Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

Political Debt

Confession time: I’m a bit of a political junkie, and there’s nothing like mainlining coverage of the presidential elections. Sweet, sweet black tar polls and thinkpieces. Even if you’re not following along as obsessively as I am, you know that this one isn’t going the way anyone thought it would. Donald Trump has an insurmountable lead for the Republican nomination at this point, and I’ve read an unhealthy number of thinkpieces about why exactly that might be.

If you were to read one explanation, Josh Marshall, editor in chief of Talking Points Memo, has the best version. It’s all about technical debt:

If we do a project in a rough and ready way, which is often what we can manage under the time and budget constraints we face, we will build up a “debt” we’ll eventually have to pay back. Basically, if we do it fast, we’ll later have to go back and rework or even replace the code to make it robust enough for the long haul, interoperate with other code that runs our site or simply be truly functional as opposed just barely doing what we need it to. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a management challenge to know when to lean one way or the other. But if you build up too much of this debt the problem can start to grow not in a linear but an exponential fashion, until the system begins to cave in on itself with internal decay, breakdowns of interoperability and emergent failures which grow from both.

This is a fairly good description of what the media is now wrongly defining as the GOP’s ‘Trump problem’, only in this case the problem isn’t programming debt. It’s a build up of what we might call ‘hate debt’ and ‘nonsense debt’ that has been growing up for years.

But if you want a great description of what exactly this “debt” looked like when it was issued, you want Ben Fountain’s American crossroads: Reagan, Trump and the devil down south. Start with the disappearance and murder of three young black men who were registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi in 1964.

Mississippi officials insisted that the whole thing was a hoax, a publicity stunt to drum up support for the civil rights movement. Mississippi senator James Eastland alleged that the movement’s Meridian office had reported the three men missing in advance of their disappearance, and he called on President Johnson to launch an investigation into “civil rights fraud”. Leaders of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission asserted that the young men were regularly being sighted alive and well, most reliably in Alabama. Others claimed that they were hiding out in Cuba, “with Fidel Castro and the communists”.

The bodies of the young men were eventually discovered buried in an earthen dam. It wasn’t the work of one or two bad apples:

In the months and years to follow, the story of their deaths would gradually come to light: their abduction by a Ku Klux Klan posse; the collusion of local law enforcement; the point-blank execution in a clearing in the woods. Far from being the work of a few vigilantes, a quite distinct picture emerges of a brutal, highly organized power structure procuring the murders of these three young men, then spinning hard to keep the truth from coming to light. Elected officials. Citizens councils. Law enforcement. The “community”.

And that’s where Reagan went to speak the words “I believe in states’ rights”, in his first appearance as the Republican nominee. These days we know it as dog-whistle politics, that coded language Lee Atwater was talking about. Reagan did not, by the way, mention Chaney, Schwerner or Goodman, whose bodies had been found a few miles away. That screaming silence, that was a dog whistle too, and to think that Reagan didn’t know what he was doing is to consign him to the ranks of the epically stupid. He’d campaigned for Goldwater. He was a two-term governor of California, and a veteran of national politics. The Neshoba County speech stands as one of the true masterpieces of the Southern Strategy, a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every racist reactionary within 3,000 miles.

I don’t know about you, but that didn’t come up in my American history classes. It seems like an unmistakable message.