If Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is confirmed as U.S. attorney general, he will achieve the highest ranking legal job in the Trump Administration, despite the fact that in 1986, the Senate would not confirm him to be a district court judge. Sessions’ racist language, deemed disqualifying for high office 30 years ago, is not only acceptable in 2016, but also, presumably, a plus for the most senior positions in the Donald J. Trump administration. And despite all the legitimate outrage you are seeing on Facebook—despite all the calls your friends are urging you to make to your congressmen—the Senate will confirm him easily.
Why is this? Is it just because there is a Republican majority in the Senate? I don’t think so. It was a Republican-controlled Senate that bounced him in 1986. Instead, I think it is because, like so many other linguistic casualties of the post-fact political world we inhabit, the word racism no longer has any meaning in political discourse on the right, beyond the claim that calling a Republican racist is racist.
Here are the things that took Jeff Sessions out of the running for a federal judgeship in 1986: There was the testimony that while he was a U.S. attorney, Sessions had called a black lawyer “boy” and warned him to “be careful how you talk to white folks.” There was also the testimony that Sessions had described the NAACP as “un-American” and joked about his support for the KKK, their pot-smoking aside. Sessions himself admitted to calling the Voting Rights Act a “piece of intrusive legislation,” and called white civil-rights lawyer Jim Blacksher “a disgrace to his race.”
But we are told today that Sessions’ words—again, many of which he admitted to speaking aloud—do not in fact make him a racist. We should judge Sessions by his actions, we are told, as language tells us nothing about someone’s true character. But even the most cursory look at his actions suggest that his language of 1986 is perfectly aligned with his legal activities over the past decades.
Sessions spent his time in the Senate opposing any kind of immigration reform and supporting anti-immigrant extremist groups. He supports mass deportation and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has no problem with a religious ban on Muslims entering the U.S. He was virtually alone in his legal conclusion that what Donald Trump described in the Access Hollywood video was not technically sexual assault. He has vocally opposed marriage equality and civil rights protections for LGBT victims of hate crimes. He praised the Supreme Court’s decision to eviscerate the core of the Voting Rights Act. And of course as attorney general in Alabama in the early 1980s, he prosecuted a group known as the Marion Three for alleged voter fraud. As Ari Berman has described it, Sessions spearheaded a 1985 effort to charge three people, one of whom was 92 years old, with felony voter fraud for helping elderly black Americans vote in Alabama. A jury later acquitted them on all counts. Also he has advocated stripping funding from sanctuary cities.
But wait, we are told. Ignore Sessions’ actions as well as his language. We are not to draw any conclusions from any of the facts enumerated above because we don’t know him personally, and thus, none of us is in a position to judge.
This is, of course, simply another iteration of the racism two-step we witnessed only a week ago, when Trump picked Steve Bannon to be his senior adviser in the White House. Those who had focused attention on Bannon’s anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, anti-Mexican, and rank misogynistic comments were all wrong. Bannon’s not a racist. Those were just comments, or jokes, or reports by an ex-wife. It’s just that he is “careless,” says defender Alan Dershowitz. How can he be racist if “he has got a Harvard business degree. He’s a naval officer. He has success in entertainment,” says defender Kellyanne Conway, who is “personally offended” that she could be deemed to associate with open racists. Sean Hannity tells us that Bannon cannot be a racist, because some of his best friends? Jews.
Bannon’s words are immaterial, these people tell us. We need to focus instead on his actions, a truer test of his character. But like Sessions, Bannon’s actions—running Breitbart News, where white nationalists like Milo Yiannopoulos were free to spread racism and misogyny, and headlines trashing women, black Americans, Jews, LGBTQ people, and Muslims—only provide more evidence that he is far worse than careless. (Bannon himself says he isn’t a white nationalist or racist. He’s just a “nationalist,” which is just another fake word for a fake phenomenon that looks like it depends largely on trashing nonwhite Americans and immigrants.)
If Bannon’s character and also Sessions’ character cannot properly be illuminated based on their words, or their actions, one is left to wonder what, if anything, is still an indicator of a public figure’s core racial beliefs. The answer, quite clearly, is nothing.
I wrote during the campaign about the dangers of Donald Trump’s slick efforts to decouple his language from his positions, and the ways in which he persistently argued that his words in no way reflected or mirrored his convictions or beliefs. He has done an equally deft job in arguing that his actions too—ranging from his failure to release his taxes, his behavior toward women, his refusal to abide by the norms of good business—are not indicative of his character. Trump’s absolute mastery of the argument that neither one’s words nor deeds are good predictors of one’s convictions has now spread to the people with whom he has chosen to surround himself. Like him, they are distanced from everything they have either said or done with claims that nobody has the right to pass judgment; that we have no idea what’s in a person’s heart; that the real villains here are the ones who assume a person saying and doing racist things is racist. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if the entire American justice system were premised on the now-commonplace assumption that you can know nothing about anyone despite his words and behavior. This goes far beyond gaslighting. This is the suggestion that there is no wrongdoing that is ever provable (unless your name is Hillary Clinton).
The final irony of this new era in which we find ourselves—in which the only true measure of a man’s character is what his friends say about him on Fox News—is that more and more, when called upon to explain Donald Trump’s dangerous and divisive choices in his first weeks as president-elect, we are ordered by his late-to-the-party boosters to simply “stop worrying” and “trust him.”
No seriously. We should stand down and just let him unite us. Never mind the divisive words, nor the deeds guaranteed to foment precisely the kind of hate and mistrust we now endure daily. They don’t matter. They are just words. Just deeds. We owe it to our country to give him a chance. Trust him. Trust Bannon. Trust Sessions. What could go wrong?