Ignoring the unique threats Trump presents could destroy our democracy, warns professor Lester Spence.
Donald Trump: This will be the most corrupt election in the history of our country.
Speaker 2: What do we want?
Group : Justice.
Speaker 2: When do we want it?
Group : Now.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. As President Trump continues to push baseless conspiracy theories, including that Black Lives Matter protests are being orchestrated to undermine his presidency, Joe Biden is visiting Kenosha, Wisconsin on Thursday.
Joe Biden: There’s been overwhelming requests that I do come, because what we want to do is we’ve got to heal. We’ve got to put things together, bring people together. And so my purpose in going will be to do just that, to be a positive influence on what’s going on.
Jaisal Noor: The police killing of Jacob Blake on August 23rd turned Kenosha into the epicenter of protest against police brutality. Donald Trump visited Kenosha earlier in the week, ignoring calls from local leaders for him to stay away and said, “It’s in fact police accused of excessive force that are being treated unfairly.”
Donald Trump: We have to condemn the dangerous anti-police rhetoric. It’s getting more and more … it’s very unfair.
Jaisal Noor: Biden is planning on visiting Jacob Blake after Trump refused to do so. Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle said of Biden’s visit quote, “I’m not looking for anybody to come here and say nice things. I’m looking for legislative promises, commitments, and if they’re elected, swift action.” That’s from MSNBC News. In part to distract from the over 186,000 people who have died from COVID-19, Trump has blamed Biden for rioting and looting and promoted unfounded conspiracy theories that people in quote, “dark shadows” were controlling the protests and Biden in an effort to oust him from power. In response, Biden distinguished peaceful protest from rioting, which he condemned earlier in the week.
Joe Biden: It’s wrong in every way. It divides instead of unites. Destroys businesses. Only hurts the working families that serve the community. It makes things worse across the board, not better.
Jaisal Noor: Yet, some in the media argue Biden must go further and have his own sister soldier moment if he’s going to win the election, which will likely come down to turn out in a handful of States like Wisconsin. Well, now joining us to discuss this is Lester Spence, professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Thanks so much for joining us, Lester, and give us your thoughts on this moment. Trump, just yesterday telling people to vote twice in North Carolina, spouting crazier and crazier conspiracy theories by the day, which his base and conservative media are just eating up and amplifying. And on the other hand, Biden is really a walking this centrist line in response to this moment. Give us your thoughts.
Lester Spence: First of all, it’s important that when we’re talking about stuff Trump says, that we actually be as not just stated clearly, but we state it as seriously as possible because there’s a tendency to laugh off what he says. When he, for example, he tells, he basically told people to commit a felony. Voting twice on purpose is a felony. He basically told people to violate the law in the elections. Simultaneously, we just found out that it looks like the Justice Department may be used to go after Black Lives Matter protesters, and then to the extent you can find them, people associate associated with Antifa.
I think that the Justice Department is also supposed to release a report soon about the Russian investigation. All these things are serious. And then there are 185,000 deaths. What I’m going to do, and I know you guys are going to edit this, but I’m just going to list the people that I know who’ve passed away, not by name, but by relationship to me. One of my best friends in college, one of my high school classmates, one of my high school classmate’s five-year-old daughter, my first college girlfriend’s dad. Two in separate instances, two kids from the neighborhood I grew up with, their parents; one fraternity brother from Detroit that I didn’t know, but all my people did; three fraternity brothers from Detroit that I did know, and then there’s some other names that I’m just forgetting. That’s already 10.
We’ve lost three times as many people to COVID as we lost in American casualties during the Vietnam War. Trump has consistently not just expressed support for racism, not just expressed support for domestic terrorists. The other day, he offered a legal defense for Kyle Rittenhouse, whose mom took him over state lines, armed him illegally and who ended up killing two white protesters and injuring a third, right? This is the context that we’re in. And I know that’s long and I’m hoping it doesn’t get cut post-edited. But that’s the context we’re in. This context is not a normal electoral moment.
What’s going on is we’re having a number of opinion makers act as if it were a normal electoral moment, as if it were basically 1988 and Joe Biden is Michael Dukakis, and Trump is George W. Bush trotting out Willie Horton, and is not … Speaking as both somebody who’s living in this moment and trying to live in the moment as it’s going on and as a political scientist, there are a number of different ways in which we can say this is not a normal election, or this is not 1980. I just go through them quickly. One, is the assumption is that this is a bell curve election, right? The assumption is that there are these extremes on the left and right, and then there’s this middle, and that the best thing for the parties to do, in this case Biden, the best thing for Biden to do is to reach that middle voter, right? It works.
This is not a bell curve election. It doesn’t look like this where most of the people in the middle. It looks like this where most of the people on the left and the right. Right? Thinking about this purely in electoral terms, any movement he makes towards that moderate middle of the road voter who for God’s reason, who for God knows why can’t decide between Biden and Trump; he’s going to lose people on the tails, on that left tail. He’s going to lose them. For every one he thinks he gets, he loses two or three. This is not a normal election.
Two, this is not a black and white election. Right? I’ve had people reach out to me about black attitudes versus white attitudes on this. When the reality is, is that the Democratic candidate hasn’t won a majority of the vote, the majority of the white vote in decades. And it’s now in fact possible for the Democratic candidate to get a majority of the vote while not winning the white vote. That says how we’ve shifted as a country, right? Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but not the white vote. Obama in both of his elections won the popular vote and won the election without winning the white vote. This is not a black and white issue. We shouldn’t be focusing necessarily on white voters, right? There’s this whole multiracial group of folks that we should be focusing on who actually know the difference between Trump and Biden, and then who actually know the difference between people who are who protesting in whatever means out of anger against police brutality and people have some other ideas. Those are just a couple of things.
What else is different? What else is different is that our identities, right? The idea is that this fear is going to cause people to think primarily about their identities maybe as homeowners, or is going to provoke some type of fearful identity that will cause them to go to Trump. This presumes a couple of things. One, is that the fear of COVID isn’t actually bigger, 185,000 deaths. I just named 10 people. Two, that our identities are not in fact malleable, right? That is to say that I am at every moment in time a black man. But when I was teaching Monday, the first day of school virtually, I wasn’t thinking about being a black man. I was thinking about teaching. Even as I was teaching courses that were related to race, blackness and our vanity. Identities are malleable and they can actually be moved and shaped by a number of forces, including popular opinion, which is what made me so pissed.
To make a long story a bit shorter, I saw so much of this stuff coming out, whether it’s George Will’s article saying he needs a sister soldier moment. I think The Atlantic had a piece. I think the New York Times might have a piece coming up. That I was like, damn. I mean, this isn’t a 1988, and it’s not just not 1988 from a pure intellectual sense. Politically speaking as if it is 1988 has political consequences. That is, we know that people who are running campaigns, in part because this campaign is so unique, we know that they’re increasingly forced to rely on their campaign apparatus, on the one hand. And then on opinion makers, elite opinion makers on the other. What are the Sunday news shows saying? What are the elite columnists saying? Right?
The more that line is articulated, the more that line’s articulated, you have to make us come out against looting. You have to come out against looting. It not only gets the story wrong, but it plays into the Trump argument. Anything that plays into the argument that this is a quasi-normal election context and that fear of black and non-black radical protesters is going to drive this election and doesn’t drive home the fundamental differences between this election and Trump from anything we’ve experienced, the more we increase the likelihood that Trump will in fact win legitimately.
Jaisal Noor: Right. I’ll shut up. Biden reportedly is pivoting back to focusing on COVID-19. That was the latest report I read in Reuters before this interview. To hammer the issue that you’re talking about, Trump’s disastrous response, the fact that he dismissed the concerns. Now he’s announced they may be rolling out an unapproved vaccine possibly days before the election. But again, the issue of turnout. I want to ask you specifically about turnout, because we know that in 2016, turnout was down in Wisconsin for Democrats, and there was massive voter suppression. And you know, of course, Hillary Clinton didn’t go to Wisconsin, which ended up becoming a very pivotal state. Biden’s showing up there. But do you think that his … We heard his comments on looting and rioting. Do think that Trump could be the biggest get-out-the-vote tool the Democrats have and what should Biden be saying right now in your opinion?
Lester Spence: I think, so I would add to that, right? Because it’s not just about what Biden should be doing electorally to win, for the election. But it’s also, what should we be doing as people who write about this to larger publics? What is our responsibility? Because I was frustrated with what I heard from Biden and I remain frustrated. I’ve said this before on this news program. Biden wasn’t … I gave money to Sanders. I gave money to Warren too, but I’ve supported Sanders. I think Biden was horrible, but he’s that centrist guy. He’s doing that centrist thing. I’m upset at that, but I’m also upset at us in effect, because I think what we should be doing is taking more care to understand what makes this moment different. Right? For example, in one way you ask about turnout and that is important, and you bring up the point that Hillary Clinton didn’t go to Wisconsin, and she didn’t go to Michigan either. Right?
I think Russia did meddle in the election. I think there was voter suppression. And I think her not going to those places because she just thought she had it in the bag were all leading dynamics in Trump’s win, in Trump’s victory. Biden going to Wisconsin from a turnout standpoint makes sense, right? Because he’s doing something that Clinton didn’t do. And I think that he should be focused on turnout, and I think he should be focused on driving home how horrific COVID-19 is, how horrific the pandemic is. I mean, again, three times as many people as we lost in Vietnam. I think by time November rolls around, it’ll probably be five times as many, and we wouldn’t be that far away from as many people as we lost in World War II.
With something that horrific, we should be driving home that message incessantly. But in addition, I think turnout is going to be important, but the more important thing is, is that he’s going to actively work to steal the election. Actively. He’s going to actively work to make his supporters not accept the victory if it happens. Under that context, it’s not just the media’s role to instead of focusing on the turnout or on the polls, to focus on this growing apparatus. It’s also important to start articulating the line of argument that will allow people on the other side to accept a victory. I mean, except a Biden victory if it happens, and to accept the idea that the election might not be figured out at the moment, right? Because if we for example, if we get a lot of people are … I’m going to vote by mail.
If a lot of people vote by mail, not only will we not know on election night, it’s very possible if that democratic mail-in vote outstrips the Republican counterpart, it may actually look like Trump wins decisively on election night. What happens if Trump looks like he’s leading decisively on election night, and he says, “I think we should call the election. I won. What happens after the day is unfair.” And then he sends the people to the streets. What do we do then? Now, what you and I can do is limited as people in that moment. But inasmuch as we, and extending it to opinion makers, to The Real News Network in general, it’s our responsibility to actually articulate not just to articulate, even if we’re not going to necessarily pick and choose. You all know I’m on the left, but I’m going to vote for Biden.
I know a lot of people aren’t going to vote. It’s all good. That’s another conversation. But if we’re not going to do that, we have to at least articulate, create the conditions where we can have a peaceful transfer of power when Biden wins. That’s goes beyond again. So yeah, we have to talk about turnout. I guess we have to talk about polls and the horse race aspect of it. But the stakes are so much higher. There’s so much literally going on. Then I’ll reiterate something I said earlier. We have to take what he says seriously. We can’t articulate what Trump says with his mouth and then laugh it off like, “Oh wow. He’s told people to vote twice tomorrow.” Right?
We know for example, that when he told people to take bleach, people actually did it. Right? People actually died because Trump said, “Take bleach.” We have to treat his statement seriously. Now, we’re all living in a … it’s weird. I use the example often of the sun. Right now it’s a sunny day in Baltimore. If you were to go outside of your crib and look at the sun, you can say, “Wow, that’s where the sun is.” No, that’s where the sun was eight minutes ago, because it takes about eight minutes for light to the sun to travel to the Earth. What we’re doing now is we’re writing and reacting as if it isn’t 2020 and we don’t have mad man in office who doesn’t care about democracy, as if we didn’t just lose 185,000 people, as if there isn’t a reason why we’re doing this virtually instead of me being in the studio.
Jaisal Noor: Well, I hope we’re all preparing for that. I mean, what seems like inevitable that Trump will not accept the results because that’s … he’s said it, he said it. He said it straight up, said it already, if he loses, it’s, “The election is rigged.” And as we’ve talked about, he has incited his followers to carry out acts of violence and defended them after they have done so, and promised to go after Black Lives Matters and Antifa and other groups. These are the stakes, and this is definitely not a game and some serious stuff.
Lester Spence: And I’ll say one more thing. And I swear I don’t normally … I say one more thing. If you’re an opinion maker, if you’re a writer, if you don’t know how to write and treat this moment as if it’s 2020, you need to get another fucking job.
Jaisal Noor: All right. Well, we’re going to leave it on that note. Lester Spence, thank you so much for joining us.
Lester Spence: Thanks for having me.
Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
Lester Spenceis an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. He specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics in the wake of the neoliberal turn. An award winning scholar. In 2013, he received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award for his book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. As a teacher in 2009, he received an Excellence in Teaching Award. He can regularly be heard on National Public Radio and the Marc Steiner Show.