At a Tuesday forum hosted by the Atlantic on gender in the 2016 election, political commentator and Wake Forest University professor Melissa Harris-Perry said she wasn’t surprised that Donald Trump’s racism and sexism didn’t keep him from winning the election.
In fact, the former MSNBC host said, racism and sexism have been a “prerequisite” to win the presidency for most of American history.
“I am not even vaguely surprised by the idea that sexual assault would not be a disqualifier for the American presidency,” Harris-Perry said during a panel discussion. She was responding to a question from the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart about why Trump’s infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape didn’t seem to affect the outcome of the election.
“In fact I was mostly irritated every time people would say, 'Oh God, we can't have a racist be the American president.' Because I kept wondering, 'Since when?’” Harris-Perry continued, to laughter in the crowd. “In fact, for most of American history, racism has been a prerequisite to win the American presidency. One had to actually demonstrate one's racism in order to become the American president. And the same was certainly true of sexism, and even of sexual assault.”
We know that many of America’s founding fathers owned slaves, and that even Abraham Lincoln, who eventually emancipated slaves, held racist views like believing white people were naturally superior to black people. But on race in particular, you don’t even have to go that far back in American history to see examples of what Harris-Perry was talking about.
Richard Nixon used the explicitly racist “Southern strategy” to play on white racial resentment in the South. That brand of dog-whistle politics also came in handy for politicians like Ronald Reagan (who demonized “welfare queens”), George H. W. Bush (whose campaign ran the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis), and Bill Clinton (whose “tough on crime” message often played into racist stereotypes).
Bill Clinton hosts campaign event on Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the KKK, with Black inmates in background. pic.twitter.com/kyQkDt5zhM— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) April 1, 2016
Openly declaring hatred for women or black people isn’t necessary to “demonstrate” racism or sexism. It’s usually more subtle than that — but the demonstration is no less real. These racist presidential campaign appeals were all distasteful. But they were used largely because they worked.
Another way to look at the idea that racism and sexism are a “prerequisite” for the presidency is to acknowledge how difficult it can be to run an explicitly anti-racist or anti-sexist campaign. Hillary Clinton spent a lot of time doing that on the 2016 campaign trail, and it may have cost her among some white voters.
As Democratic pollster Margie Omero explained during the same panel discussion, focusing on race and gender in this way can make some voters “dig in their heels” and get defensive, because they feel that they are personally being accused of racism or sexism.
Preliminary research from the University of Maryland, Omero said, found that calling out Trump’s racism “did nothing to change the views” of “whites who were harboring a bit of racial resentment.”
When it comes to gender and Trump’s many alleged sexual assaults, some voters found Trump’s behavior acceptable, or at least not disqualifying, because they didn’t really expect anything different.
“It was no surprise to women in our focus groups that men behaved badly,” Omero said. “Just like there was no surprise to men.”
As I explained in November, this is one reason why so many people (especially women) voted for Trump despite his boorish public behavior toward women, and despite the assault allegations against him. They not only didn’t expect anything different, they even saw his boorishness as a sort of asset. A strong (male) leader, the thinking goes, may not be polite, but he’ll beat up the bad guys for you — and a “bad boy” streak just comes with that territory.
As Harris-Perry put it, all of this means that 2016 was a “more normal election cycle than you might otherwise have expected.”
For most of American history, racism and sexism have been normal. Anti-sexism and anti-racism have been abnormal. And this dynamic still persists today in more ways than most of us are comfortable acknowledging.