Update 7/25/18: Jason Spencer has announced his formal resignation, which will take place July 31st. Original post below.
Sacha Baron Cohen is an entertainer, not an educator. His new Showtime series, Who is America?, doesn’t respond to the question that its title poses. Instead, Cohen invites us to laugh at the answer.
Still, the chameleonic Cohen finds truth in the course of his deception. In the two weeks since his show premiered, we have seen “Erran Morad,” his fake Israeli anti-terrorism expert, coach former Republican lawmakers and gun zealots to advocate for the arming of schoolchildren. This past Sunday, the “Morad” character got Georgia state representative Jason Spencer to drop both his pants and the word “nigger.” Spencer, who is white, screamed it repeatedly, with that hard “r” at the end. (Spencer’s segment also included a racist impersonation of a Chinese man.)
Spencer wasn’t tricked into showing his ass – he saw the cameras, and that is who he is. Last summer, Spencer told a black attorney that she “won’t be met with torches but something a lot more definitive” and that she and others opposed to Confederate statues “will go missing” in a local swamp. In an America concerned with doing more than paying lip service to racial justice, a man like Spencer would have been sent out on the same backside that he revealed on Cohen’s show. Alas.
One could argue that Cohen is doing a public service by outing folks like Spencer as prejudiced, stupid or both. Displays of overt racism, after all, make these people easier to spot. As many of us have been told, it is better to learn what people truly think about you. The president’s very name has been used as a slur to demean, belittle and intimidate. Even more telling is that a state lawmaker like Spencer feels no significant pressure to resign after, quite literally, exposing himself on national television and dropping that hard “r,” over and over.
Monday morning brought the requisite Strongly Worded Statements™ (SWS) from fellow Republicans like outgoing Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. Spencer, who has issued an apology, plans to serve out the final five months of his term. Will he revive some of his past ideas – like outlawing Muslim burqas, niqabs or other veils in public? Racism and its violent outgrowths are certainly more prevalent now compared to a decade ago, and that is on purpose. But what price has this administration and the GOP at large truly paid for this behavior?
Spencer is not an outlier. A bigot like Rep. Steve King (R-IA), for instance, usually doesn’t have to worry about re-election. The longtime Congressman is known for his contempt for people who are not white and once tweeted that, “We can’t restore our civilization with other people’s babies.” In December, he wrote, falsely, that “diversity is not our strength.” In June, he shared literal neo-Nazi propaganda and refused to delete the tweet, claiming that, “It’s the message, not the messenger” that is most important.
As Rolling Stone’s Tessa Stuart recently noted, King is hardly the only overtly bigoted Republican on the ballot this fall. Russell Walker considers God to be a white supremacist, John Fitzgerald is a Holocaust denier and both men could be U.S. Congressmen next year. Wisconsin’s Paul Nehlen, running to replace Paul Ryan in the House, is banned from Twitter for spreading racial hatred. Corey Stewart, the native Minnesotan running against Tim Kaine in Virginia, has made protecting Confederate statues a centerpiece of his campaign. The former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his racial profiling and torture of Latino Americans and immigrants, received a full presidential pardon from his fellow birther last summer before announcing his senate run.
There is no massive push to excommunicate these men from our politics. There are surely many Republicans who would shake my hand and smile at me right before they cast votes to restrict my access to the ballot, to bar my neighbors from getting legal abortions or to end affirmative action. Do they need to call us “niggers” for the public to demand their resignation?
We’ve seen “Papa John” Schnatter and Roseanne Barr fired because their racist comments were threatening the bottom line. Same with Starbucks, which reacted with apologies and training sessions this past spring after a Philadelphia store manager called the cops on two young black businessmen waiting inside for a meeting.
All that these politicians need from us is to become numb. Through repeated viewings of Sorry to Bother You – a film that mocks bigotry while managing to hold bigots accountable – there is one line that has stuck with me above all others: “If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.”
We are ill-equipped, as a democracy and as a republic, to handle this rise in naked hatred that we have seen since Trump seriously began running for office three summers ago. The press does not help by using terms like “racially charged” when “racist” would do just fine. Which brings us back to Cohen and Spencer. I don’t mind seeing a public official’s bigotry exposed, nor do I saddle a comic with the responsibilities of a journalist. However, the show presents white extremism as entertainment, and it’s on us if we support that.