The Modern GOP Is a ‘Radicalized, Weaponized Death Cult’ — So Why Are Dems Losing the War of Words?
On this episode of democracy-ish, writer and political commentator Wajahat Ali joins Danielle for another deep dive into GOP racist dog-whistle politics, the motivations of white voters and how the media is complicit in the whole mess.
As we look forward to 2022 — the year of the all-important midterm elections — we’re still reeling from the fallout of the Virginia gubernatorial election, in which former governor and establishment Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost to political newcomer and “Trump-lite” Republican Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin’s primary message in the race was supposedly about education, specifically parents’ right to influence curriculum in Commonwealth schools.
But as guest Wajahat Ali argues, “education anxiety” is coded language similar to how “busing” and “sharia law” were conservative euphemisms for the interests of white supremacy.
Why don’t Democrats call out these thinly veiled appeals to white voters and focus on voters of color? And how should Democrats message back?
Our guest this week, Wajahat (Waj) Ali, is a contributing op-ed writer for the Daily Beast, a former op-ed columnist for the New York Times and, as he calls himself in his official bio, a “recovering attorney.” His first book, “Go Back To Where You Came From: And, Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American,” is slated for release early next year.
Waj lives on the Virginia side of the Washington, D.C., metro area and had an up-close-and-personal citizen’s view of the recent gubernatorial race.
His latest piece for the Daily Beast, “You Damn Karens Are Killing America,” analyzes the not-so-shocking demographics of the election results: 57% of white women chose Republican Glenn Youngkin, who edged out Democrat Terry McAuliffe by nearly three points.
“Let me tell you what went down,” says Waj. “Terry McAuliffe, who was governor once before, waltzed in and thought this was his seat for the taking. His message was: I’m Terry McAuliffe. Vote for me. I’m a Democrat.”
But Youngkin, a relative political newcomer, “came in with his fleece” and rallied the pearl-clutching PTA set with a thinly veiled appeal to white supremacy.
“His only message — a successful message — was ‘parents’ choice,’” Waj explains. “What does that mean? That parents should have a right to have their fingerprints on what teachers are teaching,” purportedly critical race theory, which is “teaching your children to hate white people.”
Waj is a dad to two kids, ages five and seven, who attend Virginia elementary schools. He can say with certainty that CRT is not part of their curriculum. He took his one and only CRT class as an elective, as a second year law student — because that’s just about the only place you’ll find it in a classroom: graduate-level academia.
“Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught in K-through-12 schools,” says Danielle. “White hysteria is.”
Episode Highlights –– Education Anxiety?!
‘Southern strategy’ redux
In 2016, the media told us economic anxiety motivated white folks to vote for Donald Trump. Now, it’s educational anxiety — “just concerned parents who are really worried,” says Danielle, who prompts Waj to “tell everybody about the piece you wrote that pissed everyone off.”
You may have already seen “You Damn Karens” flooding your timeline or your inbox. And it has definitely made an impact. Waj has received tons of “exquisite” hate mail in response.
“Youngkin used the old ‘Southern strategy,’ [a] racist dog whistle that has been used by Republicans since the ’50s and ’60s,” he explains. “Instead of ‘busing,’ instead of ‘welfare queen,’ instead of ‘sharia,’ instead of the ‘birther’ conspiracy, instead of the ‘caravan’ that’s invading, he went with CRT, which Christopher Rufo, a right wing activist, openly admitted was manufactured as a catch-all for the racial anxieties that will work with their base.”
That base includes a majority of white women, who became convinced that their children “are being taught to hate themselves,” Waj says.
Breaking the ‘coded’ language
Education — specifically parents’ right to influence the content taught in classrooms, hadn’t been a top issue among the electorate until Youngkin made it one. He staged “Parents Matter” rallies encouraging voters to “stand up to and reject Terry McAuliffe’s attempts to silence parents and stand between them and their children’s education,” according to a Youngkin spokesperson.
Youngkin also released an ad featuring conservative activist Laura Murphy, who has been fighting to prevent Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” from being taught in schools because it’s too “explicit.”
Waj notes that Republican strategist Lee Atwater admitted in 1980 that, in lieu of the n-word (which was by then already taboo in the media), it’s necessary to use “coded language” like “busing” to obscure racially motivated speech. But that’s apparently too explicit for those who sent Waj hate mail.
“They got mad at me for simply sharing the reality that since 1952, a majority of white women have voted for Republican presidents, that a majority of white women went for Trump in 2016, even more white women went for Trump in 2020, and 57% of white women went for Glenn Younkin, who has zero policy proposals except for banning CRT.”
Trump would be Lee Atwater’s ‘white dream’
Waj calls this bloc of white, conservative female voters the “handmaidens of white supremacy,” pointing out that they’re not dissimilar to their foremothers who fought against desegregation.
“They have made the calculation that white supremacy benefits them and their families,” he adds. “Just because of that, apparently you and I are racist, and people of color are racist, because we call it racism. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.”
“It’s the absurdity of it for me,” Danielle responds. “Donald Trump gave these people permission to say the quiet part out loud. Atwater told them in 1980 that we can’t say this word. But we can say all of these [coded] words, as if he was giving his own racist-ass TED talk. Then Donald Trump comes around.”
Trump would have been Atwater’s dream candidate, she says.
“His white dream candidate,” Waj quips.
“And then everybody takes off their hoods, they go get their khakis and they get their tiki torches from the party store. And then they start marching down the streets wanting to reclaim all of the things they think have been stolen from them.”
White voters real anxiety is ‘being replaced’
Danielle says that “our society and media at large lets white women off the hook,” while “we frame white male rage as anxiety.”
Calling the racist impulses of the white women who voted for Trump (and Youngkin, and most Republicans for years) educational anxiety gives them the benefit of the doubt — “as if they give a damn about what is actually happening in the public school system,” she adds.
“No one was out there marching about making sure that the public schools had new HVACs so air was circulating when we’re bringing kids back who were unvaccinated until recently … They’re not talking about expanding the curriculum so kids that graduate are globally competitive.”
But no one is calling out this “educational anxiety” as a falsehood, she says.
“Well, it’s because this country has always coddled white rage,” says Waj. “It has always rationalized it. It has always hidden it. It has always given it euphemisms like ‘economic anxiety.’”
In 2016, many writers and commentators of color balked at the idea of economic anxiety being to blame instead of the primary motivator behind white folks’ Trump votes, which is “identity, and racial and cultural anxiety,” he says, noting that when reputable studies were done, voters reported that they feared being replaced.
Black and Brown parents have anxiety too
But the economic anxiety argument, says Waj, was “like Mike Myers or Jason Voorhees” — a horror-movie trope that just wouldn’t die.
And then it finally did — “maybe six months ago,” he says. “But [it] got replaced real quick with educational anxiety … But you know who else also has anxiety in Virginia? Black and Brown parents. I have anxiety over books being banned. I have anxiety over teachers who yell Islamophobic slurs. I have anxiety over Black and Brown kids who feel unsafe going to school. I’m sure Black parents have anxiety about their sons and daughters being shot and killed by police officers. I’m sure Latino parents have anxiety also.”
Waj points out that there’s another pernicious, pervasive euphemism at work when the media talks about the “average American parent” or “suburban parent” and their political motivations.
Who do they interview? “White women,” he says.
Why does the media overlook voters of color?
Waj hasn’t seen any Black, Latinx or Asian parents interviewed about the Virginia election.
Other euphemisms for white voters or the candidates they favor, he adds, include “electable, mainstream, Heartland and Rust Belt.”
But there are plenty of voters of color in the Heartland and everywhere else.
“It’s 2021. We’re recording this in November, and I have yet to see an article commissioned by a major paper … reaching out to voters of color in the Rust Belt, going to their diners, drinking their coffee and asking them why they have so much anxiety and why 81 million people voted for Biden,” he says.
Danielle hasn’t seen one, either. She does consistently see articles about how “people of color are supposed to be empathetic to how quickly things are changing for white people … that it’s not their fault. They’re just worried.”
She worries that Youngkin set an example that will be irresistible to copycats.
“It’s already being used, and we’ll see it again in the midterm elections: this ‘parents’ choice’ [argument]. Now we’re not talking about charter schools. We’re talking about the choice to make sure children remain ignorant.”
‘When will they choke-hold us back?’
Danielle asks Waj when he thinks the mainstream media is going to change.
“When are we going to see the roundtable discussions with Black and Brown parents about how young they have had to teach their kids about racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, all of these things? Why aren’t they happening in the mainstream?”
To put it simply: “Two steps forward, one step back,” he replies.
Waj notes that after the murder of George Floyd, 15 to 22 million people participated in the largest series of protests in American history.
“It was inspiring, and it led to a moment of change,” he says. We did see some notable if incremental changes, particularly in the media and especially among women of color: new editors, columnists and even the first Black woman to anchor a primetime cable news show, Joy Reid.
But as a student of history, I was wondering, When will they choke-hold us back? And the answer to that question is: when we demand actual change.”
Anyone who has studied American political history from a BIPOC perspective “knew a backlash was coming,” Waj says.
The media ‘gatekeepers’ are overwhelmingly white
“I’ve had a very interesting career,” says Waj. He has worked in Hollywood and at think tanks, and as a writer, contributing editor and playwright.
“I’ve been very lucky to meet the wizards behind the curtain, the gatekeepers,” he says. “And the first thing I notice when I go to these meetings is not [just] that I’m the only Muslim. The first thing I always notice is, I am the darkest thing in this room. It’s me and the plant and the Middle Eastern rug.”
That isn’t to say they’re bad people, Waj says. He thinks they’re often well-intentioned. But their environment is one of just whiteness. There’s nobody who looks like Waj or Danielle, so there’s “no pushback, no perspective, no insight into these communities. And these are the folks who create the headlines, who create the news, who report the news … [they’re] missing out on America. They have a blind spot they refuse to acknowledge.”
Plus, those folks are “so fickle and weak that when we call them out, they get super defensive,” he points out.
Trump was a ‘white-lash’ against Obama
Danielle admits that she has “little faith” in our ability to make significant progress as a country, because she feels like we take “five steps back every time something good happens.”
Case in point: After we elected Barack Obama, we somehow put “the worst white man in America” in the Oval Office.
“Are you surprised?” asks Waj. “We got eight years of Barack Obama inheriting the trash legacy of George W. Bush, whom they’ve already whitewashed as this eccentric old man who paints—”
Danielle interrupts: “The best thing that ever happened to Bush was Donald Trump.”
Waj agrees that without Trump’s spectacularly evil administration, Bush and Cheney would have been “Hall of Fame villains.”
He adds that he and Danielle are “old enough to remember the utter disaster of that eight-year administration. Things got so bad that Americans were like, We’re gonna elect a Black man who we think is Muslim.”
But eight years flew by, and by the end, “this country had a collective white-lash and elected the most racist, xenophobic man.”
The ‘death rattle’ of white supremacy has become a ‘death march’
Waj thinks the fact that voters elected Trump as Obama’s successor is “a beautiful microcosm of America’s relationship with racial progress,” noting that Trump ran on a Muslim ban, called Mexicans rapists and criminals and openly used racist dog whistles to fire up his base.
“And all the data shows that the more racist he was, the more his base ate it up. Now we have a radicalized death cult fighting for whiteness. I believe we’re witnessing the death rattle of white supremacy, which has become a death march.”
It won’t be a quick demise, though. Waj predicts that the death of white supremacy will take 20 years.
He has already (correctly) predicted that the Republican party will become more “radical and weaponized,” in spite of many of his media colleagues’ claims that “once Trump is gone, the moderates will take over.”
But, as he points out, “Ten Republicans who were at the violent insurrection got elected to office” in the last round of elections. Apparently, people of color and liberals are too extreme and — wait for it — woke, which explains why these whites went for friggin’ Youngkin.”
Dems have the policies, but Republicans ‘flood the zone with sh*t’
Waj says his counter to the Republicans’ “education” arguments would be:
“Are you for banning books? Because I’m not. I’m for a diverse, open community where all of our kids have a chance to learn about U.S. history and learn about each other and become better people. You say you’re for kids’ safety. Why are you against vaccine mandates? Why are you against mask mandates? Why are you against gun control when there are massacres killing our children?”
He thinks “Democrats sleep on this … But we have the attention span of a gnat.”
Already, it seems like voters (or at least the media) have forgotten the January 6 insurrection. Meanwhile, Waj says, “Tucker Carlson and the right-wing disinformation network, to quote Steve Bannon, ‘flood the zone with shit,’ knowing full well the American appetite is for sensationalism.”
Republicans excel at emotional messaging, although there’s no substance behind it. Democrats “have the policy, but they don’t emotionally connect; they don’t have the message.”
GOP platform: ‘Remix 2016’
According to a CBS poll from a few weeks ago, only 10% of Americans know what’s in Biden’s Build Back Better plan. But when you tell them what’s in it — lowering prescription drug prices, for example — 88% of Americans support it.
Waj notes that the majority of Americans like other aspects of the bill, too: 70% of voters support paid parental leave and 75% back universal pre-K.
“Democratic policy is massively successful with Democrats, Republicans and Independents, but if no one knows about it, if you don’t message it, and if it doesn’t trigger an emotional response … It’s flat. It’s data.”
“It’s a tree that falls in the forest and we’re asking, Does anybody hear it?” says Danielle. “But Republicans care so little about the American people that they didn’t even offer a platform in 2020. They said, Remix what we did in 2016, as if there were no more historic fires, or floods, or racial uprising, or cities around this country that don’t have clean drinking water. As if there were not major issues they needed to create new or expanded policies to address.”
‘Whiteness is wild’ and Dems are ‘too woke’
To answer Danielle’s question about the mainstream media (When will it change?), he notes that when members of the press hear voters literally admit their racist anxieties, they’re often “still unable to call it out, because if you do, you have to acknowledge it and you have to acknowledge your role in perpetuating it. So it’s much better to blame these darkies, these woke Blacks and Browns.”
What’s more, there are plenty of pundits and lawmakers who he calls “stupid centrist Democrats who aren’t centrist,” who are “literally now weaponizing the right-wingers’ language against their own team … using woke and cancel culture against progressives, a code word for people of color. It’s wild. To me, whiteness is wild.”
“It really is,” says Danielle.
Waj notes that just this week on CNN, Chief Political Correspondent Dana Bash “repeated the atrocious, friggin’ ridiculous ‘woke’ line — that no one’s defined, by the way — and asks Democratic Senator Mark Warner: ‘Are Democrats too woke, Senator?’”
Warner was clearly rattled for about half a second. And he took the bait, immediately launching into a talking point about how he doesn’t support “defund the police.”
“He fell right into the trap,” says Waj.
And that pisses Danielle off, because “journalists don’t ask those questions of Republicans.”
CNN, the corpse reviver
Waj’s counterargument to Bash’s question would’ve been something like:
“First of all, what do you mean by woke? Does that mean believing in climate change? Yeah, we believe in climate change. How come Republicans don’t? Does that mean believing in democracy? We believe in democracy, but right now a majority of Republicans are supporting a violent insurrection and calling them martyrs. How come they’re not too extreme?”
Before Bash threw the woke-bomb at Warner, she played a clip of Democratic strategist James Carville railing against what Carville characterizes as “stupid wokeness.”
Waj is tired of Dems listening to old-school analysis like Carville’s. He calls the former Bill Clinton political guru a “corpse from 1992” who lectures Democrats on TV about the issue du jour.
“This week, he says, You guys have gone too woke. That’s why Terry McAuliffe lost. Terry McAuliffe is the whitest man on earth … and anyway, he had no goddamn campaign. Terry McAuliffe lost because of Terry McAuliffe. He didn’t run on the quote-unquote woke campaign, whatever that means. He didn’t say defund the police. He wasn’t on the green New Deal. And now you’re blaming the rest of us.”
‘Chasing Karen’ and tokenizing the base
Some Democrats get upset with Waj for saying this, but he’s firm about it: “You cannot tokenize your base.”
The Democratic base includes 85 to 90% of Black voters, 70% of Asian Americans, 65 to 70% of Latinx and 40 to 45% of white voters at most.
Waj says Dems will “never get the majority of white voters,” but they do have “a diverse coalition, who always delivers for them, led by Black folks and people of color.”
But Democrats “keep chasing Karen,” which is “exactly what these centrists and Carville and [other] Democratic strategists who are highly paid but wrong, keep saying. They avoid the discussion Republicans are weaponizing, which they have since the ’60s. And that discussion is around race — the culture war. And Democrats never want to touch it.”
Meanwhile, Republicans embrace