rights protests, but I'm also not going to let a lawless white supremacist engage in violence. That really hasn't been Trump's message. Trump's message has been much closer to that of Andrew Johnson in 1868, which was basically, "This is your country and I'm going to keep it your country and that's why you should stick with me."
1866 to 1868 after the Civil War, most Americans, they really just wanted to get out on with their lives. They didn't want to enact an expansive program of racial justice. Because of the reports of violence in the South against the emancipated and the sheer amount of volume of information coming out about how Black people were being mistreated after being freed from slavery, the North ended up becoming radicalized and doing more than they intended to do at the beginning of reconstruction.
They embedded the 14th and 15th amendments into the Constitution. They essentially inscribed the racial equality into the Constitution where it didn't exist before. I think the way that this moment is comparable, or at least could be comparable, is that you've never really seen this many Americans on board with the racial justice project. You certainly didn't see it in the 1960s when protests like-- despite the fact that we celebrate them now, Martin Luther King was not very popular in the 1960s. The march on Washington was not popular in the 1960s.
People generally said that these protests were counterproductive and they were hurting the cause of Black rights. Now, we think of them as heroic moments. What's extraordinary actually is that public opinion is so much on the side of the racial justice protesters compared to previous points in time. I do think one thing that has to do with it is that when Barack Obama got elected, I think a lot of people assume that we were-- if not-- and I don't think very many people assume we were a post-racial country, but a lot of people felt like we were on the right track to finally eradicating racism from American public life.
We elected Donald Trump, whose rise to political prominence was rooted in his willingness to spread the slander that the first Black president was not born in the United States and has pursued a raft of discriminatory policies across the board from vocally encouraging police brutality to his travel ban targeting Muslim travelers to his crackdown on immigration. I think the combination of these cell phone videos of police mistreatment of Black Americans coming out over and over and over again and the fact that the President himself has espoused ideas about race and citizenship that we once thought were no longer a part of American political life has radicalized a lot of people who were previously, I think, inclined to dismiss racism is not a serious problem in America anymore.
Arun: In your Atlantic article, you quote WEB Du Bois, who referred to reconstruction as "seven mystic years" and went on to say, "While after long years the American world recovered in most matters, it is never yet quite understood why it could ever have thought that Black men were altogether human." I'm wondering, are you more mystified by the ability of Americans to cling to white supremacy or to actually be able to recognize the humanity of Black people?
Adam: Look, the central paradox of the United States is that it is a country founded by slaveholders on the principle that all are created equal. We've been struggling with the two sides of that principle, is America a country of white Christian men and must the country always belong to that particular group of people or is this a country for everyone regardless of race, creed, color, or religion? Again, we've been struggling with that for hundreds of years.
It would be arrogant to assume that we're going to stop anytime soon. I don't think that it's unusual. I think the significance of the Du Bois quote is that sometimes there are moments where people have great awakenings about this stuff and great progress as possible, but these moments are typically followed by forms of backlash in which that pursuit of racial equality is walked backwards. I suspect that if the country doesn't act soon to capitalize on the sentiment, the reality is that it will subside eventually.
Arun: You talk about the Radical Republicans of the 1800s. When you look at the current moment, do you see a critical mass of white radicals analogous to those Republicans who were helping, I guess, push for racial equality?
Adam: I actually don't see very many white radicals at all. What I see is there are millions of white Americans who have been radicalized in the sense that they previously did not see racism as a huge problem but now are awakening to the reality of how much it still shapes American life for people of color and Black people in particular. I think what's perhaps interesting is that when you look back at the composition of the country in 1868 or in 1968, we're a much more diverse country now.
That means that there's a much larger population of Americans who have a stake in anti-racism and anti-discrimination because their lives are shaped by prejudice. I think that is a new possibility, a new component to this moment that didn't previously exist. It may mean that politicians end up being more responsive to these demands than they might have been.
Arun: A lot of this for you hinges on the election, doesn't it simply put?
Adam: Well, I don't expect Donald Trump to pursue a expansive program of racial justice if elected. I think that it would be unexpected if Joe Biden did give him his past record, but it also wouldn't be entirely far-fetched given the composition of the Democratic Party on this moment and its reliance on the votes of people of color and Black voters in particular.
Arun: Among white Democrats, it's one thing to say they support Black Lives Matter, another thing entirely to support specific policies that address racial inequality. Are there certain ones that you think are really, I guess, beyond the pale for certain people who want to say that they are Black Lives Matter but aren't willing to really go to the mat?
Adam: Historically, the policies that have tended to be pursued are those that have a combination of effect on racial inequality and partisan self-interest. It was certainly the case that the Republicans in the 1860s wanted to enfranchise Black people because they understood that the Republican Party could not be viable in the South without Black votes.
I think there's something similar to that here in the sense that if the Democrats win, I very much expect them to pursue a voting rights agenda pretty quickly because they know that they have to protect their own voters from what they see is an agenda of voter disenfranchisement from the Republican Party, where these movements typically run against the most resistance is in questions of economic redistribution.
That was true in the 1860s when radicals like Thaddeus Stevens were arguing that the Confederate states of wealthy planters should be broken up and given to former slaves to till a small farm. That proposal went nowhere because most Republicans opposed it, not just Democrats. In general, white Americans have been really resistant to engage in the economic redistribution that economists believe would be necessary to actually address the racial wealth gap. That gives you an idea of the kind of measures that might be able to be pursued. I think police reform is difficult for a number of reasons, but it lies in between those two poles.
Arun: Thaddeus Stevens was quite-- he's kind of an extraordinary figure, wasn't he, for his time?
Adam: Yes. He was an extraordinary figure for his time in the sense that he was a genuine believer in racial equality. He was also an early progressive in the sense that he really did believe that concentrated wealth posed a threat to democracy and saw the breaking up of the planters of states, not just as a reward to the emancipated for their uncompensated labor but that he just felt that this concentration of wealth made the construction of a democratic society in the South impossible.
I think that that observation holds a tremendous amount of relevance for our current situation today where economic inequality is such that almost all the gains since the 1970s have been concentrated in the top of the income bracket. I think that has had as much of an eroding effect on our democracy today as Thaddeus Stevens predicted it would have in the South 150 years ago.
Arun: Given how violent the Civil War was and the extent of, I guess, anger amongst northerners towards southerners, why wasn't there more support for breaking up these plantations and redistributing land to Black Americans?
Adam: Well, I think that the Americans, by and large, back then, the prevailing ideology was one of free labor was one in which capital and labor were working together in harmony and the labor would work and prosper and then become an entrepreneur and, therefore, rise in station. This was the way that the economy was supposed to work. Now, it couldn't work that way in the South because white southerners prevented any effort at accumulating wealth or economic influence by the emancipated through any means necessary, whether violence, whether refusing to send them land, whether refusing to let them unionize, refusing to allow them to borrow capital to start businesses.
There's simply no way for Black Americans in the South right after the Civil War to rise through the free labor model. I think, in general, Americans are very ideologically, classically liberal in the sense that they are offended by the idea of racial discrimination and people being denied opportunities because of their race. I think they are actually somewhat wary of the idea that you should redistribute income. There's an entire political party that exists today, the Republican Party, to prevent that from happening and to redistribute income upward. I think that the reality is that Americans tend to be very resistant to the kind of expansive taxation that would be needed to fund the generous social welfare programs that you see, say, in Europe.
Arun: Even if President Trump holds onto power in November, we see another four years, a second Trump administration. At the state level, at a more local level, do you see the possibility of more progressive change happening or does it really hinge largely on what happens at the top?
Adam: I don't think it hinges on what happens at the top. In particular, the things that activists want to do to change policing, that is largely a local fight. It'll be a difficult local fight because police unions and prosecutors have a tremendous amount of political power in these jurisdictions, but they have had a lot of success so far at putting more progressive DAs in office who have said that they're not going to pursue low-level drug crimes, for example, and they're going to pursue more lenient policies.
I think if Trump gets elected and I think that this is really important, no one, including the Trump campaign, believes that if the President is re-elected that he is going to be re-elected with a majority of the vote. It will be because he wins in the electoral college. I think that's significant. Obviously, the popular vote doesn't determine who wins, but it's significant in a sense that the President's agenda and his presence in the office is counter to what most of the American people actually want.
That sort of counter-majoritarianism necessarily de-legitimizes whatever pursuit the President would choose to take. Now, I have to say, I don't know what's going to happen in November. Perhaps the President will defy the expectations and when the electoral college and the popular vote, in which case, what I've just said, is moot. I think one of the things I want to emphasize in my piece is that the President is wielding-- or I emphasize in my piece is that the President is wielding power on behalf of these ideas in opposition to how most of the American people feel.
Arun: That's what happened in 2016, right? It's possible that he wins the electoral college but loses the popular vote. He's governed for four years with that exact scenario.
Adam: Yes, and it's made him pretty unpopular. His approval rating has been low for almost his entire presidency and consistently low because he is not actually governed as though he as President of the United States has civic obligations towards a people who did not vote for him. When you look at the response to the coronavirus around the world, even in countries that did not handle the coronavirus particularly well, the status of their leaders rose in part because those leaders were capable of expressing empathy for those who were affected.
The President has viewed himself as the primary victim of the coronavirus pandemic because he sees it as having harmed his chances of being re-elected. His approval rating after a very small rally effect early in the beginning of the pandemic has dissipated to where it was normally. In some sense, the President and his supporters have legitimized his hold on power by telling themselves that they're the only real Americans and that the only people who can wield power legitimately are those who have their approval like Donald Trump. That is fundamentally not how democracies are supposed to work in a democracy. Every vote is supposed to count the same and it's not supposed to matter who you are.
Arun: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.