Kamala Harris and history: With America at a crossroads, her role will be crucial

Harris could well become the first woman president — but now her role is as a powerful symbol of the future

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 13, 2020 8:00AM (EDT)

Sen. Kamala Harris of California, recently named as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate. (Getty/Alex Edelman)
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, recently named as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate. (Getty/Alex Edelman)

Joe Biden has chosen Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. She is the first Black woman to fill that role on a major-party platform, and only the second Black person to be part of a presidential ticket. If Biden is elected president, Harris will become both the first female vice president and first Black vice president. Given Biden's age and stated intentions, it is conceivable that he will only serve one term and Harris will be his presumptive successor. One way or another, she appears positioned to become (perhaps) the country's first woman president and second Black president.

Conventional political wisdom holds that a vice-presidential candidate adds little value to the overall ticket, but can potentially cause great harm. (See, for instance, Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle.)

At best, the vice-presidential candidate can improve the presidential candidate's chances of victory in the general election by helping them win a crucial state, offering expertise which the nominee lacks, neutralizing the advantage of the rival ticket or possessing personality attributes or other intangibles which may appeal to undecided voters or secure and broaden the base.

Kamala Harris fulfills several, if not all, of these roles. She has experience as both a U.S. senator and the attorney general of California. As a Black woman, she represents two of the Democratic Party's key constituencies.

Harris' skill as a prosecutor makes her a formidable voice for the Democratic Party's message in the debates and on the campaign trail. She is also media-savvy and not likely to make the kinds of errors in tone and style that have plagued Biden in his discussions of race in America, among other things. Harris is relatively young (at age 55) and is perceived as somewhat more progressive than Biden, thereby representing at least a partial intergenerational passing of the baton within the Democratic Party. 

In many ways, the choice of Harris is an anti-climax and almost inevitable in its obviousness. Edward-Isaac Dovere of the Atlantic described this several weeks ago: "If Harris is the pick, in retrospect this will probably seem like the longest, most drawn-out lead-up to an obvious conclusion in the history of modern presidential politics."

Likewise, CNN's Chris Cillizza summarized Biden's logic this way:

There was no one else on Biden's VP shortlist that checked so many boxes.

What's telling is that Biden — and his team — didn't feel the need to reach for a less predictable pick. They knew that while picking Harris would draw considerable attention, it would also be the thing most people expected them to do. Despite the historic nature of putting Harris on the ticket, Biden and his advisers knew that selecting Harris might be described by some as unsurprising.

But one man's "unsurprising" is another man's "safe." And that's exactly what Harris is — and what Biden believes he needs….

What Biden did is make the pick that maximized his chances of continuing to make the race a straight referendum on Trump while also selecting someone, in Harris, whose resume suggests will be ready to step in if and when Biden decides to step aside. This is the VP choice of a confident candidate, and campaign, who believe they are winning. And who believe that, as long they execute the basics of the campaign between now and November 3, Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president on January 20, 2021.

Moreover, Harris is an excellent choice because her selection signals that, at least in the 2020 election, the Democratic Party appears to be more concerned with serving its base and long-term electoral interests instead of engaging in painful hand-wringing over the importance of appealing to "swing voters." the "white working class" or some other imagined group of right-leaning, predominantly white independents. In short, Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party's 2020 vice presidential nominee is good political strategy.

How will Donald Trump and his campaign attack Kamala Harris?

Disinformation and outright lies circulated by the right-wing hate news machine, perhaps in combination with Russian assistance, will seek to manipulate low-information voters by claiming that Harris is a "radical," a "socialist" or some kind of "Antifa", Black Lives Matter anti-American who wants to abolish the police and the white suburbs.

The Trump campaign will use white supremacy, racism and other forms of anti-Black and anti-brown bigotry. Such values carried Trump to the White House in 2016 and have sustained his support during his first term. They continue to fuel his 2020 re-election campaign. During his remarks to the media on Tuesday, Trump called Harris "nasty" — an adjective he exclusively uses to describe women who offend his sensibilities — and then used a racial slur against Sen. Elizabeth Warren. In an act of classic psychological projection, the Trump campaign is already accusing Biden and Harris of being "the real racists."  

Trump will of course deploy hostile sexism, as he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016, along with white male victimology and other forms of white-identity grievance politics. Racism and sexism will be used in combination with one another to describe Harris as a woman who is "angry" and  "does not know her place". She will also be attacked by Donald Trump and his agents for being "disrespectful" toward him, Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other white conservatives

And of course there will be name-calling and other childish behavior designed to excite Donald Trump's "human deplorables," along with various other members of America's right-wing kakistocracy. On cue, in a campaign email sent on Tuesday evening, Team Trump has already designated the Biden and Harris ticket as "Slow Joe and Phony Kamala."

Black and brown conservatives will also try to feast on Kamala Harris. For them, she is a potential smorgasbord.

Because Black and brown conservatives are racial mercenaries who serve as human defense shields, as well as weapons, for today's white supremacist movement, they will be tasked with making some of the most vicious, false and vile attacks against Kamala Harris. They will focus a great amount of time and energy on Kamala Harris' "racial" background and claim that she is not a "real" or "authentic" African-American because her father is Jamaican and her mother is of Indian ancestry. In fact, Harris's candidacy will prove very lucrative for Black and brown conservatives as they clog up the internet, cable TV, talk radio and other media with their attacks at the behest of Donald Trump and their other commanders.

With Kamala Harris, the American people are once again being forced to confront (as they did in 2016, albeit in a different way) both white supremacy and sexism at the ballot box.

In a new essay for the Atlantic, historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of "How to Be an Antiracist," signals to the weight of this moment:

As [Trump's] administration's first term comes to an end, Black Americans — indeed, all Americans — should in one respect be thankful to him. He has held up a mirror to American society, and it has reflected back a grotesque image that many people had until now refused to see: an image not just of the racism still coursing through the country, but also of the reflex to deny that reality. Though it was hardly his intention, no president has caused more Americans to stop denying the existence of racism than Donald Trump. ...

Trump's denials of his racism will never stop. He will continue to claim that he loves people of color, the very people his policies harm. He will continue to call himself "not racist," and turn the descriptive term racist back on anyone who has the temerity to call out his own prejudice. Trump clearly hopes that racist ideas — paired with policies designed to suppress the vote — will lead to his reelection. But now that Trump has pushed a critical mass of Americans to a point where they can no longer explain away the nation's sins, the question is what those Americans will do about it.

Will the American people decide on Election Day, if only momentarily, to reject racism and sexism? Or will too many of them embrace Trumpism and take another great leap forward on a path of destruction, national shame and global embarrassment — not to mention mass death from Trump's pandemic — because the allure of white supremacy in combination with sexism is too great to resist?

In less than three months, the American people will face a great reckoning, a referendum on their national character that they cannot dodge or avoid. Judgment will be rendered on bystanders and participants alike.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Commentary Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections Joe Biden Kamala Harris Racism Sexism