Donald Trump once called the Rev. Al Sharpton "a con man," meaning that Sharpton plays the race card less out of sincerity and more as a method to make demands and extract concessions.
But has there ever been a bigger legislative con man than the soon-to-be-retired Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., currently the second-longest serving member of the House? His glossary of race-baiting is exhaustive. Just a few examples:
In criticizing the Republican-run house, Rangel said, "It's not 'spic' or 'n-----' anymore. (Instead) they say, 'Let's cut taxes.'"
In accusing the then-President of racism, Rangel said "George (W.) Bush is our Bull Connor" (referring to the racist Southern lawman who sicced dogs and turned water hoses on civil rights marchers).
In accusing the Republican Party in general of racism, Rangel said, "Everything we believe in, everything we believe in, (Republicans) hate. They don't disagree -- they hate. ... Some of them believe that slavery isn't over and that they won the Civil War."
On the tea party, Rangel said: "(Obama) really thought -- and maybe it was the water they drink at Harvard -- that he could deal with the tea party. They are mean, racist people. Now why do I say that? Because in those red states, they're the same slaveholding states -- they had the Confederate flag. They became Dixiecrats -- they had the Confederate flag. They're now the tea party."
And: "(The tea party) is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police. They didn't care about how they looked. It was just fierce indifference to human life that caused America to say enough is enough. 'I don't want to see it and I am not a part of it.' What the hell?! If you have to bomb little kids and send dogs out against human beings, give me a break."
Yet now as the clock winds down on his career, Rangel is free -- free to tell the truth about "race." Rangel, in assessing why Hillary Clinton lost the race to Donald Trump, rejects the analysis advanced by the losing Clinton camp. At the Harvard post-election symposium, top Clinton aides accused Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway of blatantly courting America's white racists. But Rangel argues that root cause is middle-class economic anxiety.
His takeaway? It's the economy, stupid.
In an interview with Roll Call, Rangel said, "Hard workers, for a variety of reasons, have seen economic and social advancement ceilings put on their ambitions." He continued: "The old thing, if you work hard in this country, you can get ahead. Well, the misconduct of Wall Street, the recession, globalization, inventions, science, technology, have really put a damper on middle-class people to advance as rapidly as they have in the past."
Rangel added: "It's the middle class that the jobs come from. If people don't have disposable income, if they're not able to purchase the basics, if small businesses can't hire people, then you have a problem. And we did have a problem during the election, and we still have it."
What?! Even "race card" Rangel sized up his party's election loss as one in which the middle class felt economically beleaguered? He didn't say "whitelash," as CNN's Van Jones did. He didn't blame it on adverse reactions to "a black president" as Jones did. He didn't rant about how Trump pitched his message as an attaboy to rednecks, Klansmen and the Aryan Brotherhood.
Years ago, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., invited me for lunch in the House cafeteria at the U.S. Capitol. Shortly after we sat down, Rangel, with his trademark flashy pocket square, came in. Dreier leaped up and walked over to him, and the two greeted each other like fraternity brothers who had taken a blood oath.
I asked Dreier to explain the affection, given the race-card rhetoric Rangel uses against Republicans. I gave examples. Dreier rolled his eyes and said: "Oh, that's just Charlie being Charlie. Nobody takes that stuff seriously." "Yeah," I said, "nobody except the voters in his district."
As to Clinton vs. Trump, Rangel, at one time, would have whipped out the race card and, with a straight face, shouted, "White supremacy!" He would have pounced on Trump's comment that Mexicans are "rapists"; that he called an Indiana-born federal judge of Mexican descent "a Mexican"; that Trump allegedly "mocked" a handicapped reporter; and on and on. No matter that such a characterization of Trump's statements would have been either the worst possible interpretation, taken out of context or flat-out untrue. That's how Rangel rolled.
But free from the pressures of getting reelected, Rangel told the truth. The charge that Trump is racist, sexist, homophobic and Islamophobic is bogus -- and the voters saw through it. Rangel knows this and said so. His implicit message: Race is no longer a major factor in America. Now we know. Rangel, throughout his career, cynically played the race card to stoke anger to retain his Harlem seat.
It is the very definition of a con man. The real question is why it worked for so long.