This is what slipping into authoritarianism looks like: The popular governor of the bluest of blue states refusing to condemn the appointment of a racist white nationalist to the most influential staff job in the White House.
That’s what Gov. Charlie Baker did on Wednesday when asked about the appointment of Steve Bannon as President-elect Donald Trump’s chief White House advisor. There’s “too much pre-judging going on,” Baker said, adding that folks just needed to wait and “see what happens here.”
Bannon served as Trump’s campaign chairman and is the CEO of Breitbart News, a racist propaganda website. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has praised the news of Bannon’s new job as “excellent.”
Baker was the first Republican governor to say that he was offended by Donald Trump’s racist campaign rhetoric and would not support him for president. So why is he hedging on saying whether or not it is a bad idea to employ a white nationalist in the most powerful job in the White House? Easy — he’s thinking he will be punished if he speaks the truth.
During the same press conference where Baker urged folks not to judge Bannon, he noted that the most important thing for Massachusetts is to “have an open dialogue” with the Trump administration. He added that when it “comes to federal grants and federal funds for cities and towns here in the commonwealth," he wants Massachusetts to be “treated fairly.”
This is precisely what Masha Gessen, author of the widely praised biography “The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise Of Vladimir Putin,” warns against in her post-election essay “Autocracy: Rules For Survival.”
“Conservative pundits who broke ranks during the campaign will return to the fold,” she writes, and politicians on both sides of the aisle will be tempted to compromise with Trump “for the sake of getting anything done.” But these efforts will be “fruitless,” she cautions, because there is no such thing as compromise with an autocrat.
Attempts to gain Trump’s favor by following a strategy of appeasement will be, in Gessen’s words, “soul-destroying.” Indeed, that seems like an apt description of Baker’s refusal to condemn the appointment of a professional racist to the job once held by Andy Card in the George W. Bush administration. And what comes next? As tests of leadership go, they don’t get much easier than calling out white nationalists.
Will Baker duck questions about the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general? Sessions was appointed to a federal judgeship in 1986, but the Senate refused to confirm him when his “former colleagues testified Sessions used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan,” as the Washington Post reports. The office of the attorney general oversees the Department of Justice, which prosecutes hate crimes.
Words matter. Since the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked more than 400 incidents of bias-motivated violence related to the election. Racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-LGBT acts comprised the bulk of them. This month, the FBI released statistics showing a surge in hate crimes during 2015, with sharp increases in attacks on Muslim Americans and transgender people.
Baker should lead Massachusetts through the Trump administration by speaking the truth, as he did during the campaign. If he can’t get there on his own, we can help him. Call his office and ask him to speak out against the hiring of a white nationalist in the White House. Call your state representatives and senators and ask them to do the same. If anyone you speak with needs guidance, point them to what Attorney General Maura Healey had to say about Bannon: “For me, Bannon isn't a wait-and-see situation. He is a white supremacist now named to a top White House position to advise the president-elect, and that is something that needs to be denounced and rejected.”
It is impossible to say what life is actually going to be like with Donald Trump as our president. With the campaign as our guide, we know it will be difficult. But if speaking the truth about white nationalism has become a partisan act — in Massachusetts, of all place — we are in for a very long four years. How we emerge in 2020 will depend on how our civic leaders, with our governor first among them, conduct themselves. At minimum, we should be able to count on the truth. It’s all we’ve got.
Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a communications consultant, was formerly editor-in-chief of Bay Windows and news editor of the Boston Phoenix.