Jamil Smith: Why 2018 Can't Be a Referendum on Trump - Rolling Stone
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Jamil Smith: Why 2018 Can’t Be a Referendum on Trump

The upcoming midterms are far bigger — and more important — than Trump’s whims

Shaneca Adams, Constance Gilbert, Barbara Dent Shaneca Adams, left, Constance Gilbert and Barbara Dent, stage a rally at a early voting site in Miami.Shaneca Adams, Constance Gilbert, Barbara Dent Shaneca Adams, left, Constance Gilbert and Barbara Dent, stage a rally at a early voting site in Miami.

Shaneca Adams, Constance Gilbert, Barbara Dent Shaneca Adams, left, Constance Gilbert and Barbara Dent, stage a rally at a early voting site in Miami.

J Pat Carter/AP/Shutterstock

I worry about the voters who need to be told that This Is the Most Important Election of Our Lives. I have heard people use this phrase for as long as I’ve been alive, and I’m sure I’ve repeated it a few times myself. But who are these people who won’t cast a ballot unless they are made to feel our national legitimacy is hanging by a thread?

We’re hearing the message again now, and it finally doesn’t feel like hyperbole. David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, argues as much in a new essay in which he expresses rare agreement with Donald Trump: The November election is a referendum on this president. “Should the Republicans hang on to the House and Senate,” Corn writes, “the lesson will be obvious: A hate-filled and low­-information president can preside over a regime of corruption and self-interest, fail to secure the nation, assail democratic norms and decency, and…suffer no penalty.” Corn insists that were this to happen, Trump “would be unleashed and even more emboldened” to act upon his more malignant instincts.

In that latter respect, I agree with Corn, because it is foolish to underestimate the depths to which Trump can sink. This was done regularly before the 2016 election, and his administration has since perpetrated a variety of horrors. It would be dangerous to make that mistake again. That said, I have trouble viewing this election as representative of Trump’s true support so long as Republicans work this diligently — and haphazardly — to suppress the vote. There can be no true referendum on Trump in an election that his party is trying to manipulate.

Were all voters able to participate without Republican (or Russian) interference, we could make the argument that the American public had either chosen to rebuke or endorse the president’s repugnant policies and behavior. But as it stands, the president’s party is working to consolidate power by cheating certain browner, blacker folks out of their votes. They are doing their best to tailor the electorate to their liking, and have the nerve to label that “America.”

There has long been a palpable fear of the black vote, and Republicans have only themselves to blame. Had they not pursued platforms designed to exacerbate and exploit racial and other inequalities, perhaps it wouldn’t be necessary to suppress the folks whom they oppress. But while Trump has been the most blatant, in recent memory anyway, in his pursuit of white patriarchy, it would be shortsighted to blame him for the Republican urgency to restrict ballot access for people of color. Frankly, we should keep our eyes on the compliant citizens who are ready to assist in the endeavor.

At least one such person in Georgia called the Jefferson County authorities on a group of roughly 40 senior citizens who were boarding a charter bus to vote on Monday, the first day of early voting in the state. The bus, run by the nonpartisan group Black Voters Matter, had slogans on its side like “The South Is Rising,” a clever appropriation of the Confederate mantra, next to images of clenched African American fists. The voters were ordered off the bus  because the county government considered it “political activity,” which is barred at county-run facilities such as their senior living center.

I am confident that those seniors in Jefferson County will not be deterred, seeing as they have lived through the era of bloody battles to secure voting rights for African Americans. But getting kicked off a bus may only be the start of their obstacles. They can vote by absentee ballot — unless they end up like folks in Gwinnett County, the state’s most racially diverse, where voting officials had rejected nearly one out of 10 absentee ballots as of last week. They can vote by mail, like any registered voter in the state — unless they aren’t registered anymore. They may be one of the more than 53,000 Georgians whose voter applications have been suspended — by Brian Kemp, Georgia’s Republican secretary of state who is also running for governor — because they failed the state’s discriminatory “exact match” standard. About 70 percent of the “pending” applications and voters removed from the rolls are African American. Yes, every one of those would-be voters can still cast ballots, whether provisional ones or the real thing, provided they show proper identification at the polls. But one of the greatest tools of vote suppressors is confusion, and undoubtedly the news about 53,000 voters being held up by the system may be enough to get them to stay home.

Native Americans in North Dakota, arguably, have it even worse. After a recent Supreme Court decision validating the state’s voter-ID law, many are now scrambling to obtain state identification with their current addresses (living on tribal land, many Native Americans only have P.O. boxes.) Rachel Maddow reported Wednesday night that tribal leaders will seek to get around this requirement by issuing letters at polling places confirming new addresses for those in need. “Tribes are now able to issue tribal documents that contain the voter’s name, birth date and current street address in North Dakota,” read the tribal statement Maddow cited. Maddow, for whom I once worked as a producer, told her audience that after asking Al Jaeger, North Dakota’s Republican secretary of state, whether such votes would be counted, the only response they received was “probably.”

This is happening not just because Republicans want to keep people like Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and embattled North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp from winning in November. This is done, naturally, to enable illegitimate governance. A president who accepted and encouraged foreign assistance to help him get elected is joining with his party to not merely cover up that illicit activity by impeding investigations, but also by sabotaging the central means by which politicians are held publicly accountable. Their cavalier delegitimization and endangerment of journalists is one way that Trump and the Republicans accomplish this, but their attack on the voting franchise is essential to their goal of tightening their grip on minority rule.

Another mantra liberals are repeating is that there are more of us than there are of them. That calculation may be meant to comfort, but it means little when voter suppression is considered. And how can we not take that into account when we know that America has never been a representative democracy? The right to choose its leaders has continuously been withheld from certain populations — whether by Uncle Sam or by Jim Crow. 

Despite what happened to those senior citizens, Georgians showed up to the polls on Monday at triple the number they did on the first day of early voting for the midterms in 2014. Turnout, determination and organization may defeat these Republican efforts to block black, Hispanic and Native American votes. But perhaps their shenanigans will work. It may be enough for them to keep both houses of Congress, along with a few statehouses. If so, Trump will surely wave those results in our faces like a joyous kid showing his parents a doctored report card.

To argue that this election is a referendum on Trump is to accept his false framing: that the election will be a true indication of what Americans collectively believe about him. With the aid of voter suppression, it will represent only what certain Americans think about him, Americans his party has vetted and selected for themselves. Knowing this should puncture our fantasies about this nation being a true democracy — and, one would hope, help us work harder to build one.


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