MONTGOMERY, Ala.—It’s hard to keep from staring open-mouthed as the Trump presidency dissolves into a maelstrom of narcissism, lies, mind-boggling political stupidity, and, possibly, criminal charges.
But out here in the hinterland things are also going south, and fast, thanks in large part to the malevolent forces that Donald Trump helped unleash.
Take Alabama. While this is no one’s idea of a progressive or well-governed state (“Thank god for Mississippi” is our common response to sorry rankings in virtually all quality-of-life surveys), the events of the last week —a near-fistfight in the well of the Legislature, the ramming through of a bill aimed at protecting Confederate monuments, and yet another redistricting plan meant to guarantee total Republican rule—brought race roaring back into the public square.
Or Mississippi. Over the weekend, state Rep. Karl Oliver, a Republican whose district includes the site of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955, wrote a furious Facebook post saying that Louisiana leaders who completed the removal of four major Confederate monuments in New Orleans last week “should be LYNCHED.” Oliver’s endorsement of extrajudicial murders was met by a hailstorm of criticism, including denunciations by Gov. Phil Bryant and other politicians. The Republican House speaker stripped Oliver of his Forestry Committee vice chairmanship.
Or Texas. Al Green, a black, seven-term Democratic congressman, was threatened with anonymous racist messages last week after he called for the impeachment of President Trump. “You’re not going to impeach anybody, you fucking nigger,” one of them said. “You’ll be hanging from a tree.”
In Alabama, state Rep. Lynn Greer lit the fuse.
Greer, a Republican from the 90 percent white town of Rogersville, forwarded an email to 91 legislators and state workers that he said was sent to him by a constituent about an unnamed legislature. The email falsely claimed to describe a sociology study involving monkeys trying to get a banana. “This is how today’s House and Senate operates, and this is why from time to time, ALL of the monkeys need to be REPLACED AT THE SAME TIME!” it concluded.
The email came amid a battle over redistricting plans for both the House and Senate, forced by a federal panel striking down 12 legislative districts in January (the court found that maps adopted in 2012 improperly used race). Democrats and black legislators have been struggling against the latest maps, which they say also are drawn on racially unfair lines, but the legislature—all three branches of state government here are GOP-controlled—adopted them last week anyway.
Greer’s email set off a two-day storm.
John Rogers, a black legislator from Birmingham, took the podium to tell Greer to remove his glasses so he could “punch his nose off.” Another lawmaker reacted angrily to being gaveled quiet by a Republican leader, saying “we were monkeys yesterday.” Others noted that the email referenced spraying monkeys with water and reminded Republicans that civil-rights marchers, many of them children, were attacked with fire hoses by racist officials in the 1960s.
“We have been subjected to the most racial insult I have ever seen,” said Rep. John Knight, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “It is unacceptable and we will not continue to accept this kind of action.”
If that were only the whole of it.
On Friday, the next to last day of the session, the Legislature sent to Gov. Kay Ivey a bill preventing local governments from removing historic monuments—a transparent scheme to preserve what are in effect monuments to white supremacy. The bill, described by its white sponsor as a way to protect “honorable service” by those celebrated, came two years after then-Gov. Robert Bentley ordered the removal of the Confederate battle flag and three other Confederate pennants from the state Capitol grounds. The governor’s decision followed a similar move in South Carolina, where a white supremacist enamored with the battle flag had just gunned down nine black churchgoers.
But that was then. Although a movement to remove monuments to white supremacy and white supremacists was strong for a period after the massacre, it soon bogged down amid a right-wing backlash. Within six weeks of the bloodshed in Charleston, there were more than 130 pro-Confederate symbol rallies. Even New Orleans, a city that is 60 percent black, faced threats of real violence as it removed its Confederate monuments. One came from Karl Oliver.
“The destruction of these monuments, erected in loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans, is both heinous and horrific,” the white Republican legislator wrote. “If the, and I use this term extremely loosely, ‘leadership’ of Louisiana wishes to, in a Nazi-ish fashion, burn books or destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED!”
In the state of Alabama—not to mention many other conservative states—this kind of thing is not entirely new. In 2000, 41 percent of voters here (545,933 people) wanted to maintain the state constitution’s illegal prohibition of interracial marriage. In both 2004 and 2012, Alabamians rejected a similar referendum that would have abolished Jim Crow requirements for separate school systems. The 2012 vote was 61-39 percent, with 1,040,987 voting for segregation.
But under Trump, unvarnished racism has new energy.
After all, this is the man who opened his campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists, went on to suggest that Muslims should be banned from America, hired men who are arguably white nationalists and their sympathizers, encouraged violence against black protesters at his rallies, and even trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes, despite his daughter and son-in-law’s Judaism.
That kind of thing trickles down to the state level rather quickly. As was seen both during the campaign and in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, the New York billionaire’s ugly rhetoric was taken as a kind of permission by a huge number of Americans. The wave of apparent hate violence and lesser hate incidents that swept the country in the days after Trump’s victory was one result.
Another was seen in governments like that of Alabama.
In the fall of 2015, after adopting a law requiring photo ID to vote and the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the Republican-run state decided to close driver’s license bureaus in eight out of 10 predominantly black counties. That meant that every county where more than 75 percent of the population is black would lose its driver’s license bureau. Eventually, facing national criticism, Alabama shelved its plan.
Even as the legislature this year failed to adopt a plan to build new prisons or improve old ones — the system is currently at 173 percent of capacity and plagued with violence—it did manage to pass a bill short-circuiting death-penalty appeals. The racial aspect of these votes was not lost on many people.
Trump can’t be blamed for every nasty, racially tinged episode that has hit the local governments of this country like a tsunami in the last couple of years. But what leaders say and do matters, and when the man at the top regularly issues incendiary attacks on the many groups and individuals he doesn’t like, we can’t be surprised as the toxicity drips down into our lives like a poison.
Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right based in Montgomery, Ala. Now at work on a book, he was an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization known for monitoring the extreme right, for 20 years.