In the 1964 presidential election Barry Goldwater received only 6 percent of the African American vote, down 26 points from fellow Republican Richard Nixon’s failed run four years earlier. Among other critics, Martin Luther King Jr. said that while Goldwater was not necessarily bigoted, his philosophy “gives aid and comfort to the racists.”
While Goldwater helped to kick off a strong conservative streak still apparent in American politics today, including a role in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory, he was trounced by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Johnson had been president for less than two years following the JFK’s assassination, yet his domineering personality and acerbic tone made him a popular public figure.
Johnson took advantage of this alpha role by bending political capital to his advantage. The man was not without racist sentiments, using race as a buffer and tool for jockeying. Running the country during the era of Civil Rights, Johnson knew how to inspire resentment in what today is being called the ‘white working class’ when he stated,
If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
It may or may not have been Mark Twain that said history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. Regardless of source, the sentiment remains remarkably true a half-century after LBJ’s crass sentiment.
The politicization of race, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation is now being expressed in profound and unsettling ways. Tatiana Navka, the wife of one of Vladimir Putin’s top aides, recently performed at a celebrity ice skating event wearing a concentration camp uniform and yellow Star of David. This is during a time when anti-Semitism is rampant on social media outlets like Twitter, with many journalists targeted by anonymous users.
Writers are easy targets, having public profiles and being engaged in social media. Hate mail is being taken literally, however. Enter visiting Harvard Law School professor Sanford Levinson. Last week the 75-year-old academic received a postcard that read:
We’re gonna drain the swamp at Harvard Law! Juden Raus.
Juden Raus refers to an anti-Semitic 1930s-era German board game that helped root out Jews. Throwing barbs in German has become en vogue in certain circles. At a recent alt-right conference the main speaker called the mainstream media Lügenpresse, the same word Nazis used to criticize the press of their day, too blatant to even be considered code-switch.
Levinson sees this trend as here to stay, at least for a while. He cites the recent presidential election cycle as ‘liberating’ language from inner monologue to the public space:
I do think that the campaign and Trump scrutiny has liberated a certain kind of dialogue. I think there is just this sense, at least for a while and maybe it will be for the next few years, that certain sorts of restraints are now loosened.
LBJ is remembered in part as a champion of liberal policies. He passed laws critical for the advancement and preservation of civil rights, Social Security, and the environmental. Yet he grew up in turn-of-the-century Texas and could not escape common social observations—many of which, apparently, remain common.
With his off-the-cuff remark to a little known aid named Bill Moyers, who would of course turn into one of media’s towering figures in the coming decades, he was exploiting our species’ penchant for tribalism, using the ‘other’ to gain political power. When considering such a tactic in hindsight it is easily understood even as it leaves a taste of bile in your mouth.
More disturbing is that such sentiments and practices are as powerful today. With the ease of ranting thanks to the one-click capabilities of social media these feelings are more widely expressed than ever before. Whether a 400-pound man spread across his bed armed with a laptop or President of the United States this thinking still works, regardless of how broken a mentality it requires.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.