Trump loyalists storm the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and temporarily halt congressional certification of Joe Biden’s win. (Shutterstock photo)
BridgeDetroit founding editor Stephen Henderson says Republicans must ‘call out’ racism even when it’s hard. (Photo by Valaurian Waller)

This essay was read by Stephen Henderson on WDET’s Detroit Today on Jan. 7

How did we get here? 

HOW … did we get here? 

That was the question that no doubt underlies all the fear and rancor and chaos of yesterday, as a white nationalist, insurrectionist mob breached our nation’s Capitol to stop our duly elected congressional representatives from performing their duty to formally recognize the results of our most recent presidential election. 

How did a nation that projects itself to the world as the finest example of democratic values, come so close to the brute force coup d’etats that characterize nations that struggle to maintain continuity of governance, and peaceful transitions of power? 

Every American owes some collective introspection about our nation, our culture, and — yes —  the path that has brought us to this stunning, harrowing low point. 

Even as the scene unfolded yesterday, amid the horror and sadness I felt, that question was blaring in my mind. But so was the answer — like a foghorn. 

One party in this nation, the Republican Party, has been gesturing toward and coddling this brand of traitorous, racist and violent political expression, since the 1980s. The responsibility, as much as it lies with the limited intellects who stormed the Capitol yesterday, sits in the lap of modern conservatism. 

A harsh assessment? Yes. But true, nonetheless. 

Bear with me here a second. 

We’ve spent a lot of time on this show in the past year talking about the roots of inequality and racism, the history that provides foundation for the things we see around us today. 

And what happened yesterday in Washington is a prime example of the ways that the past is prologue, and that modern dynamics are built by historical inflections. 

When Ronald Reagan, the hero of the modern Republican Party, announced his candidacy for President in 1980, he didn’t do it in California, where he’d been governor and a popular actor. He didn’t do it in Illinois, where he’d been born. 

No, he went to Neshoba County, Mississippi, a place whose significance in American history is bathed in shame. 

It’s where the Mississippi Burning murders of civil rights activists during the Freedom Summer in 1964 happened. That place in Mississippi is a shrine to white resistance. 

So as much as Reagan was touching off a “new” era of conservatism, he was nodding — quite forcefully in fact —  to the resentment and ignorance that has fueled America’s deepest troubles since the beginning. 

It wasn’t much noted at the time. It sure did not attract the condemnations it should have from conservatives. And it worked. Reagan’s mixing of ideals of economic freedom and opportunity with tolerance for racial ignorance was a brand that brought high-minded conservative intellectualism together with enthusiasm for racial bigotry, and a “look the other way” attitude toward racial violence

And since that time, we’ve seen the GOP double, and triple down on that alliance. The wink-and-nod approach that Reagan embraced during his campaign has morphed into a much more brazen embrace. 

Reagan himself invoked the image of the “welfare queen,” a repugnant racial stereotype, in his arguments against the social safety net. 

George H.W. Bush’s campaign destroys his 1988 opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, in part through a vicious ad that blames Dukakis for a murder commited by Willie Horton — a Black man he had paroled. 

And by the time Donald Trump — a man who came to national prominence falsely accusing five Black boys of a heinous rape in New York’s Central Park — the bond between conservatism and racial resentment is like cement inside the Republican Party. 

Trump strips whatever veneer remained, and now openly excuses and courts white nationalists. Yesterday, he refused to even condemn the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol. His daughter called them patriots, on Twitter. 

So as much as the violence at the Capitol yesterday was shocking —  it is hard to say with any transparency that it was much of a surprise. We have been headed this way for years — and the GOP has been driving the train. 

Now —  that, of course, does not mean that all or even most Republicans are racist. It doesn’t mean they all excuse or embrace violence. I know good people who identify as conservatives, or Republicans. As much as I disagree with them, I cherish their place in our Republic, and the ideals that we all share around its existence, and survival. 

But the decades-long trend of marrying conservatism with racial resentment highlights the responsibility that all conservatives and Republicans bear for refusing to cleave the most awful instincts and actions from their political portfolios. It does say, clearly, that they have been willing to accept this ugliest element of American political life, if it means maintaining power to execute the rest of the GOP agenda. 

Even in the Georgia Senate runoff elections, we saw the naked and raw racism that fuels too much of the GOP. Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler ran ads in which her campaign darkened the skin of Rev. Raphael Warnock, her Black Democratic opponent. 

Sen. David Perdue’s campaign ran ads in which images of his Jewish Democratic opponent, Jon Ossof, appeared with an elongated nose. 

This is the playbook for far too much of Republican politics, and the resentment and anger it whips up boiled over yesterday in Washington. 

The image that broke my heart yesterday was the one of a white man strolling through the Capitol image broke into, with a Confederate flag draped over his shoulder. 

The Confederate flag. A symbol of the last white nationalist insurrection to challenge a much younger American democracy. A symbol that required four years of unimaginable bloodshed to put racial fascism down. 

The GOP has been courting, implicitly and explicitly, the arrogance, the ignorance of that man, walking through one of the most cherished symbols of the democracy that survived that last insurrection, with a symbol of “heritage” that celebrates the attempt to destroy our country. 

The only way to stop this is to reverse the dynamic is, well, to reverse it. It was great that most Republican leader condemned the attempted coup yesterday. But that’s pretty easy. 

We need them to do it when it’s harder. Do it in campaigns, even if it costs you votes. Do it in policy debates over legislation, even if it means compromise, or maybe not amassing as much power as you’d like. 

Do it —  and call racism out by its name — when it inspires an attack on the votes of millions of Black Americans, in one of the most consequential elections of our history. 

The stakes got raised yesterday. The existential threats to our republic, driven by racial resentment, manifested in an actual violent attempt to recast this nation’s democracy as an open fraud, an oppressive, disenfranchising autocracy. 

None of the good people of these United States would willingly countenance that. 

What we need now is for our friends in the Republican Party to do their part in helping the rest of us to push this brand of insurrectionism —  in all its forms — down. 

Stephen Henderson is the Founding Editor of BridgeDetroit, and a former writer and editor for the Detroit Free Press, Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune. Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary,...

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