Posted on August 27, 2023

You Can’t Talk About Trump’s Georgia Case Without Talking About Racism

Janell Ross, Time, August 24, 2023

As the final bars of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” filled the room, former President Donald Trump took the stage in Windham, N.H. The audience, many of them white New Englanders and veterans, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” had to settle a bit before Trump could launch into a winding, military-themed speech at the August 8 campaign rally.

Soon enough, Trump arrived at what has become a recurrent theme of his embattled candidacy: an attack against Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, who six days later would make public grand-jury indictments against Trump and 18 others facing 41 criminal charges, some carrying mandatory jail time.

“They say there’s a young woman, a young racist in Atlanta, so racist,” Trump, 77, said in his characteristically elliptical way, with a bit of repetition for emphasis, referring to the 52-year-old prosecutor. “I guess they say that she was after a certain gang and she ended up having an affair with the head of the gang or a gang member. And this is a person that wants to indict me.” {snip}

The Trump way of doing politics has always included a combination of baseless allegations, ad hominem attacks, group-based suspicion, and racial fearmongering. Racist questions about President Barack Obama’s place of birth marked Trump’s entry into politics. Trump launched his 2016 presidential bid labeling Mexicans illegally crossing the Southern border criminals and rapists. His presidency was bookended by blanket accusations leveled at Muslims and the Chinese. Now, as Trump contends with four criminal indictments and three other civil inquiries or cases to boot, his attacks on prosecutors, judges, and others associated with the process amount to a high-intensity extension of those tactics.

While everyone in a position to hold Trump accountable is subjected to a barrage of insults and he has called Jack Smith, a white man who serves as federal special counsel and charged Trump in both a classified-documents and a Jan. 6 case, “deranged,” it is what Trump has to say about officials of color that seems to rely heavily on stereotypes and his confidence that bigotry has political benefits. Trump has called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting him for allegedly paying hush money to an adult film star, a racist, an animal, and a thug, and described him as an incompetent tool of a Jewish liberal megadonor. He has characterized Judge Juan Merchan, the acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court overseeing the hush-money case, and Judge Tanya Chutkan, the federal jurist in Washington, D.C., overseeing the Jan. 6 case, as irreparably biased rule breakers with some flourishes suggesting incompetence and anger. He has deemed New York State Attorney General Letitia James, the official behind a civil probe of his business and charities, “a radical” and a “racist.” And on other occasions, he’s referred to Willis as “rabid” and reared by a family “steeped in hate,” an extreme description of her retired lawyer father who was also, for a time, a Black Panther. {snip}

But in Atlanta – the so-called cradle of the American civil rights movement, birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and longtime home of John Lewis – bigotry, or rather a bet on the bigotry of the American public, will not only likely feature heavily in Trump’s public-facing defense and campaign, it is at the core of the case itself. Yes, Trump and his co-defendants have been accused of joining a conspiracy to “unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump,” but any honest observer of the proceedings cannot fail to recognize what all of this means: if these alleged actions had been successful, they would not just have returned Trump to the White House but also subverted the will of the vast majority of Black voters, two-thirds of Latinos, and more than 60% of Asian Americans who cast ballots in 2020, disenfranchising those whose grasp on the levers of democratic power are relatively new and, many voting-rights advocates say, under assault in a way that intensified after the nation’s first Black president was elected in 2008. This, combined with Trump’s ongoing invective against Willis and some of the specific allegations in the indictment, suggest that racism will maintain a presence in this case in ways both overt and oblique. The stakes in Atlanta, where Trump is expected to turn himself in on Thursday, are therefore even greater than his fate in court, or even the coming presidential election. Also on trial is the country’s willingness to face, reject, or embrace the ongoing utility of racism in American politics.


While Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright and his colleagues had joined other groups in the years and then months leading up to the 2020 election doing the work that, along with other shifts in voting, helped turn Georgia purple, Trump had spent much of that same time describing the nation’s election system as deeply flawed and vulnerable to interference or fraud. Not long after the 2016 election, he said, without offering proof, that he lost the popular vote because millions of non-citizens had cast illegal ballots.


So it was hardly surprising that soon after the polls closed in 2020, Trump turned his suspicions on the election apparatus in a select set of counties. They were all, Albright told me, home to major cities with substantial non-white populations: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix, and, of course, Atlanta. (Georgia prosecutors now allege that Trump and his co-conspirators tried to override results in states containing those cities as well as Nevada and New Mexico, two states with larger-than-average Latino populations.)

Trump was telling people there were sundry forms of election malfeasance and corruption in Georgia and that collection of cities and states, places that in the minds of many are synonymous with Black voters, Black election officials, and everything from street to election crime, Albright says. Even as white Trump-appointed judges threw out the cases Trump and his allies filed, the Big Lie became a matter of “Republican dogma,” Albright said.

All Trump had to do was say it or imply it and those who believe the relevant stereotypes – a group larger than most Americans think – insisted what he said was true, says Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies and political science at Macalester College and special assistant to the provost for strategic initiatives. {snip}



Trump’s Aug. 8 comments about Willis in New Hampshire seem to rely on similar themes. Given the number of legal matters in which Trump finds himself entangled and how essential their outcome has become to the trajectory of his life, we are likely to hear more coded and not-so-coded remarks between now and the last of his criminal court proceedings. (Willis has sought a March 2024 date, but it’s a complicated case with many defendants, Trump’s lawyers are expected to push for delays, and other cases will also compete for his time.) Some of the lines of attack have already been made clear.

“Trump is trying to create this new trope of ‘gangbanger mistress,’” says Harris, drawing a line from “welfare queen,” a stereotype and potent political trope first deployed by Ronald Reagan, to “baby mama,” a term used to describe Michelle Obama to this latest one. “There’s a history there,” she says, “and it plays upon people’s fears, about not just supposed [Black] criminality. It’s presumed immorality. Policing women is America’s pastime. And policing Black women who are not owned by white men is centuries old.”

What Trump and his allies say about Willis and other Black officials and what he and his co-defendants are alleged to have done are not unrelated. Trump and many Americans seem to share what Harris describes as “fear of a Black planet,” a term she borrowed from the hip-hop group Public Enemy, meaning a world in which Black Americans occupy a wide range of roles, including those that involve some form of power or influence. That same CNN poll found that 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners under age 30 regard “increased diversity as an enrichment compared with 47% of those age 65 or older.” Voting, too, is a form of power and influence.

And yet this reality also remains, Gillespie says: On election night 2020, neither the cities nor the counties that surround PhiladelphiaMilwaukee, or Atlanta were home to majority-Black populations. Detroit was an overwhelmingly Black city but the surrounding county was not. Still all of these communities are understood “in the popular imagination” as Black, explains Gillespie. And last year just 5% of licensed attorneys in the United States – meaning people eligible to run for district attorney – were Black, according to American Bar Association data. That figure has remained unchanged for at least a decade.

“Can we, just for a moment, acknowledge what is essentially the miracle of two Black DAs and a Black judge on Trump cases,” Harris says. “What he [Trump] is experiencing now is being held accountable in a system where the wheels of justice have turned in the last 30 years.”