The Elephant in Trump Tower

The jury is still out on whether Trump is a racist, but tolerance of race-baiting--when it helps the home team--may explain why he trounced the Republican field. Now that he is the last candidate standing we should deal with another elephant in the room.

Long before declaring his candidacy in June 2016, Trump made headlines by challenging President Obama's citizenship status. Obama, to our amusement, roasted Trump for this at a White House correspondents' dinner by playing a clip from the Lion King--his birth video! Few people, especially Republicans who supported birtherism and refused to condemn it, are laughing at Trump now. They are too busy trying to figure out how he won, and whether he can be stopped. Apparently, some Republicans are even considering the unthinkable--supporting the Democratic nominee. Others have decided to sit this election out, also unthinkable.

When the birther movement was taking off, one spin, which made it appear reasonable to some folks, was to raise doubts about Obama's honesty. Of course this was not a new tactic. South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson did it when he shouted, at the President, "You lie," during a health care speech to Congress. A few Republicans condemned this breach of decorum, but others wondered aloud whether there was truth to this, and used the occasion to fire up their political base against Obamacare.

Anyone with good sense, watching these antics unfold, knew that the birther movement to expose President Obama as a fake U.S. citizen was a blatant example of a race-baiting dog whistle. Why do politicians find it so difficult to be honest about this? In an MSNBC interview earlier this year, Mitt Romney, who coveted Trump's endorsement in 2012 but declared him a fraud in 2016, went so far as to distinguish Trump's birther attacks on Obama from the "highly offensive" ones he directed at Ted Cruz and others during this campaign season. So, how can we expect politicians to deal with the elephant in Trump Tower that stole their supporters when they refuse to be honest about their culpability in creating Trumpmania by preaching, practicing, and pardoning race-baiting?

It is clear that race-baiting is highly offensive. Senator Lindsey Graham apparently agrees. But this is not news. It always has been, whether politicians are talking about Willie Horton, welfare queens, or the War on Drugs to rally their supporters. What should now be painfully clear to the Republican establishment is that this can bite the elephant in the ass when it gets out of control and no longer serves the home team.

The road to birtherism was never paved with good intentions. And, as we have seen during the endless media coverage of Trump's run, it is a short step from that to an anti-political correctness presidential platform that promises to "tell it like it is," "make America great again," and to do it by making everyone else pay. This sounded wonderful to some people until it became clear that Mexico wasn't going to be the only one paying. They would be on the hook for a wall. But the Republican establishment may pay the highest price--losing the supporters they were banking on to put "a reliable Republican conservative" back in the White House.

Looking the other way when the race-baiting dog whistle is blowing creates an opportunity for a candidate willing to forego political correctness by calling Mexicans rapists, Muslims terrorists, brushing off tough questions from a journalist by suggesting she was on her period, and even accusing a POW of being a fake war hero. It is now clear that much more than hurt feelings are at stake when this toxic climate is created and tolerated. For the right kind of political candidate--with tons of money, willing to say what it takes to keep the cameras rolling, and not beholden to the establishment--capitalizing on these things can be the winning ticket.

The pollsters are scrambling to figure out what they got wrong about Donald Trump and why they did not see this coming. Perhaps it was the electoral equivalent of a black swan, Nate Cohn speculates. Maybe Trump wasn't taken seriously because of his reality TV celebrity status. Maybe it was more about an ineffective and divided Republican party with a weak field of candidates. Perhaps big donors like the Koch brothers didn't spend enough money. Perhaps it was an unforeseen side effect of Republican-backed voter suppression laws and the Supreme Court's assault on the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder.

This all sounds very complicated. But one thing is pretty simple. If politicians continue to ignore the other elephant in the room--letting race-baiting, xenophobia, religious bigotry and other forms of intolerance spread and fester like cancer--much more than the Presidency of the United States will be at stake. America's great democratic experiment to live up to the values embodied by the majestic Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, which beacons all those yearning to breathe free, will come to an inglorious end. And is this really what we want?