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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The vanquishing of the Confederate flag from the yard of South Carolina Capitol had to be a heartening moment for all but the most cynical souls (and recalcitrant Confederates).
“Personally, I have found an abundance of peace in this gesture,” wrote columnist Kathleen Parker, a South Carolinian. “Whether this symbolic gesture will have a lasting effect remains to be seen, but I predict it will.”
I hope it will, too, but predict it won’t.
This is not cynicism, I promise. I was moved by the silent ceremony in Columbia. I was impressed and even buoyed by how the communities of Charleston publicly rallied after the shootings at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, relieved not to see reruns of Baltimore and Ferguson.
But then came Donald Trump.
Everything we know about American history, political science and polling indicates that the Trump surge will be a flash in the pan. I don’t doubt that. We just don’t know exactly how long and how bright it will flash.
But I also don’t doubt the obvious fact that a lot of people are attracted to Trump’s belligerent, insulting and racist rants about Mexicans and immigrants. Yes, his poll numbers are inflated because he is as famous as famous can be, running in a long line of no-names and oddballs. But people don’t come out to real, live speeches because of high name ID. They come to hear something.
Trump is now milking his racist shtick, probably because he thinks it works (though who knows what that guy thinks). He seems to know something about marketing and preying our base impulses.
You can minimize the import of that by saying that only a small slice of voters approve of Trump now. Well, guess what? A poll two weeks ago found that 21 percent of Americans thought the Confederate flag should still fly high in South Carolina. A small slice of America is still a whole lot of people. It is a slice the Republicans have pandered to ever since Southern Democrats ditched them beginning in the 1960s.
This year’s crop of scaredy-cat presidential candidates is “distancing” themselves from Trump. “Distancing” is a silly word that basically means “hiding.”
Since 2012, the GOP mantra has been inclusiveness. The party’s mechanics are clear and realistic that the party will wither if it cannot appeal to the growing sector of the population – non-whites.
So a prudent and encouraging response to Trump’s version of waving the Confederate flag would be simple. All the other candidates should sign a simple statement to the effect, “Donald Trump has repeatedly and intentionally said racist, ugly and ignorant things about Hispanic people and immigrants. We jointly condemn his campaign, his views and his claim to be a part of the Republican Party.”
Would that hurt the eventual nominee? Of course not. But the party still wants to covertly pander to the haters, not overtly fight them. Racism endures, of course, but so does its political clout. This is true even after the election and re-election of our first black president.
A prudent and encouraging encore to South Carolina’s flag-lowering would be a serious attempt to tackle the other, more concrete cause of the Charleston shootings: the undeterred access crooks and kooks have to firearms. Flags don’t kill people, guns do.
A prudent and encouraging response to Baltimore and Ferguson would be a sustained, serious rethinking of our criminal justice operation – not just policing, but also sentencing, prisons, parole, drug laws and systematic racial bias. That, in fact, is beginning to happen in a bipartisan way and it could continue with aggressive, sustained leadership. Or it could evaporate.
In the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency there was loose talk of a post-racial America. The charitable way to view that was as an aspiration. Some recent episodes, such as Ferguson, Baltimore and the Charleston killings, give us the feeling that race relations may have gotten worse since 2008.
The exile of South Carolina’s Confederate icon gives us feelings of optimism. But there is no new pattern, no trend – only the very old ones.
An interesting question now is how race issues evolve in post-Obama America.