In 1986, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was—correctly!—deemed by a Republican Senate to be too racist to serve on the U.S. District Court. This was a highly uncommon step: Sessions at the time was the second federal judicial nominee in 50 years to be rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, the bipartisan consensus that open racism is unacceptable is, alas, now completely shattered. In the logical culmination of the Republican Party’s transformation from the party of Abraham Lincoln to the party of John Calhoun, President-elect Donald Trump has nominated Sessions to be the top law enforcement office in the United States.
It is hard to overstate what a calamity this is. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are just paper without active federal enforcement. The Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, for example, has to decide what kinds of cases to prosecute, what kinds of problems need to be prioritized, and how the law should be interpreted and applied. Under both Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch—the first African-American man and woman, respectively, to serve as attorney general—President Barack Obama’s DOJ had a strong record of advancing the rights of African-Americans, women, LBGT people, and the disabled. Obama’s DOJ was also especially active on behalf of voting rights.
The DOJ is about to change course, hurtling back towards Jim Crow. When he was a U.S. Attorney, Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general declared that “I wish I could decline on all” civil rights cases. Sessions called the NAACP and the ACLU “un-American” and “communist-inspired” organizations. He joked that he used to think the Ku Klux Klan were “ok” until he found out they were “pot smokers.” He once called a black former assistant U.S. Attorney “boy.”
And his actual record is arguably even worse. “Jeff Sessions got his start prosecuting voting rights activists in Alabama on bogus voter fraud charges,” notes Sam Bagnestos, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and the number two official in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under Holder. “Throughout his career, he has shown hostility to the historically important work of the Civil Rights Division. The damage he can do to civil rights enforcement as attorney general is incalculable.” Nothing about his subsequent history suggests that he’s changed.
The consequences of this will be dire. States will likely be able to pass discriminatory vote-suppression legislation with impunity. It will be much harder for workers facing racial and gender discrimination to get the remedies to which they’re legally entitled. Sessions—who has been nominated in part because of FBI director James Comey’s unconscionable decision to violate Justice Department rules and intervene in the election—will be a disaster for victims of unjustified police violence.
Sessions was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Donald Trump, not least because of Trump’s anti-immigration demagoguery. Sessions has “opposed nearly every immigration bill that has come before the Senate the past two decades that has included a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally,” according to The Washington Post. Given the potential for civil liberties and civil rights violations inherent in Trump’s mass deportation scheme, having Sessions in charge of the Department of Justice is frightening indeed.
And, of course, Sessions is just part of a trend. Sessions is exactly the kind of attorney general you’d expect from a president-elect who made a white nationalist his top adviser and strategist. And you can’t say that Trump’s agenda was hidden. He became prominent within the Republican Party by repeatedly asserting that Barack Obama was not born in the United Sates. Trump kicked off his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants, as a class, “rapists.” He called on the judge presiding over the lawsuit over Trump’s fraudulent “university” to recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage. He called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States. At the height of the campaign, he called for punishing five innocent African-American men.
You would think that an overt racist running for a major party nomination would have been the story of the 2016 campaign. But it wasn’t even close. The media devoted far more coverage to Hillary Clinton’s email server management practices than to Trump’s many racist actions. Trump’s call for black people to be punished for crimes for which they had been exonerated by DNA evidence received scant coverage, while Comey’s letter indicating that he may or may not have had new information about a trivial pseudo-scandal was covered like the Kardashian sisters had landed on Mars. This bizarrely skewed coverage played a crucial role in normalizing Trump, making his racism just one more scandal not really different than a Clinton Foundation donor asking for favors and not getting them.
Civil rights activists need to fight hard against Sessions, and no Democratic senator should remotely consider voting to confirm him. But he’s a symptom of a much broader problem. His nomination is not an accident—Sessions is a reflection of Trump’s values. As decades of progress on civil rights become undone, perhaps it’s time for many of the nation’s editors and journalists to reflect on the trivia they considered important when covering the election that put Trump in the White House.