Political actions give permission to haters

The hatred and bigotry on display in Charlottesville and its aftermath are shocking to the system and, for most people, they create a straightforward choice between right and wrong.

White supremacy, Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan are wrong. Theirs is an ideology built upon hatred and destruction.

There are no “fine people” marching with swastikas; good people don’t support anti-Semitism; people of good faith can’t ignore the terrible legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and inequality.

Alt-right and white supremacists clash with counter protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

Those should be the easy choices, but unfortunately for politicians like President Donald Trump and Gov. Paul LePage they aren’t.

Equivocation. Explanation. Ridiculous “what aboutism.” Even a rewriting of the history of the Civil War. No fact is safe with these guys.

Whether they know it or not – and I believe they know it – the language and deeds of too many in the political class empower the forces of hate.

A woman was murdered in Virginia. Two members of the Virginia State Police were killed in a helicopter crash while doing their jobs. People were beaten and maced.

We see it, and most people are repulsed.

But what we saw in the violent pictures, the protests and counter-protests and the stunned reaction of a country that thought itself better than this is the logical outcome of a generation of systematic oppression, political code words and policies purposefully aimed at marginalized populations.

Since Trump’s election last year, there’s been a resurgence of activity by the Ku Klux Klan in Maine. While it’s difficult to know how many people are actually involved, we do know that communities around the state have been targeted with hateful flyers, meant to intimidate and, possibly recruit.

Last week, a new batch of flyers turned up in Boothbay Harbor. While similar to the others, these added a new twist and specifically attacked transgender people.

I do work across the country for the American Civil Liberties Union fighting against discrimination and, particularly, attacks against transgender people. Just this month, a nasty special legislative session in Texas ended. The sole reason it was called was to attack, bully and marginalize transgender people.

The governor of Texas joined a long line of politicians hoping to gain political advantage by attacking transgender people.

It’s happening all over the country, including in Maine, where LePage inappropriately used the power of his office to join two different lawsuits trying to deny transgender people the ability to use the appropriate restroom.

Trump, anxious to keep his right-wing base engaged and enraged, joined the effort by announcing on Twitter – are you kidding me? – a new “policy” that would force transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines out of the military.

All of these actions send a message to the fringe elements in our country. And those dangerous extremists – like the Ku Klux Klan – got the message loud and clear. It’s OK, they heard, to target transgender people. And, lo and behold, that’s the message that turned up in Boothbay Harbor on flyers from the hate group.

As terrible as the march in Charlottesville and the aftermath have been, as scary and disheartening as the rise of the alt-right is, as senseless as the deaths of Heather Heyer and Troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berk M.M. Bates, we should have seen it coming.

The haters have been paying attention. They’ve been listening. And they’ve gotten the message.

In political communications, we often talk about the importance of permission givers. When an influential voice – a trusted voice – sends out a message of approval or opposition, the people who like and believe them receive a strong cue about the appropriate way to respond. It’s why political endorsements still matter.

Here are the cues our country has been sending: In many states, the legislatures and governors have systematically and purposefully disenfranchised minority voters, purging election rolls and making it harder to participate.

Congressional districts have been gerrymandered and packed to reduce minority representation and ensure the electoral success of conservative politicians.

People of color, particularly immigrants, have been attacked and scapegoated, accused of carrying disease and committing crime.

Legislation has been introduced – honest to God – to decriminalize running over peaceful protesters with a car.

We have allowed poverty to be criminalized. People are being put in jail because they are too poor to pay a fine and low-income families are divided into the “deserving” and the so-called “able-bodied.”

All of this has happened with the force of law behind it. All of it has been built upon a foundation of lies.

If you are outraged at the resurgence of hate groups who feel empowered to openly march and put their hatred on display – and you should be – then it’s not enough to just oppose the most outwardly visible displays.

We must also stand against the policies and politicians who empower them, who give them the political permission to target people they say are different from them.

If you are disgusted by the white supremacists, save some of your anger and action for the policies that, while cloaked in “respectability,” seek the same outcome: To lock in place a system that keeps people of color, LGBT people, Native Americans and other minority populations from meaningful equality.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.