The race and religion bargain in politics

In “The Story of O.J.,” rapper Jay-Z famously examines wealth, fame and race through the character of disgraced former football star O.J. Simpson. The song is a thoughtful and instructive interrogation of a social dynamic familiar to most outsiders in America. This dynamic, which involves the exploitation of an outsider’s coveted particularities in exchange for access or power, has become a key cornerstone of American politics.

Here’s how it works: A political candidate — traditionally white, Christian and male — enters into a relationship with a member of the minority class (be they black or Latino or female) and the minority grants the candidate access to his or her community along with the benefits of such an association, in exchange for access of their own and the favorable consideration of their ideas.

This bargain has played out with mixed results for centuries in this country. Some of the more notable pairings have included Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Vernon Jordan and Bill Clinton. These relationships benefit both parties as each achieves mutual and individual goals. But there have been times, in the past and in the present day, when this otherwise constructive bargain has been corrupted by ambition or by the pull of some unacknowledged personal demons, and the pairings do more damage than good. Such is the case of Stephen Miller and Candace Owens.

If you are paying attention, you see that it is people like Mr. Miller, a Jewish senior advisor to President Trump, and Ms. Owens, the African American spokeswoman for the right-wing non-profit Turning Point USA, who do the most damage in politics. As outsiders among insiders, they have the most to prove, and often it is from their lips and from the tips of their pens that the most eloquent advocacy for the most dangerous policies emerge.

As outsiders granted provisional insider status in exchange for the cover they provide their patrons, they deserve our suspicions. We should question their motives. We should judge them.

Mr. Miller’s sustained presence in the White House is important because it reminds us that as the voices of moderation around Mr. Trump fall away, people like Mr. Miller remain to defend him and to fan the flames of his worst impulses. Mr. Miller not only survives but thrives in the administration because of his willingness to promote and advance the destructive immigration policies of his boss.

We pat ourselves on the back for forcing the removal of arch-racists like Steve Bannon even as we ignore people like Mr. Miller, who in his own special way, is worse. Mr. Miller is a survivor and will endure because he will close his ears and shut his eyes to scenes that should personally offend him in order to serve his ambition.

Candace Owens, whose group targets young conservatives, is an outspoken and aggressive defender of the president. She is an energetic, though intellectually irresponsible, participant in discussions on race, with short-sighted and half-baked arguments. As the nation girds its collective loins for what will undoubtedly be a bloody general mid-term election campaign, Ms. Owens has emerged as the guide-arm-of-color among angry conservatives. During the 28-year-old’s brief turn on the national political stage, she has proven herself to be a persistent and robust marketer of half-truths. Committed to sowing doubt among African American voters whom she faults for being uninformed and blind supporters of the Democratic Party, she aims to confuse, divert and dissuade just enough of them in advance of the elections to make an impact.

Ms. Owens is a dog-whistler of a different variety.

As Jay-Z reminds us, insider status is theater that depends on everyone involved faithfully playing their roles. The next time President Trump comes up with another crazy idea or makes another objectionable comment, look closely. Mr. Miller and Ms. Owens will be among those nodding approvingly and smiling the broadest.

K. Ward Cummings (kwardcummings@gmail.com) is the author of “Partner to Power: The Secret World of Presidents and their Most Trusted Advisers.”

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