It turns out the 2012 elections will be spared Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s folksy bashing of poor black people—or, at least he won’t be offering it as a candidate. He says he doesn’t have a grueling two-year run in him, but a number of reports point to his wife’s open hostility to being enmeshed in national politics. Who can blame her. Even without her husband’s contribution, the 2012 elections are poised to be among the most toxic we’ve seen in years.
Already, we have Donald Trump’s farcical performance as a potential candidate. His outlandish show—yesterday’s act: Barack Obama was too dumb to be in the Ivy Leagues without affirmative action—has revived the spectacle of broadcast news anchors hashing out the president’s citizenship. (These are the same outlets that can’t seem to take Dennis Kucinich seriously as a presidential candidate, but anyway.)
We can and should dismiss Trump’s carnival as the publicity stunt that it is. But it’s also something of a comedic preview for the all too serious campaign ahead. The Republican presidential primaries will feature some combination of hardline Midwestern governors scapegoating poor people and public workers, and hardline Southern governors scapegoating immigrants and Muslim Americans. Whoever emerges as the so-called serious candidate will pander to the GOP’s new tea party base, hoping to neutralize whichever movement celebrity the Koch brothers anoint as a candidate. Birther hysteria may be the least divisive meme we hear.
Nor will it stop at the national level. States around the country are already embroiled in race-to-the-bottom debates as local Republicans attempt to make names for themselves in the national tea party movement. This year’s state legislative sessions have been instructive.
In the South and West, immigrant bashing is the rage. Arizona spent the winter hashing out a series of anti-immigrant bills, including two that would have attempted to nullify the 14th Amendment inside Arizona. Georgia barred undocumented kids from its public universities and readied itself to become the second state to legalize racial profiling of immigrants; dozens of states weighed similar bills. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindahl outdid Arizona’s Jan Brewer when he embraced a bill that would require candidates for federal office to file their birth certificates in order to qualify for the state’s ballet.
In the Midwest, meanwhile, Republican legislators and governors have turned on public workers with a fury. Lawmakers in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio have all directed the blame for the recession and their states’ financial woes not at Wall Street but rather at the cities and workers who have suffered most from it. Wisconsin Republicans’ union-busting efforts drew the most press, but the story hardly ends there.
Michigan, for instance, has handed managers appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder unprecedented powers to take over whole cities and school systems. The governor can declare a fiscal emergency, suspend democracy and appoint the so-called emergency managers with sweeping authority. The managers can now control budgets, close schools, dissolve public unions and even fire elected officials. An emergency manager running Detroit’s public schools has already sent layoff notices to all 5,466 of its unionized employees.
Such public workers are now routinely caricatured by Midwestern Republicans as “the privileged elite,” in the words of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Daniels, who is George W. Bush’s former chief of staff, continues to demur about his widely expected presidential aspirations. Former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been less shy about his ambitions. And in December he penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling public workers “the most protected, well-paid employees in the country” (a demonstrable falsehood) and asserting, “Ironically, public-sector unions have become the exploiters, and working families once again need someone to stand up for them.”
Daniels and Pawlenty are considered the sober ones in the Republicans’ 2012 field. Because they are sitting governors, they’re the more serious players, the counterweights to the Michele Bachmanns and Donald Trumps. That’s an indication of just how extreme our political landscape has become in the past three years, since the 2008 primary field began emerging. Then, the question was whether a long-shot, but promising young black senator could challenge the establishment’s Hillary Clinton. Today, the question is whether racist scapegoating will be dressed up as fiscal conservatism or parade itself nakedly as anti-immigrant xenophobia.
That shift in political tone is no doubt owing to the fact that the president is a black man, as many have opined. But it’s also a reflection of the Republican Party’s active exploitation of the anxieties stirred among white voters witnessing irreversible cultural and economic changes. That strategy has proven successful for them—the 2010 elections witnessed some of the most divisive campaigning in modern history, and they produced sweeping Republican victories. Republican candidates in campaigns ranging from county sheriff to the presidency will surely deploy it again. Trump is just the beginning.