In 1914, Hugo Black–a future Supreme Court Justice–was elected solicitor, or district attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He lobbied to improve prison conditions for both black and whites, and even published a report on coerced confessions. As a trial lawyer, he had successfully represented a black man who had been imprisoned twenty-five weeks beyond his original sentence. But he remained a prisoner of his time and place.
After a stint as district attorney, Black became a personal injury lawyer, and showed himself a master of the racial dog whistle. In one case, he defended a Protestant minister, E. R. Stephenson, accused of murdering a Catholic priest, James Coyle, who had performed the marriage of the minister’s daughter, Ruth, to a Puerto Rican laborer, Pedro Gussman. During his questioning of prosecution witnesses, he asked several of them, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?” Later, he asked for floodlights to be installed in the courtroom, and had them shone on the decidedly not-white Puerto Rican bridegroom during his testimony, saying that he “just wanted the jury to see that man.” And then, during his closing argument to the jury, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan, Black recited the Ku Klux Klan prayer, “Our father and our God. We, as klansmen, acknowledge our dependence upon Thee.” The jury voted to acquit.
In 1923, Black joined the Klan as a prelude to running for Senate. During his electioneering, Black marched with the Klan and spoke at over a hundred meetings, all the while decked out in Klan robes. He struck many populist and nativist themes in his stump speeches, railing against corporations and income inequality and immigrants. In 1926, he was awarded, and happily accepted, the Klan’s ‘grand passport’ after winning the Democratic Party’s primary. When a clerk asked him why he had joined the Klan, Black replied, “Why, son, if you wanted to be elected to the Senate in Alabama in the 1920s, you’d join the Klan too.”
As Black’s biography shows, racist and nativist populists who rose to power are not unknown in American political history; neither is their skilled deployment of race-baiting techniques and their sounding of dog whistles. The artful politician can invite the sympathy of the working class by concentrating on those issues that address their economic bottom line even as he appeals to their baser instincts by readily finding scapegoats among the usual suspects: foreigners and people of color. Donald Trump has learned his lessons well, even if there is little evidence he burned any midnight oil reading the biographies of Supreme Court Justices. He’s not alone in imbibing these lessons, of course; most of the Republican Party have been diligent students of their dark arts. Trump has just done it better.
And so Trump might yet say to someone who would ask him why, during the election season of 2016, he went on tirades against Mexicans and Muslims, welcomed the support of white supremacists, accused Federal judges of bias, and sought to ban an entire class of immigrants from the nation, “Why son, if you wanted to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in the new millennium, you’d been a fascist too!”
Note: This post is cribbed from Jeffrey Rosen‘s The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America (Times Books, New York, 2006, pp. 136-137).