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Living With White Supremacy in a Swing State

Ohio has a reputation for moderation. But moderation in the Trump era has an entirely different meaning.

For most of the summer, downtown Columbus, Ohio, looked like the downtown of many other cities. Depending on the day, protesters might secure some small victory against the ever-growing presence of police officers. They’d take over an intersection, and the police would let them occupy it for a few hours. There were a few days in which no protesters were harmed or arrested. But, as things can go in the streets, the small victories gave way to bigger violences.

Police grew reckless as the city’s mayor, a Democrat named Andrew Ginther, held press conference after press conference claiming that his office would be reviewing videos from the protests for evidence of bad behavior by law enforcement. Videos of police officers pepper-spraying people indiscriminately, or dragging street medics across a sidewalk, or ramming their bikes into crowds. There would be an independent investigator, Ginther said. A review board.

In the long arc of uprising, there have been many so-called victories, thrust upon the masses in the hopes of quieting them. In Columbus, this took the form of two Christopher Columbus statues being ceremoniously removed (a third still stands). One might think that the city was trending toward a new understanding of the legacy of slavery and colonialism in this country. Perhaps the state, as well.

But when the marches began to spread into the city’s suburbs, the divide between Columbus and its surroundings was tangible. Even homes with “Black Lives Matter” signs affixed to their lawns harbored concerned people behind screen doors, nervously watching noise-making marchers move down their streets. Some people clutched their phones to their ears frantically, looking around. Others gestured to the police lining the roads, as if to say, Do something about this.

The question of what Ohio is, politically speaking, can be boiled down to this dynamic. It used to be considered a swing state and was carried by Barack Obama twice, but in a few short years, it has moved more firmly into the Republican column. Hillary Clinton was trounced here in 2016. The New York Times declared that Ohio was “fading on the electoral map”—a lost cause.

It isn’t the Obama days anymore. His popularity in Ohio was fueled in part by his ability to claim that he led a revival in the auto industry. In places like Marysville, Ohio—just to the northwest of Columbus—the Honda plant employs around 3,000 people. Obama ran in Ohio like he ran in many other places throughout the country: on a sometimes vague platform of hope and prosperity. But for autoworkers, and people in the state who worked factory jobs, there was a way that prosperity felt touchable.

Donald Trump has fueled a type of cynicism across the state. He’s replaced Obama’s economic platform with a nastier sort of populism. The state has accordingly seen a rise in politicians who are either pretty far right or not interested in seriously challenging the president. In the former camp, there’s Representative Jim Jordan, a loyal Trumpist who, at the very least, was aware of sexual misconduct within the Ohio State wrestling program when he was an assistant coach there from 1987 to 1995. In the latter category is Senator Rob Portman, who did not vote for Trump in 2016 but has cozied up to him since.

It all makes for a situation that has caused Ohio to drift even further from the swing state narrative that was once attached to it. Some of the activists I spoke with don’t recognize Ohio’s swing state reputation at all. Jamie, who asked that her last name be redacted due to the hostility toward her work, is a writer who does organizing in Knox County—where the countryside, she said, is littered with signs that read, “Welcome to Trump Country.” “Ohio doesn’t feel like a swing state from where I sit,” she told me. “It feels like three bright blue metropolises surrounded by bastions of conservatism so deeply entrenched and emboldened by 45’s white nationalism dog-whistling.”

She added, “I’m not sure the nation is going to make it out of this intact.”

Many in Knox were on the Confederacy’s side during the Civil War, and in the last four years, its historical roots have started to show. Like everywhere else, Ohio has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 160,000 cases and counting. Like everywhere else, Ohio has been battered by the economic downturn, leaving approximately 1.7 million people unemployed since March. And like everywhere else, Ohio has seen glimmers of hope in the anti-police-brutality protests that sprang up in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

But unlike many other places, Ohio remains stubbornly white and is getting older. If places like Knox are Trump Country, then Trump Country is getting bigger. The fight to win Ohio this November will largely take place in that country, as both Democrats and Republicans try to convince enough aging whites to join their side. But there is another fight, too, waged by people, on the ground, who are bracing themselves for a brutal world no matter who wins.

Ohio sits interestingly within the imagination of those who don’t live in the Midwest, particularly from a political standpoint. There is no better example of this than the elevation in Democratic circles of former Ohio Governor John Kasich, who was given a prime speaking spot at the Democratic National Convention, presumably to endear Joe Biden and the Democrats to the old, white voters who fell into Trump’s arms in 2016.

Representative Jim Jordan, a hard-charging ally of President Trump, is one of the faces of the conservative “populism” that has swept across Ohio.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When he was running for the Republican nomination in 2016, Kasich was one of the few candidates hailed as a “moderate” with “commonsense” ideas. What does a Republican “moderate” mean these days, though? Under Kasich, half of Ohio’s abortion clinics closed. In his 2015 budget, Kasich proposed cutting Medicaid coverage for low-income pregnant women. He also slashed money from public school budgets in an effort to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s failing charter school system.

But because the president and his base are moving toward an extreme, Kasich has become a go-to example of what a moderate looks like in 2020. This is yet another alarming development of this high-stakes moment: the movement of the needle so that moderates are redefined, and those who consider themselves moderate find themselves becoming more lenient about what they will accept. All that plays into the concept of a “swing state,” at least for people who live here: swinging between what?

Then there’s the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he was praised by his peers on both sides of the aisle for how he was managing the spread of the virus. In the earliest months, Ohio’s spread was relatively contained, and anxiety hadn’t yet set in. DeWine paired with the state’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton, to provide daily, informative updates, complete with visuals and useful directives. And then, as time wore on, people got frustrated and the temperature turned up.

Armed white protesters took to the statehouse lawn in Columbus, some attempting to open windows and get inside. They didn’t want to wear masks. They wanted to go back to work or, in some cases, wanted other people to go back to work so that their lives could be easier. They set up similar protests outside of Acton’s house. In June, she stepped down from her position as health director.

DeWine has since been flailing, in deep water without a lifeboat. His briefings have become inconsistent, and significantly clumsier. During one briefing in July, while people were awaiting word on mask mandates and the status of high school sports, DeWine rambled incoherently about the “grit” of Ohio, invoking the Underground Railroad. His unraveling hasn’t gained him much sympathy from either side of the political spectrum. This doesn’t signal unity between sides; rather, it’s a troubling indication of just how far-reaching DeWine’s inadequacies have become. And it certainly doesn’t mean DeWine’s reputation for moderation extends to the state as a whole.

“A good way to test if your state is perceived as a swing state still is the amount of investments coming into the state,” Charlie Stewart, an organizer for the progressive group Ohio Voice and for the Columbus-based Black Queer Intersectional Collective, told me. Stewart says fewer outside groups are investing in his organizations, but that things could change if Trump is voted out of office in 2020. “I do believe we could easily switch up that narrative and be seen as a swing state,” they said.

Still, Stewart sees, beyond the facade of people like Mike DeWine, what many other people in the state can see: a rise in white supremacy. Emboldened by the president, these groups have made their presence felt across Ohio, particularly at the recent anti-police protests. Throughout the summer, buses filled with armed militia members made their way into Columbus, stopping at the statehouse and unloading white men with vests on, guns out, making small talk with police.

Stewart sees the new assertiveness of white supremacists as part of an ongoing battle for the identity of the state, which will only be more decisive as the uprisings against the police continue to take shape. “We’ve seen policies attacking the livelihood of trans individuals,” they said. “We’ve seen vehicles drive into protests asking for Black lives to matter. And we’ve seen more white people calling the police on Black people for exercising, driving, shopping, and all other ways we just live life. It’s much more than an increase in white fragility due to an awakening: It’s actual hate groups feeling more powerful, expressing their voice.”

For those who live in Columbus, it is easy to forget that the city has a Democratic mayor. Like DeWine, Andrew Ginther has drawn the ire of activists on the left, as well as police sympathizers on the right. The fate of the police has become the central issue of his tenure, and Ginther has stumbled through it, trying to please both sides and irritating everyone. He has not condemned or meaningfully restricted the police when cops get violent against people in the streets. Instead, he issues vague threats and warnings to the police unions that never take any meaningful shape but are enough to upset the blue line and its supporters. In late June, a campaign kicked off to get Ginther to resign but fell just short of the 15,000 signatures needed to be placed on the November ballot.

John Kasich, a former Republican presidential candidate, has been embraced by Joe Biden and other Democrats seeking to ingratiate themselves with white voters in Ohio.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ginther, DeWine, and Kasich—polite politicians who seem to “mean well”—all represent the flawed idea of Ohio as a swing state, capable of going with a moderate right or a moderate left. That idea only works from the outside. In here, they are all part of the same soup.

Aramis Sundiata, an organizer with the People’s Justice Project, worked on Morgan Harper’s primary campaign this spring to unseat Democratic Representative Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s Third District, which covers east, central, and west Columbus. Harper ran on her support for the Green New Deal and systemic reparations, but Beatty, the representative since 2013, easily held on to her seat. The insurgent trend that has swept over the Democratic Party in deep-blue states like New York and Massachusetts hasn’t materialized in Ohio, leaving the left powerless even though it is at the vanguard of so many of Ohio’s most pressing issues.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Sundiata doesn’t vote. He said he doesn’t have much faith in the two-party system, and so he refuses to invest in it. That sentiment among disaffected Ohioans has only grown since Joe Biden was confirmed as the Democratic nominee. When I asked Sundiata what, then, he believes the future looks like, he laughed and offered one word: “revolution.”

Harper herself feels differently. “I want to be clear in saying that we need to get Donald Trump out of office,” she told me. “He’s dangerous, he’s a fascist, and I worry about the future of a country with him at the front of it. I don’t know if voting is as much about enthusiasm right now as it is about stopping one of the most corrupt presidencies in U.S. history.” But she also knows that no matter who is in office, she and other Ohioans are going to have to help themselves. She helped form an organization called Columbus Stand Up, which directly serves communities in need: hand-delivering masks and meals, hosting community events like open mics and teach-ins.

Charlie Stewart is fast to point out that all of the services BQIC provides will be vital even if Joe Biden wins, because neither candidate has committed to enacting any policies that Stewart feels will make the landscape safer for the Black LGBTQ+ community. Like Harper, Stewart sees the vote this November as a crucial, if imperfect, vehicle for change. “Voting is not the pathway to freedom and liberation for Black people; it is only the way we protect the rights and liberties we need to exercise to fight,” they said, adding, “I’m hoping Ohio votes Donald Trump out of office, and at least by six to eight points, so we can be seen as a true swing state again.”

With polls showing Biden with a slight advantage, that might be a tall order. And Jamie says Trump voters are eager to go to the polls in November. More than that, they’re out to intimidate. “I know people who are afraid to register as Dems for fear of losing their jobs,” she said, “and local business owners who flagrantly tell their employees that if they value their livelihood, they better vote GOP. Dems have been told by GOP supervisors to take down campaign signs, remove bumper stickers, change their voter registration.” In an egregious example, at the 2016 Dan Emmett Music and Arts Festival, a man brandished a pistol and threatened two women who were staffing the Knox County Democrats table.

The political realities of Ohio have changed since the Obama-era haze that blanketed the state during his two terms. What has set in, particularly for people at the margins, is an understanding of the work that will need to be done no matter who wins the election in November. For people like Stewart, Sundiata, and Harper, the election isn’t the endgame. They are preparing for the worst—and if the worst does not come to pass, all that means is that there will still be a lot of work to do, much of it thankless, much of it without support from the leaders of the Democratic Party. “If there’s anything I believe in most,” Stewart said, “it’s my people rebuilding what was meant to destroy us.”