Sen. Tim Kaine: Hateful campaign rhetoric the “loud…death spasm of a feeling...

Sen. Tim Kaine: Hateful campaign rhetoric the “loud…death spasm of a feeling people have about losing control


I don’t have video, unfortunately, but here’s a transcript of Sen. Tim Kaine’s speech yesterday at the National Press Club to the National Association of Hispanic Publishers and National Newspaper Publisher Association legislative conference. I’ve bolded key lines/phrases; see below. The bottom lines are that: a) we’ve seen “a surprising level really hateful rhetoric, and it started early in President Obama’s term;” b) “the violent reaction that you see in some of this rhetoric and some of the appeal is not the sign of an increasing sentiment of division or hatred but it’s the loud death spasm of some people who feel very very worried about the direction of this country;” c) “a lot of this acting out are people who have negative views but they’re capturing a sentiment of anxiety out of a majority community that is worried about losing its majority status,” hence the “loud…death spasm;” and d) although it’s hard to be optimistic listening to this hatred and vitriol, Kaine is hopeful that the American electorate which “twice heard that kind of rhetoric and twice elected Obama president would hear that rhetoric and again not buy into it and not accept it.”

This is a great opportunity, I’ve been looking forward to coming to this historic meeting of the NNPA and the NAHP together. You have the trust of your readers at a time when people don’t trust the media – that is a precious commodity. This was a good opportunity for me to come and just share a bit with you. 

Yo hablo un poquito de español porque viví en Honduras hace mucho tiempo. Tengo un acento como un muchacho de catorce años de Honduras. 

I was a teacher at a vocational school teaching carpintería y soldadura en mi tiempo.

I’m going to tell you a story of something I’m working on now. I want to offer some observations about the rhetoric we’re seeing in American politics especially during the presidential campaign, and I want to say a word about your role and why you’re role is so important.

A story. I’ve had an interesting political career; I can’t keep a job. I’ve been a city councilman, mayor, lieutenant governor, governor, national party chair, U.S. senator, and had some amazing opportunities along the way. One opportunity was this: I was governor in 2007 and we welcomed Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to Virginia in Jamestown, to celebrate the 400 years of the English roots of American civilization. The work I did, inviting them and then accompanying them was together with a federal commission that Congress created a few years before the anniversary to do educational events and tell the story about the English roots of America. And Congress created that commission because English lives matter.

Last year – I am the honorary co-chair of the U.S.-Spain Council –  which is a position always held by a U.S. senator from the American side and a Spanish business leader on the Spanish side – we had a commemoration in San Agustín para celebrar los 450 de las raíces hispanas de nuestro país – 450 years of Hispanic roots in the United States of America. Spanish has been spoken here longer than inglés. 42 years before Jamestown was St. Augustine, and this has been a continuous part of who we are as a nation. And I had the opportunity to go with King Felipe and the Queen and celebrate in San Agustín and my work on that was accompanied by a Congressionally-chartered federal commission to do events and tell the story that was voted on by Congress because Hispanic lives matter.

Last month, with Congressman Bobby Scott and others, I introduced a bill, the 400 Years of African American History Act to ask Congress to similarly say that African lives matter, that African American lives matter, to charter a commission to basically plan over the next couple of years, so that during 2019 – which is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd Africans in a ship” – captured slaves off a Portuguese slave ship, captured by the English brought ashore at Point Comfort, VA in present-day Hampton. If English lives matter, if Hispanic lives matter, then clearly African lives matter, and the African American contributions need to be told.

Now, it’s a very different story. There’s pain associated with all stories, but there’s much more pain associated with this story because the arrival was involuntary and it began this diaspora of what became four million slaves by the time we get to the Civil War, so the story is painful but it’s also a story of triumph – a story of heroes that we know and heroes that we don’t, and we need to tell it because it’s like the story that still hasn’t been told. So I’m working right now with my colleagues to get more sponsors, Democratic and Republican, this is not partisan. It is a bipartisan bill in the House side, I’m still looking for bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate, but we’re coming upon a very momentous time in our country’s life. We can’t afford not to tell that story, and prepare to tell it in a way that hasn’t been told and to try to do it justice.

This is something that makes me feel, standing here together with the Latino publishers of this country and the African-American publishers of this country, of a shared sense of history. Now history is not just about the past, Faulkner said history is the attempt at making a usable past, so if you can’t use it for today and tomorrow, you can leave it for the Ph.Ds., but we want to use it for today and tomorrow.

We’re at an interesting moment in our history when we see on one hand the growing political power simply because of numbers of the African American community and the Latino community, and the election of the first African American president, the first minority president – twice, election and reelection. There’s some now saying he can’t put a Supreme Court justice on because we have to wait for the popular election. We’ve had two popular elections, and we ought to put a Supreme Court justice on, but we’ve also seen – even in a profession where I shouldn’t be surprised because I’ve been in it since 1994 – a surprising level of just really hateful rhetoric. And it started early in President Obama’s term when people could feel that they could stand up and challenge whether he was an American, whether he was born here, or stand up and shout, “You lie” in the middle of a speech in the halls of Congress, an unprecedented activity. Even this most recent activity in the Senate, “we will not entertain a Supreme Court nominee from this president,” even though there have been 17 occasions in the history of the nation when a President has sent up a nominee during his last year in office, and in every single instance, the Supreme Court has entertained the nominee. But there’s something about this president that is causing them to threaten, to break, this long precedent.

So in Congress we’re seeing this, but also on the campaign trail.

From a declaration of “we shouldn’t allow Muslims into the United States,” to horrible stereotypes trafficked about many ethnic groups in this country. And that somebody would say horrible things, look, we have free speech and people use it, sometimes unwisely. But that somebody would do that and gain followers and win primaries and seem to be unstoppable — it’s astounding to me. It’s astounding to me as it is, I know, to all of you. You’ve experienced it in a way I haven’t, so maybe it’s more surprising to me, but it surprises me, and I’m supposed to be in a place where I’m not surprised. So what I really tried to do, and this is what I really want to talk about before talking about your role, I want to kind of try to understand it, try to understand why it’s happening. Why we see signs of progress on the one hand, but in so many areas and especially in the public discourse during this presidential year, why we’re seeing this kind of rhetoric and offer some thoughts about it. 

Before I do, just one interesting observation. I’m on the Foreign Relations Committee, and I was in Turkey and Israel in January, and two days I had dinner with – I was at an evening meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel and then President Erdogan in Turkey, Jewish leader, Muslim leader. When they both say to me, “what’s going on in your presidential race? This kind of rhetoric is not what we expect from you guys.” You know, that tells you something. 

Sometimes even the partisan in me can say, “well, those guys are doing crazy things, maybe it’ll help us win.” I can’t think like a partisan, I have to think like an American, and when leaders outside who expect a level of behavior from us, they challenge us on it, it is clearly very serious. 

Let me just offer some thoughts. I was a civil rights lawyer in Richmond for 17 years before I got involved into state politics. I moved into Virginia, my wife’s dad had been a Republican governor who integrated the public schools in Virginia in 1970 and then was frozen out of politics even as an ex-governor at 48 – couldn’t get elected to anything after because people were so mad at him. I did civil rights work in the housing discrimination area around Virginia and other states, primarily in the south. And then I became a city councilman and mayor in a city that’s majority African American with a city council that was majority African American. So the combination of my civil rights work and my local government work has given me – I claim no omniscience to anything – but it’s given me a thought about this and I want to share the origins of what we’re seeing.

I do think it’s a little bit the death spasm of something, so the violent reaction that you see in some of this rhetoric and some of the appeal is not the sign of an increasing sentiment of division or hatred but it’s the loud death spasm of some people who feel very very worried about the direction of this country is going. I’ve kind of tried to understand it. When I grew up, I grew up in a family that thank goodness had parents that hated racism, racist language and racist jokes, but I was surrounded by it, and my parents would be uncomfortable with it, and they would tell us kids, that’s not the way to behave, and I’m glad my parents did that.

A lot of what was just normal when I grew up in the 50s and 60s – thank goodness is not normal nowadays. In polite company, that kind of overt white supremacy racist language that could just go uncommented upon and unremarked when I grew up, you just don’t see as much. Are there still some? Sure there are, but you don’t see much of it. But there’s a next generation of a sentiment that explains I think a lot of what we’re seeing on the trail, and that’s this: even people who would refuse ever to talk out in a racist way and who would certainly back away from some of this rhetoric and wouldn’t do it themselves, they nevertheless feel an anxiety over loss of control. There’s a loss of control when you have been in a majority you grow to thinking that your majority status is something like the air you breathe, it’s just so natural to you. A minority always has to learn the ways of a majority because it’s a survival technique; you have to. But a majority doesn’t usually have to learn the ways of the minority, the majority is just used to being in the majority.

We are in a country that demographically is changing very, very quickly, and many people who have just been used to – down to their DNA, down to their last blood cell – used to be in the majority see all around them that they’re not, they may not be in the majority anymore in their communities or their certainly not likely to be. And there is a deep seated emotional kind of anxiety, an unarticulated anxiety that that causes. So you see a lot of this acting out are people who have negative views but then they’re capturing a sentiment of anxiety out of a majority community that is worried about losing its majority status. And that’s really what I see happening right now.

The demographics are real. The majority isn’t going to be the majority, and there’s a lot of fear about that. And that’s what we see happening in Virginia, I saw it in my civil rights work, I saw it in my early political work, and I see it nationally now.

Of course there is such a better way to look at this. There’s such a better way to look at this than, “oh I’m not going to be in the majority anymore and I need to be afraid of that.” And let me just offer Virginia as an example.

So here is Virginia of 1958, the year I was born, and here it is today. In 1958, Virginia mired deeply in a battle to not integrate its public schools, engaging in massive resistance to integration that lasted until 1970. A state where 1 out of 100 people had been born in another country; very inward state, that celebrated, you got to be native, probably seven or eight generations really, that was what we celebrated then. Low education. Education half the national average in adults with college degrees. And you will not be surprised based on – oh, not only was there a battle about integration of schools on racial grounds, women couldn’t go to most of our public colleges. That was when I was born, in 1958. And it won’t surprise you when I tell you that in 1958 Virginia was bottom quarter per capita income in the country. Low education, insular, socially exclusive, and poor. And the poor wasn’t a coincidence, it was connected to those first three things.

So here’s the Virginia of today, 58 years later. We were 1 of 100 born in another country, today we’re 1 of 9 born in another country. We dramatically internationalized. 65% of the Virginia population growth in the census decade, 2000 to 2010, was Latino, Asian American or African American who had been born in Africa and then naturalized. So there’s population growth among African Americans moving from other states, but 65% African American, Latino or African American born in Africa nationalized citizens. So the demography of Virginia is changing dramatically.

In addition, education is changing dramatically. We’ve gone, when I was born, we were in the bottom five in the percentage of school age kids who attended school – forget about test scores – who attended school. Today, our public schools, which we got to make them better and we have plenty of challenges, commonly rank in the top five in the United States, top third in the percentage of kids that pass AP exams. Our Latino students are the number one performers in the nation in the elementary and middle school grades. We’re now top 10 in the country in the percentage of adults who have college degrees, from less than half the national average to the top 10.

And it will now not surprise you, I told you all of that, we’re top 10 median income. In fact, we’ve changed more in our economic profile than any state in the last 50 years, from bottom quarter to top 10. Note that other states have moved four or five spots or ten spots, some have moved up some have moved down, but no state has moved from the back of the pack to the front of the pack like Virginia has and guess what it’s coincided with? An embrace of greater diversity, an embrace of immigration, an embrace of, frankly, what we promised we would be when we called ourselves a commonwealth rather than a state. Commonwealth. There’s four of us. It’s exactly the same as a state, but we use that word because the wealth we hold we hold in common. It’s supposed to be a place where everybody can be together around the table.

So to the fear that so many are feeling out there, about “I was in the majority, now I may not be,” I offer this counter: let me tell you about a state where the majority was clear and had everything and the state wasn’t doing well, and moving to a position where now there’s huge diversity in our state and we are doing well. That’s our story, and frankly, when we’re at our best as Americans, it’s our story as Americans. People wonder 240 years ago this experiment, why have we continued to do well despite challenges along the way? Certainly this reinvigoration and transfusion of the bloodstream by successive waves of immigration that bring new ideas and new energy is part of the reason why we can always kind of reinvent ourselves and reach a new plateau.

And so I think this hateful rhetoric which I condemn and abhor, it is the death spasm of a feeling that people have about losing control, but I’m here to tell you that in a state that has kind of crossed over from an old way when we were a backward looking museum piece to a new way where we’re a forward-looking and globally-outreaching state, it’s been fantastic. It’s absolutely been fantastic. I don’t mean to say there aren’t things we can’t do a lot better than we do. There’s a million things in Virginia we can do better that we do, but we’ve turned our heads from the past to the future, and I’ll tell you the future looks better than the past.

There are some people – we all know this – in our own lives it’s hard to change and some people who resist change and that’s what this rhetoric is about. But I think the change is going to make us better and stronger and in the world, even more of a global leader.

A word about your roles. If we live in a suspicious time of politicians – and we do, boy do we live in a suspicious time about the media – media is like a four letter word, mainstream media is like a double four letter word. The reasons for that are probably also very, very complicated. There’s a great song by Warren Zevon called “Mohammed’s Radio” don’t know if you’ve heard it, but the opening line is, “everybody is restless I got no place to go, someone’s trying to tell them something they already know.” People may not like being told something they think they know, they don’t like having, sometimes – there’s an anti-intellectual strain – sometimes in our population. There’s so many different media outlets that people are confused. There’s a critique of media as overly focused on personalities rather than issues so there’s a lot of different reasons why people have a suspicion of media and newspapers, but I’ll tell you something. Here is a segment of media where there is not the traditional suspicion: African American newspapers and Hispanic newspapers.

Ethnic media, all the studies show that people have a higher trust in them than they do in other media. So the people who do read it, they really bank on it. They really take it to the bank. They really trust it in a way that they don’t trust “mainstream media.”

I notice with friends of mine in Richmond, we have a wonderful African American paper in Richmond, theRichmond Free Press, and those of you – remember Ray Boone? Our great friend and publisher, who founded that paper who worked with the Afro-American in Richmond and Baltimore who died two years ago, what a great guy he was. I noticed about the Free Press in Richmond, as opposed to some of the daily papers, it would be read and it would stay on the kitchen table until the next week when the next one came out.

I see the same phenomenon in Hispanic communities where the local paper, we’re not talking the daily paper, they may come out weekly in many instances, it’s sort of kept on the table and referred back to in a way that the daily paper isn’t. I see the same thing with minority media in TV and radio, it’s just trusted in a way that mainstream media isn’t.

What a virtue to be able to hold on to in a time of massive distrust in media. It’s so important.

And that gives, in any year at any time, but especially in an election year, it gives you an enormous power that you have people’s trust and that there’s a lot of messages that need to be delivered. One message in particular that I feel very strongly about with respect to Hispanic media is the message always has to be about issues. What are the issues at stake, what are the differences in candidates, educating people. But I think in Virginia, one thing I’ve noticed is our Latino population has a power they don’t fully grasp.

We have four million votes in a presidential year. Latino adults, about 300,000 are eligible to vote. Now, there may be 200,000 that vote in a presidential year or could vote. But even at 200,000 most of our races in Virginia are decided by 10,000 votes. Jim Webb flipped the Senate by 8,000 votes; Mark Warner won his Senate race by 14,000 votes. Even President Obama winning Virginia twice wins by between 150,000 and 200,000 votes. The Latino vote in Virginia may be six or eight percent; that may not seem huge. The African American votes is usually between 15 and 20 percent in Virginia. Again, that may not seem huge, but in a state – and there are a lot of states like this, Florida battleground, Nevada battleground, Colorado battleground, Ohio battleground – there’s a lot of states like this where the margin in an election is so close communities that might think, well we’re small in numbers, actually are difference-makers in virtually every election. And the African American community in Virginia – absolutely a difference-maker. I told you the margins of difference because the number of African American votes – between 500,000 and a million – would make a difference in virtually any race.

So part of what I think is great about your papers, is that you have the confidence of your readers, you will educate people about the differences, etc. But I think reminding people that the power they have in close states is mammoth is something that is just really, really important. And I think that’s empowering to participate because when you know there’s a difference, also when you know that your single participation can make a difference and it’s not just a vote in a big sea that doesn’t make a difference. When you realize what a difference it makes then that’s also energizing to participate.

So I’m going to get pulled so I can go vote and not miss an important vote on a bill I helped write, dealing with the horror – and I know you deal with this in your communities – the horrible scourge of opioid addiction which every community – rich, poor, Black, White, Latino, Asian – every part of this country – rural, urban, suburban – dealing sadly with the program. It’s a monster that came out of the medicine cabinet. We overprescribe opioids, people got hooked on them, and then they’re OD’ing on opioid prescriptions or they’re going to find heroin because it was cheaper and they’re OD’ing on that. We’ve got a bill to deal with that problem.

I would just close with something optimistic. It may be hard to be optimistic when you see all of this negative rhetoric. I do believe – when I use to try jury trials, and I always felt juries had an innate wisdom about them, not every juror – but juries would kind of have an innate wisdom to figure it out. I do have that feeling about the American electorate, that if we do our best to put the issues out there and educate, that yea there may be hateful rhetoric out there that we find embarrassing. It doesn’t show us well, to each other or to the world, but I do believe that the American public that twice heard that kind of rhetoric and nevertheless elected Obama president would hear that rhetoric and again not buy into it and not accept it. It’s a reality, we’ve got to deal with it, it doesn’t represent the majority thinking, but there is an element to it, this loss of control thing, that we can show people, you can cross over and get on the other side and the future looks a lot better than the past.

Thanks so much for having me.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Senator Kaine’s talk shows his fine, humane spirit. I’m glad to have such a man as my senator, and would be glad to have him get the Veep slot on the presidential ticket.

    But this talk also shows, I believe, a too-narrow understanding of the political drama being enacted before our eyes.

    Here’s the quote that reveals the issue: “the violent reaction that you see in some of this rhetoric and some of the appeal is not the sign of an increasing sentiment of
    division or hatred but it’s the loud death spasm…”

    What I believe Sen. Kaine is saying is that what we’re seeing doesn’t mean that there is more racism than there used to be (e.g. in the Virginia of 1958 into which he was born). Rather, it’s the consequence of our changing demographics, and the “death spasm” of white privilege as people who have long been in the majority are protesting their loss of power and status.

    That’s part of the picture. But I believe that what he is regarding as “the problem” should rather be understood as a kind of fuel that what is really the problem exploits to increase its power.

    The problem does not originate in the Republican base (which is responding to the “rhetoric” of a Trump), but originates in the force that has been stoking hatred and fear in that base for a generation.

    (Consider how big a deal the Republicans have made about immigration even during those post-Great-Repression years when there was a net outflux of illegals as the jobs on our side of the border dried up. There does not have to be a real problem for the right-wing media and its political allies to whip people up into a frenxy of “hatred and division.”)

    One other tip-off to the excessive narrowness of Senator Kaine’s perspective: where he says: “There’s something about this president that is causing them to threaten…”

    Yes, there is something about him: he’s not their guy! Sure, the fact that he’s African-American figures into how they conduct themselves. (The well of American racism is something that they can exploit.) But there was also “something” about President Bill Clinton back in the 90s that caused them to do everything they could to delegitimize and eventually impeach him: he, also, was not their guy.

    Indeed, it has been forty years since the Republicans have treated any non-Republican president as legitimate, since they have done other than everything they could to destroy or at least disable that president from the other party.

    Since Jimmy Carter’s day, we have an all-new Republican Party. It is a Party that insists on division and conflict, and that deliberately and persistently foments hatred in order to manipulate a large chunk of the American people into backing them in their chosen form of politics as war.

    The problem is not just Trump and his rhetoric. It is not just the base with its insecurities and prejudices that gives Trump his current prominence. No, the real problem is the force beneath all this that creates a base that would respond to hateful, divisive messages, and has brought the nation within striking distance of putting a man whose rhetoric is fascistic into the Oval Office.