The Breitbartification of Senator Robert Byrd

For the last month, Donald Trump has been on another reinvention tour, thanks to the softening touch of his new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway. With his apparent "outreach" to the African American community, he appears to be shifting from serving as the de facto head of the alt-right to recasting himself as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite his well-documented forty-year history of racism against the African American community, Trump is on the warpath against Hillary Clinton's record, going as far as to call her a bigot.

And in a desperate attempt to project and protect, Trump; his son, Donald Trump Jr.; and his surrogates are trotting out a classic diversion from the Breitbart/alt-right crowd.

They're using Secretary Clinton's friendship with the late US Senator Robert Byrd--the fact that she called him her mentor when he died and a photograph where she can be seen kissing him on the cheek--as evidence of her racism.

This meme has long existed in alt-right newsgroups, but has recently been elevated by Breitbart and Fox News as a rebuttal to Clinton's accusations that Trump is inciting racism and offering safe harbor to white supremacists.

Over the past fifteen months, Trump's general campaign strategy on attacks has followed a very similar pattern. He treats his Twitter followers as a digital focus group; he will retweet a comment made by one of his followers and see where things land. If there's a strong reaction, he'll then start talking about it during his rallies and interviews.

Trump loves to bring up conspiracy theories and flawed arguments from the dingy basement of the alt-right and present them on the silver platter that only comes with being a major party presidential nominee. And with this attack on Hillary Clinton that's just what he's doing now.

On August 25, Trump retweeted a tweet posted by Fox Nation. In that tweet was a link to a video with this headline: "Flashback: Hillary Clinton Praised Former KKK Member Robert Byrd as 'Friend and Mentor'."

The same day, Donald Trump Jr. (Trump's oldest son) posted an original tweet about Clinton and Byrd: "Hillary openly endorsed KKK leader Robert Byrd and called him her 'mentor' Seems relevant given her argument today, but media is crickets???"

Two days later, Trump retweeted a tweet posted by Diamond and Silk, two sisters who have arguably been Trump's strongest and most public African American supporters. It said: "Crooked Hillary getting desperate. On TV bashing Trump. @CNN, she forgot how she said a KKK member was her mentor."

Trump's strategy is a smart and usually effective one. Most people don't take the time to fact-check after such accusations are lobbed. And now this classic example of truthiness, or in this case, Breitbarting, is flying around the Internet, primarily on the conspiracy-filled Twitter feeds of Trump supporters, but as with all things Trump/Breitbart, it will soon slip into the mainstream.

Senator Byrd was indeed a member of the KKK; this is not a Breitbart/alt-right conspiracy. In fact, even worse, he was a recruiter for the KKK in his early twenties. He was credited with bringing in 150 new members.

But here's what matters: he apologized. He spent decades apologizing again and again. Not once did he ever blame the media (as Trump and his supporters are wont to do) or anyone else for his mistake. He took full responsibility.

It's also important to note that Senator Byrd wasn't free from mistakes after he left the KKK. In 1964, he filibustered the Civil Rights Act in the Senate and then voted against it. During a 2001 interview with the late Tony Snow, he used the term "white ni***rs" twice.

Just as he had spent decades apologizing for his membership and position in the KKK, Senator Byrd repeatedly apologized for these undeniably offensive moments.

Senator Robert Byrd represented West Virginia in the United States Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010. Few would dispute that Senator Byrd had an illustrious career in the Senate. He was, for many years, the chairman of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations committee. As the institution's longest-serving member, he was the dean of the Senate and president pro tem of the Senate, which meant he was third in line to the presidency.

And as the Senate historian and parliamentarian, he was a mentor to many younger senators. Regardless of party, one of the first things a freshman senator would do was meet with Senator Byrd, who would freely dole out advice and counsel and wave a copy of his trusty pocket constitution.

He was respected and loved by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

After Senator Byrd passed away in 2010, tributes from members of both parties poured in (including Trump's leading US Senate supporter, Senator Jeff Sessions), and almost all of them made mention of the senator's dark past and the reconciliation he worked so hard on. The sweeping under the rug that usually takes place when someone dies was clearly absent in the tributes to Senator Byrd's life.

But two tributes to Senator Byrd's legacy stand out.

In remarks given at his memorial in West Virginia, President Obama said, "Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality--and that is the capacity to change, the capacity to learn, the capacity to listen."

But perhaps the most remarkable tribute came from the NAACP. In years prior, Senator Byrd received a 100% rating from the NAACP for his pro-civil rights voting record. In a statement, the group's then-president, Ben Jealous, said:

"Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation. Senator Byrd went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country."

It's remarkable when you think about it.

A man who was a member of and recruiter for the KKK, a man who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was eulogized by our first black president, whose candidacy Byrd endorsed in the 2008 primary. And the NAACP, our nation's leading African American civil rights organization, mourned his death in a passionate statement.

Donald Trump, the man who founded the birther movement, which doubts the nationality of our first black president, has decided that he and his supporters are in the position to judge Senator Byrd's life and Hillary Clinton's friendship with him. Remember that Trump is also the man who was sued by Richard Nixon's Justice Department for housing discrimination against African Americans and a man who, in an interview with NBC's Bryant Gumbel, infamously said, in 1989, that black men have it easier than white men.

I didn't know Senator Byrd, but if someone close to me told me that he still grappled with his prejudice up until the moment of his passing, I wouldn't be surprised. And I would forgive him for one simple reason: he kept trying.

Senator Byrd never tried to whitewash his history. His supporters never tried to whitewash his history. And in death, his history wasn't whitewashed. And unlike Donald Trump and his supporters, who act inconvenienced whenever they're called out on the candidate's insensitive and racist remarks, Senator Byrd knew that he had a lifelong responsibility to atone for his sins.

In his memoirs, which were released in 2005, Senator Byrd said, "I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times . . . and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

Now, imagine Donald Trump saying the same thing.

If you're a reasonable person, I'm sure you can't even construct the thought in your mind.