Now that some of Donald Trump’s cabinet picks have been made public, I’ve heard conservatives commend the Trump administration for its relatively normal selection. While there have been some notable outliers in Trump’s non-cabinet appointments (including the selection of campaign manager and white nationalist Steve Bannon for White House Chief Strategist), I’ve heard plenty of Republicans point out that none of his cabinet picks would seem particularly out of place in a Mitt Romney or John McCain administration. (I’ve also heard plenty of Trump supporters say the same, with a decidedly less positive tone.) However, some serious qualms have been raised about Trump’s supposedly “normal” selections. Let’s take the example of his choice for Attorney General, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Sen. Sessions has come under criticism for a history of racism in his actions as U.S. Attorney for Southern Alabama and Alabama Attorney General. This led to his rejection when he was nominated for a position as a federal judge. In a confirmation hearing, evidence presented against him included his opposition to the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, his characterization of civil rights groups as un-American and the times he has called black lawyers “boy.”
Further, he used his role as attorney in southern Alabama as an opportunity to launch a massive investigation into voter fraud – but only in black neighborhoods. His investigation uncovered only 14 unacceptable ballots, even after efforts by civil rights groups to bring his attention to suspicions of voting fraud in the white community.
But Republicans have an easy counter to these accusations. Most of Sessions’ reported racism occurred in the 80s; politics has changed since then. Now, no one could get away with blatant racism and Sessions knows that. In fact, he’s brought a lot of benefits to Alabama’s black communities since.
Personally, I think Republicans make a great point. Over the past few decades, the Republican Party (and Republican voters) has cultivated a political climate in which outright racism is unacceptable. I think Republicans should truly be commended for that. Clearly, racism is still an ever-present part of American society, but both Democrats and Republicans, as well as and Libertarians and Greens, have come leaps and bounds since the middle of the 20th century.
But while I wouldn’t be worried about Sessions in a Romney or McCain cabinet, I am extremely worried about him in a Trump cabinet.
The modus operandi of the Trump campaign was to overturn the progress the Republican Party has made since the 1980s. Trump ran on a campaign of explicit racism, xenophobia and Islamaphobia. Before him, it seemed obvious to politicians on both sides of the aisle that overt racism was political suicide; you could not win an election while espousing such views. Trump’s election irreparably changed that. It made clear that the America that racist candidates appealed to in past decades has not disappeared – just sprinkle in a concerned manufacturing industry and you have a winning coalition. I wouldn’t have been worried about Sessions in 2008 or 2012 because in those years he would have known he had to hide his racism to be successful. Trump’s election rewrote the rules: now, it’s no longer necessary to keep your racism a secret.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible that Sessions, and other Trump picks, have had true changes of heart since their unacceptable actions in the past. They absolutely may have seen the error of their ways and grown as people, leaving their oppressive views behind. But it’s also perfectly possible that they simply saw the political expedience of changing with the times and keeping their racism to themselves.
This is why we need to carefully scrutinize each of these cabinet appointees, rather than accepting them as mainstream Republican selections. If they’re true Republicans, they may be our best hope to rein in and moderate Trump. But if they still carry the views they’ve expressed in the past, Trump’s election may mean their shackles have been taken off.
Alex Hayes is the Vice President of the Hofstra University Green Party
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