Do you remember when George W. “Shrub” Bush, running for president the first time, responded indignantly to some political attack, “Don’t you question my heart!” Google can’t recall for me exactly what the issue of the moment was, but it doesn’t really matter. Bush’s riposte was politically ingenious, because liberal Democrats are always accusing conservative Republicans of heartlessness for slashing anti-poverty programs, dismantling affirmative action that’s intended to benefit African Americans, etc. If the issue becomes a personal one, the Democrats usually lose, because Ronald Reagan seemed like such a “nice” man, Shrub was “a guy you’d like to have a beer with,” etc. There isn’t much political advantage to be gained in questioning your opponent’s compassion, at least not in American politics. Mocking his manhood, as Poppy Bush did with Michael Dukakis’s tank driving commercial in 1988, or her womanhood, as Trump did to Hillary, works much better with the rubes.
Now that the fad for psychohistory has faded, most historians are also leery of delving into politicians’ personal motivations, unless they can be documented in personal letters and the like. You can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s head, certainly not if they’re long dead and unable to speak for themselves. Arguably, it doesn’t much matter, either. The real point is, for example, that FDR’s New Deal helped millions of Americans who were threatened with homelessness and starvation during the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law in the mid-1960s ended legal discrimination against African Americans. It might be interesting for a biographer to learn what FDR’s private attitudes toward the poor were, or what views LBJ had about African Americans on an individual level. But questions like those are secondary, compared to the effects of their policies.
Still, the question is irrepressible, and irresistible. Just what the hell is a Trump, or a Putin, really thinking? Victims and even curious bystanders really, really want to know. The ex-Communist Arthur Koestler cut to the heart of the matter in his classic novel of Stalinist oppression, Darkness at Noon, when he has his hero Rubashov reflect about Stalin himself:
What went on in No. 1’s brain? He pictured to himself a cross-section through that brain, painted neatly with grey water-colour on a sheet of paper stretched on a drawing-board with drawing pins. The whorls of grey matter swelled to entrails, they curled round one another like muscular snakes, became vague and misty like the spiral nebulae on astronomical charts. … What went on in the inflated grey whorls? One knew everything about the far-away nebula; but nothing about the whorls. That was probably the reason that history was more of an oracle than a science.
Despite all the scientific advances in the more than eighty years since the Hungarian-born Jewish author wrote those words, they are still true. And the question becomes particularly acute when we consider whether politicians who invoke racist beliefs “really believe” what they are saying. Consider two current examples, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and J.D. Vance, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio. Both are White men married to Asian women—McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao, a cabinet secretary under Shrub Bush and later under Trump, is Taiwanese-American, and Usha Vance, an attorney, is Indian-American. Both men are right-wing politicians who routinely traffic in racist imagery, although their targets are usually African Americans and Latinos, not Asians. For example:
- A new TV ad of Vance’s says that “Biden’s open border is killing Ohioans, with more illegal drugs and more Democrat voters pouring into this country.”
- McConnell last year attacked attempts to teach the history of anti-Black racism in America, saying, “We should be strengthening the teaching of American history and civics in our schools that focuses on the principles that unite our nation. Not divisive, radical, and utterly debunked propaganda that uses lies about our founding to divide us and teaches kids that the color of our skin defines it.” Note that twist at the end so characteristic of twenty-first century racist propaganda, the attempt to define itself as anti-racist.
So, is it possible these guys see Asians as “honorary Whites,” while still being unreconstructed racists when it comes to Blacks and Latinos? Stranger and more perverse things have happened. I was once married to a woman who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa and was very proud of her anti-racism when it came to Black Africans, and yet she had no hesitation in saying vile things about Indian South Africans, homosexuals, Arabs, you name it. For the politicos, naked ambition is the likeliest explanation. After all, McConnell started out in politics as a moderate Republican, and Vance eloquently denounced Trump’s cheap demagogy, before both men licked their fingers and held them up to the wind, which they found to be blowing hard from their right. Now no one licks Trump’s boots more messily than Vance, and McConnell shamelessly plugs every nonsensical right-wing talking point.
The famous story goes that George Wallace, the racist American politician par excellence of the 1950s and 1960s, lost an early campaign to a candidate who was more obsessive than him about defending racial segregation, and vowed never to be “out-segged” again. Late in his life, the former Alabama governor and presidential candidate tearfully sought (and received) forgiveness from a group of African Americans. That’s all very well, and it shows that the Christianity of some African-Americans could put most white American Christians to shame. But Wallace will always be remembered as the great champion of “White backlash” who played a central role in killing the 1960s dream of racial brotherhood. It is the effect figures like this have on society, and not what is in their hearts, that matters.