During a presidential cycle in which the mainstream media and political class has used frustratingly neutral language to describe the deep-seated prejudice fueling Donald Trump’s presidential bid, Jimmy Carter—a 91-year-old, white Baptist deacon from the reddest part of the South—has decided to do the exact opposite.
Carter, who is still receiving treatment for his nearly year-old cancer diagnosis, unapologetically told The New York Times Monday that Trump’s campaign has “tapped a waiting reservoir of racism” contrary to “basic human rights.” In typical Carter style, he not only named the problem, but has thrown himself into the fray of trying to solve it, calling for a summit of his New Baptist Covenant project to unite members of that denomination into a transracial effort to fight hatred.
The fact that his frank words and call to action have sparked dozens of headlines and set the blogosphere alight for days tells us a lot about just how far down the rabbit hole America has gone on race recently. President Obama’s term was characterized initially as “post racial.” Yet there’s something about the present that’s clearly all too familiar to Carter, who spent half of his life uncomfortably at the very top of America’s racial caste system in the segregated South, but who devoted the second half of it to tearing that system down.
Carter’s not alone in his critique of the odd silences that dominate this year’s presidential election cycle. Bill Moyers, another éminence grise from the South, has condemned the media’s role in fueling Trump’s rise through a campaign based on “racism and explicit nativism.” The mainstream media have bet on Trump’s ability to draw ratings and clicks, and that choice means framing his dangerous antics in innocuous terms. Neutral language in turn is lending him legitimacy. In an interview with Trump after violence broke out at his rallies, for example, NBC’s Chuck Todd referred tepidly to the candidate’s hate-filled language as “divisive”—rather than racist; others routinely allow that his supporters have “legitimate anger.”
And it’s not only the press.
Neither President Obama, nor Hillary Clinton, nor Bernie Sanders has bluntly called out Trump as a racist in the way Carter is doing. When asked explicitly by The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty during the March 9 presidential debate, “Is Donald Trump racist?” both Democratic candidates refused to say yes. President Obama mocks Trump’s racism without explicitly naming it.