- Leah Wright Rigueurprofessor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power.
During Tuesday’s debate, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams defended her actions in 1992 when she helped burn the Georgia state flag, which at the time contained a prominent Confederate battle flag. In a victory for civil rights advocates, the flag was later changed. We speak to Leah Wright Rigueur, professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, during Tuesday’s debate, Stacey Abrams was also asked about a 1992 protest she took part in, when she was photographed burning the Georgia state flag.
STACEY ABRAMS: And 26 years ago, as a college freshman, I, along with many other Georgians, including the governor of Georgia, were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol. I took an action of peaceful protest. I said that that was wrong. And 10 years later, my opponent, Brian Kemp, actually voted to remove that symbol.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Leah Wright Rigueur, your reaction to this issue being raised in the waning days of this election?
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: This is a tight and close and contested election. This is a monumental election. A black woman has received the nomination for a gubernatorial bid, which is a first. It’s also a touchstone for the rest of the nation in terms of issues like Democratic politics, blue wave, progressive politics, black women in politics and their effect. And so, of course, in the closing days of the election, all of these so-called controversies are going to erupt.
Now, for the Abrams campaign, they, in some ways, anticipated this. What Stacey Abrams did in 1992 was in no way illegal. It is her constitutional right, as stated, you know, in exercise of free speech, but also supported by several Supreme Court rulings. But also, at the time, we’re not talking about the Georgia state flag; we’re talking about the segregationist version of the Georgia state flag, which the then-governor of Georgia was trying to get rid of and, later, Kemp would also push to get rid of. So, this is actually a noncontroversy, if anything. And so, the Abrams camp has actually done a quite a good job as this has erupted, of saying, “No, this is not what it seems. And, in fact, this was about making Georgia more democratic, more fair and less racist for citizens of the entire state.”
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, Stacey Abrams has very proudly said in her response that she stands by what she did. She doesn’t consider this an exposé, that that action helped to lead to the removal of that version of the Georgia flag, that was largely the Confederate flag.
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Absolutely. And, you know, if this is the biggest controversy that Abrams is facing, then, I mean, what do you have? This woman is squeaky clean. She is fighting for the rights of—you know, for democratic rights, for the expansion of enfranchisement for legal citizens. So the idea that she would be burning a flag, oh, shocker. But it turns out that the flag that she was burning was an unjust flag, that was a segregationist flag, that, you know, generally, the political class in Georgia was united around getting rid of. So, this is—again, this is a nonstarter, but it’s emerging at a point in time as one of these things that is designed to disrupt and really rile antagonism against Stacey Abrams and perhaps encourage turnout, turnout from Kemp’s base, as a way of holding back Stacey Abrams in a really contentious fight.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to a larger picture right now, which is what President Trump has said in the last few days and doubled down yesterday. At a rally in Houston, he officially declared himself a nationalist, tagging himself with a label that has long been aligned with Nazism and white nationalism, clearly something he was indicating he knew in this clip.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.
AMY GOODMAN: So that was Trump on Monday night. And then he doubled down on the nationalist label when speaking to the press at the White House.
JIM ACOSTA: There is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you’re a white nationalist.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’ve never even heard that. I cannot imagine that. You mean I say—
JIM ACOSTA: You’ve never heard that expression?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’m a nationalist. No, I never heard that theory about being a nationalist. I’ve heard them all. But I’m somebody that loves our country.
AMY GOODMAN: “I’m somebody that loves our country.” Professor Leah Wright Rigueur, can you respond to what President Trump has said this week, labeling himself a proud nationalist?
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: It’s an interesting choice of words, given that he could have used “patriot” for somebody who loves their country, but instead doubled down on this idea of nationalism. It’s not the first time that he’s done it. During the 2016 campaign, he labeled himself a nationalist. Stephen Bannon was behind this. But also it was very much an embrace of Steve Bannon’s idea of nationalism. Regardless of, you know, he may say, “This is not ethnic nationalism, this is not white nationalism,” it is sending a very distinct message and drawing on a very distinct message at a point in time where nationalism is on the rise in the country, but so is violence around nationalism, ethnic nationalism, white nationalism. So, in a way, this is drawing back on that 2016 strategy, which was quite effective for him, which is a rallying cry to all of these people around the country, this base, that put him in office, that elected him, at a time when, in the midterms—in the midterms, where he’s really pushing a culture war strategy and reviving a culture war strategy, because there’s not much else to go on. So, it’s worked for him in the past. It’s his calling card. And here he is reviving it.
The other interesting point is that he’s reviving it at a moment where Steve Bannon is no longer officially associated with his—with the White House, with the Trump administration. So, it does tell you that, you know, those ties are still there, but so is that ideology that’s pulling through. It’s a message, again, to the base that “I’m here for you, I stand for you, I support your agenda.” It’s also a warning for those outside, in a way of alienating other people as outsiders. It’s Donald Trump’s way of saying, “I am president of these people, but not those people.”
AMY GOODMAN: And this all comes as the Florida gubernatorial candidate, the Democrat, Andrew Gillum, was targeted by a racist robocall paid for by a white supremacist group—Gillum aiming to be Florida’s first black governor. This is a clip of the robocall. A real warning: It is extremely racist.
RACIST ROBOCALL: Well, hello there. I is Andrew Gillum, and I be the mayor of Tallahassee.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is the gubernatorial candidate, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, responding to these racist robocalls on CNN.
MAYOR ANDREW GILLUM: I want to make sure that we don’t racialize and, frankly, weaponize race as a part of this process, which is why I’ve called on my opponent to really work to rise above some of these things. People are taking their cues from him, from his campaign and from Donald Trump. And we saw in Charlottesville that that can lead to real, frankly, dangerous outcomes.
AMY GOODMAN: Leah Wright Rigueur, your final comment on the climate right now?
LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Well, these are races that are indicative of a much broader and, in some ways, much more dangerous climate, that really ties back to—really ties back to the Trump administration and the emergence of—you know, really, the emergence of a much broader identity that is tied to nationalism, a racialized nationalism. But the other thing that’s going on here is that we have a set of candidates that are running against people that have wholly tied themselves to Donald Trump, proudly tied themselves to Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s agenda. So, really, what we’re gearing up for is a showdown between, you know: Does the Trump effect still stand, this one way of approaching politics, this exclusionary way of approaching national politics and local and state politics, or is there another way? Is there a way that is built on alliances and coalitions, that is inclusive and is about expanding the boundaries of democracy so that all American citizens count?
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, Leah Wright Rigueur, professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She’s the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power. Greg Palast, journalist who’s been investigating Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who’s running for governor on the Republican ticket, been looking, overall, at voter suppression in Georgia.
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