As the final bars of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” filled the room, former President Donald Trump took the stage in Windham, N.H. The audience, many of them white New Englanders and veterans, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A” had to settle a bit before Trump could launch into a winding, military-themed speech at the August 8 campaign rally.
Soon enough, Trump arrived at what has become a recurrent theme of his embattled candidacy: an attack against Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, who six days later would make public grand-jury indictments against Trump and 18 others facing 41 criminal charges, some carrying mandatory jail time.
“They say there’s a young woman, a young racist in Atlanta, so racist,” Trump, 77, said in his characteristically elliptical way, with a bit of repetition for emphasis, referring to the 52-year-old prosecutor. “I guess they say that she was after a certain gang and she ended up having an affair with the head of the gang or a gang member. And this is a person that wants to indict me.” He offered no evidence for his salacious allegation. Willis has called it derogatory and false. Multiple news organizations have debunked it. Nevertheless, it is mentioned in a Trump campaign ad now running on Atlanta TV.
The Trump way of doing politics has always included a combination of baseless allegations, ad hominem attacks, group-based suspicion, and racial fearmongering. Racist questions about President Barack Obama’s place of birth marked Trump’s entry into politics. Trump launched his 2016 presidential bid labeling Mexicans illegally crossing the Southern border criminals and rapists. His presidency was bookended by blanket accusations leveled at Muslims and the Chinese. Now, as Trump contends with four criminal indictments and three other civil inquiries or cases to boot, his attacks on prosecutors, judges, and others associated with the process amount to a high-intensity extension of those tactics.
While everyone in a position to hold Trump accountable is subjected to a barrage of insults and he has called Jack Smith, a white man who serves as federal special counsel and charged Trump in both a classified-documents and a Jan. 6 case, “deranged,” it is what Trump has to say about officials of color that seems to rely heavily on stereotypes and his confidence that bigotry has political benefits. Trump has called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting him for allegedly paying hush money to an adult film star, a racist, an animal, and a thug, and described him as an incompetent tool of a Jewish liberal megadonor. He has characterized Judge Juan Merchan, the acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court overseeing the hush-money case, and Judge Tanya Chutkan, the federal jurist in Washington, D.C., overseeing the Jan. 6 case, as irreparably biased rule breakers with some flourishes suggesting incompetence and anger. He has deemed New York State Attorney General Letitia James, the official behind a civil probe of his business and charities, “a radical” and a “racist.” And on other occasions, he’s referred to Willis as “rabid” and reared by a family “steeped in hate,” an extreme description of her retired lawyer father who was also, for a time, a Black Panther. A Trump spokesman, Steven Cheung, defended Trump this month against allegations of weaponized and strategic bigotry, saying Trump “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body and anyone saying otherwise is a racist and bigot themselves.” (Trump has pleaded not guilty in the first three indictments and is expected to be arraigned in the fourth, the Georgia case, in September.)
But in Atlanta – the so-called cradle of the American civil rights movement, birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and longtime home of John Lewis – bigotry, or rather a bet on the bigotry of the American public, will not only likely feature heavily in Trump’s public-facing defense and campaign, it is at the core of the case itself. Yes, Trump and his co-defendants have been accused of joining a conspiracy to “unlawfully change the outcome of the election in favor of Trump,” but any honest observer of the proceedings cannot fail to recognize what all of this means: if these alleged actions had been successful, they would not just have returned Trump to the White House but also subverted the will of the vast majority of Black voters, two-thirds of Latinos, and more than 60% of Asian Americans who cast ballots in 2020, disenfranchising those whose grasp on the levers of democratic power are relatively new and, many voting-rights advocates say, under assault in a way that intensified after the nation’s first Black president was elected in 2008. This, combined with Trump’s ongoing invective against Willis and some of the specific allegations in the indictment, suggest that racism will maintain a presence in this case in ways both overt and oblique. The stakes in Atlanta, where Trump is expected to turn himself in on Thursday, are therefore even greater than his fate in court, or even the coming presidential election. Also on trial is the country’s willingness to face, reject, or embrace the ongoing utility of racism in American politics.
When Trump was born in 1946, the Voting Rights Act was still a far-fetched idea some 19 years away. And the notion that a Black female DA, a situation only made real in Atlanta in 2021, could bring a case against a former and potentially future white, male President would have seemed impossible.
That was on my mind when I went to Atlanta in the summer of 2021 to profile Willis. She seemed steadied by the approach she told me she applies to every case. As a prosecutor, “I’m going to find out what, if anything, you did,” she said. “Look at the law. Put it on the wall. Compare. And, if you broke the law, I’m going to charge you.”
Willis had heard, along with much of America, portions of Trump’s recorded Jan. 2, 2021, call with Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump seemingly asks the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” 11,870 votes. When that call became public, it was move-in day at the DA’s office, and Willis was surrounded by boxes, TV news playing in the background. So, initially, she told me, there was disbelief, then dread. She knew she’d have to have her public-corruption team investigate.
But the origins of the coming showdown lie much further back. “People have died for the right to vote,” says Gerald Griggs, a civil rights activist and lawyer who has practiced law for 20 years in Georgia and predicted back in 2021 that prosecutors in Georgia would indict Trump. “And to call into Georgia to try to disenfranchise a large number of African Americans is repugnant. It was, pure and simple, an attack on the idea and the value of a multiracial democracy.”
When delegates from the 13 original colonies gathered in Philadelphia in May 1787, there was much to debate, including the very concept of a federal constitution. That alone presented a problem in a country dependent on enslaved labor but enamored of individual rights. Ultimately, it was ratified, and slowly – very slowly – civil and human rights were extended beyond white men and those who benefited from proximity. That is, at least, what the nation put on paper.
The 15th Amendment, for example, granted Black men the right to vote, but the effort to get third-fourths of the states to ratify it dragged on for almost two and a half years. Opposition was abundant, and a Sept. 16, 1867, edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer made the essential elements of that perspective plain.
Those who contemplate voting with the Radicals for the enfranchisement of the negro would do well to consider these facts: There are now in the Ohio penitentiary 1,041 prisoners who are white and 133 colored…While the latter have one-fourtieth of the population of the State, they have one-seventh of the criminals. Give them more license by granting the right of suffrage and equality, and the chances are that emigration from Southern states may set in, and crime increase. Let Radicals talk as they please, there is no doubt that enfranchisement of the negro in this State will retard its progress and be an injury to the whites.
In the end, Ohio would ratify the 15th Amendment in January 1870. New York, which had ratified the 15th Amendment in April 1869, would try to revoke its approval. But in February 1870, a group of four states ratified the constitutional amendment making New York’s change of mind and other debate moot. Among that last group: Georgia.
Black men voted and soon were elected to seats in state and federal legislatures, making some white Americans angry. In Georgia, Black elected officials were ejected from the state legislature as early as 1868. The federal government retreated from an assertive program of protections and inclusion for millions of now free Black women, men, and children. Across the South, and in less overt ways in the North, Jim Crow and the constant threat of racial violence and the sometimes deadly exercise of it created a new reality. By 1964, only about 27% of Black Georgia residents were registered to vote, an often complicated, sometimes fatal undertaking.
The following year, the Voting Rights Act and its federal enforcement features began to change things, and by the end of 1965, there were 250,000 newly registered Black voters across the United States. But for much of the period before and after, debate about Black voting – in particular, insinuations about the allegedly corrupting influence of the Black vote and the inherent danger of anything less than white voter dominion – never ceased. And, according to Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, Trump’s claims about 2020 election corruption seemed to hitch a ride on the credibility bus fueled by some of the same ideas.
While Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright and his colleagues had joined other groups in the years and then months leading up to the 2020 election doing the work that, along with other shifts in voting, helped turn Georgia purple, Trump had spent much of that same time describing the nation’s election system as deeply flawed and vulnerable to interference or fraud. Not long after the 2016 election, he said, without offering proof, that he lost the popular vote because millions of non-citizens had cast illegal ballots.
“The lie about voter fraud that Trump has been spreading since long before the 2020 election is and always has been a racialized lie,” says Sean Morales-Doyle, director of the Voting Rights Program at New York University’s Brennan Center.
So it was hardly surprising that soon after the polls closed in 2020, Trump turned his suspicions on the election apparatus in a select set of counties. They were all, Albright told me, home to major cities with substantial non-white populations: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix, and, of course, Atlanta. (Georgia prosecutors now allege that Trump and his co-conspirators tried to override results in states containing those cities as well as Nevada and New Mexico, two states with larger-than-average Latino populations.)
Trump was telling people there were sundry forms of election malfeasance and corruption in Georgia and that collection of cities and states, places that in the minds of many are synonymous with Black voters, Black election officials, and everything from street to election crime, Albright says. Even as white Trump-appointed judges threw out the cases Trump and his allies filed, the Big Lie became a matter of “Republican dogma,” Albright said.
All Trump had to do was say it or imply it and those who believe the relevant stereotypes – a group larger than most Americans think – insisted what he said was true, says Duchess Harris, a professor of American studies and political science at Macalester College and special assistant to the provost for strategic initiatives. A March CNN poll found that 84% of just over 1,000 Republican and Republican-leaning respondents did not believe Biden won the 2020 election, though only 56% said there was evidence to prove this.
“This is where I will give Trump credit,” says Harris. “There’s a reason he’s putting in the effort. It’s not falling on deaf ears.”
Between Nov. 4, 2020, and Sept. 15, 2022, Georgia prosecutors say, Trump and both indicted and unindicted co-conspirators allegedly went from casting aspersions to acting on them, trying to ensure that certain votes were not only met with doubt but not counted at all. In addition to allegedly spreading false information to legislators, submitting fraudulent electors in favor of Trump, and illegally breaching election equipment and data, among other things, the defendants allegedly released information that encouraged an onslaught of harassment and threats against Ruby Freeman and her adult daughter Shaye Moss, Black election workers in Fulton County, Ga., according to the indictment. This allegedly included false claims that the two women and an unidentified man passed “around USB ports as if they’re vials of heroin or cocaine,” and multiple attempts to cajole or force Freeman to falsely confess to election fraud. A white man later identified as a minister, a Black man affiliated with Black Voices for Trump, and a Black woman who had previously worked as a publicist for the rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) also allegedly traveled from Chicago to Atlanta and showed up at Freeman’s home. Some of their visits along with calls and threats from other Trump supporters, prosecutors say, prompted a frightened Freeman to call the police. The two men and the woman are accused of, among other things, trying to pressure Freeman to falsely confess “to election crimes she did not commit.”
Freeman and Moss testified before the Jan. 6 congressional committee that a Trump supporter attempted to detain Moss at her grandmother’s home. The FBI advised the women they needed to stay elsewhere and Freeman has since permanently moved away from her longtime home. Their physical and mental health has been affected, Moss said, and she still sometimes avoids public contact with people she knows out of fear that her name will be uttered, recognized by Trump supporters who have harassed and threatened her and her mother or might like to do so.
“It was the language in which they were being described,” says Gillespie of the way that Trump and some of his alleged co-conspirators spoke publicly about Freeman and Moss. “They were using language like hustler, using street language related to the drug trade that has been stereotyped and coded as African American.”
And on Jan. 6, 2021, Trump’s dog whistles and insinuations proved they are, indeed, perceptible, says Randolph McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and professor at Pace University’s Haub School of Law. On that day, after a Trump speech near the White House, the overwhelmingly white crowd that invaded the Capitol chanted about “taking our country back.” McLaughlin encourages people to complete the thought. From whom? A major indicator lies in the things the insurrectionists brought to the scene: among them was a Confederate flag.
“Even in the height of that war, no soldier from the Confederacy ever paraded in the Capitol with a Confederate battle flag,” McLaughlin says. “That happened on Jan. 6. Not to mention the officers who were being called the N-word, repeatedly.”
In a July 29 email, Willis warned other Fulton County staffers and officials to take particular care. Security for Willis, Bragg, Chutkan, Merchan, and Smith has all been increased due to the volume of threats each has received. But, Willis wrote in her email, the tone, content, and volume of commentary and threats she and her staff had received was alarming. She forwarded an example.
It carried a jarring subject line and one sentence in its body:
Subject: Fani Willis = Corrupt NIGGER
You are going to fail, you Jim Crow Democrat whore
Trump’s Aug. 8 comments about Willis in New Hampshire seem to rely on similar themes. Given the number of legal matters in which Trump finds himself entangled and how essential their outcome has become to the trajectory of his life, we are likely to hear more coded and not-so-coded remarks between now and the last of his criminal court proceedings. (Willis has sought a March 2024 date, but it’s a complicated case with many defendants, Trump’s lawyers are expected to push for delays, and other cases will also compete for his time.) Some of the lines of attack have already been made clear.
“Trump is trying to create this new trope of ‘gangbanger mistress,’” says Harris, drawing a line from “welfare queen,” a stereotype and potent political trope first deployed by Ronald Reagan, to “baby mama,” a term used to describe Michelle Obama to this latest one. “There’s a history there,” she says, “and it plays upon people’s fears, about not just supposed [Black] criminality. It's presumed immorality. Policing women is America’s pastime. And policing Black women who are not owned by white men is centuries old.”
What Trump and his allies say about Willis and other Black officials and what he and his co-defendants are alleged to have done are not unrelated. Trump and many Americans seem to share what Harris describes as “fear of a Black planet,” a term she borrowed from the hip-hop group Public Enemy, meaning a world in which Black Americans occupy a wide range of roles, including those that involve some form of power or influence. That same CNN poll found that 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners under age 30 regard “increased diversity as an enrichment compared with 47% of those age 65 or older.” Voting, too, is a form of power and influence.
And yet this reality also remains, Gillespie says: On election night 2020, neither the cities nor the counties that surround Philadelphia, Milwaukee, or Atlanta were home to majority-Black populations. Detroit was an overwhelmingly Black city but the surrounding county was not. Still all of these communities are understood “in the popular imagination” as Black, explains Gillespie. And last year just 5% of licensed attorneys in the United States – meaning people eligible to run for district attorney – were Black, according to American Bar Association data. That figure has remained unchanged for at least a decade.
“Can we, just for a moment, acknowledge what is essentially the miracle of two Black DAs and a Black judge on Trump cases,” Harris says. “What he [Trump] is experiencing now is being held accountable in a system where the wheels of justice have turned in the last 30 years.”
Trump’s fate lies now in the hands of a Fulton County jury, a group that, Griggs points out, Georgia state law limits to registered voters. Or it will if a new committee created by Georgia's Republican-dominated legislature does not prompt Willis’s removal from office first. A white Republican from a county that neighbors Atlanta said Monday he will initiate that process in October.
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