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Many Americans really are thinking terrible things — and proudly saying them out loud

Sen. Tuberville is ignoring the many signs white nationalism exists

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., at a Senate Agriculture subcommittee  hearing on May 2.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., at a Senate Agriculture subcommittee hearing on May 2. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“You know why I love Donald Trump? He is the first one who says what everyone’s thinking.” Anyone who has covered Donald Trump through two presidential campaigns — one successful and one that ultimately flopped — has heard that explanation lots of times. I know I have.

When asked exactly which out-loud thoughts resonated, answers varied. But the folks I spoke with at rallies especially reveled in insults once considered, if not taboo, then too edgy to say out loud — about immigrants, city dwellers and Black NFL players who knelt to protest police brutality. Things like that.

I dutifully recorded what caused all the excitement among those who stood in long lines to hear and see their idol, though, ironically, many streamed out of venues large and small once Trump’s shouted litany of grievances stretched past the one-hour mark.

But I wondered just how many Americans could be included in the assumed masses who were thinking such thoughts and felt exhilaration when a presidential candidate spewed them so convincingly.

Turns out Trump’s schtick worked in 2016 and came close in 2020. And after a recent free-for-all town hall on CNN that saw a curated audience of his followers laughing and applauding as he dodged questions on respecting democracy and mocked a woman who convinced a jury that he was liable for defamation and sexual abuse, I’m worried if not surprised.

There are plenty of Americans on the same page as presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and that includes leaders in the Republican Party.

What once was transgressive now defines the GOP, with politicians falling over themselves to demonize and scapegoat.

States run by Republicans are fighting tooth and nail against school reading lists that contain any mention of systemic racism or LGBTQ Americans at the same time mass shooters prove with conspiracy-laden screeds that schools could use more, not less, exposure to the truth about this country, and the role minorities have played in building it despite odds and laws stacked against them.

Then-Congressman Steve King of Iowa was shunned and shamed by party leaders after his praise of white nationalists; current GOP Sen.Tommy Tuberville of Alabama thinks we need more of them in the military. White supremacists, white nationalists? “I call them Americans,” the senator said.

Tuberville’s timing — just a year after a white teenager drove hundreds of miles to target Black shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket, live streaming part of his racist attacks, and soon after an Allen, Texas, accused shooter allegedly left racist postings — could not be more grotesque.

In trying to clean up the mess that comes out of his mouth, Tuberville has expressed skepticism that there actually are white nationalists in the military, though The Washington Post, a paper in the city where he supposedly works, recently published a story and videos of Jack Teixeira, charged with leaking military intelligence, showing how he also shared racism, anti-Semitism and a menu of hate with his online buddies. He reportedly was obsessed with guns and visions of an impending “race war.”

If Tuberville wanted more proof that white nationalists exist in his world, he had only to gaze at the parade of about 200 unapologetic members of the Patriot Front, with drums and banners, signs and upside-down flags, loudly laying out their wish to “reclaim” America, while hiding behind white masks and sunglasses.

While Trump, at the town hall, was dangling pardons for Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists and pasting a “thug” label on the Black Capitol Police officer who shot and killed a rioter breaching the lobby where members of Congress stood, Tuberville was insisting it was absurd to think any Trump Republican could entertain a racist thought.  

The voters of Alabama had a chance to send moderate Democrat Doug Jones back to the Senate for a second term. In 2020, they handily chose the former football coach who didn’t understand the meaning of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965 over the man who prosecuted craven Ku Klux Klan criminals, part of the gang that murdered four little Black girls in the bombing of a Birmingham church.

Though the bombings that rocked that city happened in a past some states would rather hide from their children, the hatreds that today fuel young people, mostly young men, are the same old messages repackaged in “great replacement” conspiracy theory rhetoric. You won’t see GOP leaders denounce it; some swim in that muck for political gain.

President Joe Biden’s commencement speech this past weekend at historically Black Howard University called out white supremacy as a “dangerous terrorist threat” in our country. His words echoed warnings from FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump-appointed Republican, though I’m not so sure the GOP of 2023 would claim him or his message.

Neither Tuberville nor his colleagues and defenders found a moment to remember the 10 amazing Americans murdered in Buffalo — a father picking up a cake for his young son, a community light whose sister’s grief on display in a New York Times profile tugged at the heart of anyone who has one.

But that scene — national bipartisan support for citizens and a city that will never be the same on a sad anniversary — won’t happen when talking about racism is judged worse than acknowledging it exists.

No one has ever accused Tuberville, the man who incorrectly identified the three branches of government, of being a scholar. But he’s smart enough to know that his words and inaction on white nationalism only burnish his credibility to a base that will follow where he and Donald Trump lead.

Maybe the senator and his friends are the ones who know America as it is — and I’m the one with a lot to learn.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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