Putting the White in White House

The swastika was unmistakable.

It was carved crudely into the front door of a house of God. Some miscreant had decided that the toleration shown by the Methodists was intolerable, so the entrance to the West End United Methodist Church was marked with the greatest symbol of hatred and evil of the 20th century. Gone, too, are the “God loves everyone unconditionally” banners that the church had hung on the property, ripped down by vandals.

We have officially crossed into bizarre times: People feel free to display the symbols of the Nazis in the open again. The idiots who support white supremacy and nationalism have been emboldened, drawn out of the shadows by a dog-whistling presidential candidate and the bedroom eyes he makes at the alt-right.

The problem is our politics and the gutless politicians who didn’t nip this in the bud years ago. As Republicans dug in their heels in with their attempt to make Barack Obama a one-term president and roll back his agenda, they abandoned the normal rules of decorum. When Donald J. Trump, a second-rate celebrity and marketer of arguable fortune, spent countless hours on the Fox News airwaves attempting to delegitimize the president with birther nonsense and outlandish conspiracies, people like Tennessee’s own Sen. Bob Corker said nothing. What did they care if a huckster was rising on the back of crackpot rumors and not-very-subtle subtle racism? If it cut into Obama, it was fair game. The mud wouldn’t stick to him, Corker probably thought, as he was part of the reasonable wing of Tennessee Republicans, the last vestiges of Howard Baker’s party.

But then the wave subsumed them. Trump rode to the presidency by tapping into the worst of the American public’s id: He stoked white voters fears of Latinos and African-Americans; he refused to disavow the hate groups that endorsed him; he pledged to ban Muslims from entering the country. And as the followers at his rallies chanted things like “Jew-S-A, Jew-S-A,” the worst pieces of our society crawled out from the shadows, like the KKK members in North Carolina who marched last week in celebration of President-elect Trump.

You don’t just put that back in the box after the election.

Leadership is doing the right thing, even when it might carry political consequences. On Sunday, after Trump announced the appointment of Reince Priebus as his chief of staff and Steve Bannon — the ex-Breitbart exec, white nationalist champion and mouthpiece of the alt-right movement — as his chief adviser, the reactions of Tennessee’s politicians spoke volumes about their leadership abilities.

Corker praised the Priebus selection and said nothing about Bannon, presumably because Corker himself is being considered for a couple of different cabinet posts. He said nothing about Bannon’s site opposing full integration between races, for example, or keeping a series of race-baiting articles displayed under the tag “Black Crime.” Sen. Lamar Alexander has been silent about Bannon, too. Marsha Blackburn? Please. The woman who once co-sponsored a birther bill will likely never denounce anything from the alt-right.

But the journey from silent complicity to swastikas on church doors is a short one. 

This election has bolstered racists and those who believe in the idea of America as a place by and for white people, a coarsened society where women should know their position and the only way to achieve success is through fighting. 

Our political leaders, liberal and conservative, have a duty to cut off this surge of hatred now, and to hold accountable the new administration even before it takes office. In 2014, Bannon wrote in an email to a Breitbart editor, “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.” If men like Corker are not up to the task, that says a lot about them.

It is little wonder, then, that places like Vanderbilt are quietly telling their charges to lay low right now. In an email to foreign scholars who have come to Nashville to study, director of international students Ali Soltanshahi advised them this way: “Do not engage in political discussions if you do not know the audience surrounding you. Do not engage in political conversations late night, at pubs, or in restaurants where you are not familiar with your surroundings.” Come to America for the exchange of ideas, students, but keep your opinion to yourself unless you know it’s safe.

Seventy-five years ago, people like my grandfather signed up to beat back the Nazis, flying in bombers over Europe while men with swastikas on their uniforms tried to blow him out of the sky. The idea that such a symbol could be making a comeback on Tennessee soil, given cover by the politics of the day, should horrify us all. 

Email editor@nashvillescene.com

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