I like to read on the toilet.
It’s a pretty common trait, I know, but it facilitates a time of introspection when the mind is completely unoccupied except for a biological imperative that is near-automatic.
One of the remarkable things about reading is that it’s very common that we encounter a text from decades ago with some new lesson for our specific time.
I’ve been quite open about my statements that Trump’s campaign was more about race than economics. And I stick by that analysis. From Salon’s excellent analysis that finds that your belief that whites aren’t getting jobs because of minorities to the fact that McCain and Romney were actually weaker among more racially-resentful whites than they were with those whites who had better views of Hispanics and blacks, the fact is that this is about race, culture and identity. And these people are open about how much they hate multiculturalism and democratic pluralism.
Moreover, this reality means that simple class-based politics will fail as they always have. As Vox’s analysis points out, Sweden’s social welfare state didn’t stop a far-right party from gaining traction. Identity is a complicated thing: sometimes it can be used to bring together very poor groups to fight against serious threats, but sometimes it is precisely those who are affluent who find that there is a yawning chasm in terms of their identity. When things are easy, it can actually make one want to find something to strive for and conquer, and this becomes amplified when one’s relative position is declining.
But the fact is that this kind of connection is a little more complex than it looks. The funny thing about racism, especially in the modern era, is that you can see people who have black friends who think very little about black people as a group. Even old-school racists have often been willing to acknowledge, honor and work with others. Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist, was able to meet with the Ku Klux Klan because both had shared beliefs: nationalism and separatism. Many white nationalists are perfectly willing to admit that other national groups in the developing world have managed to market their nationalism better than white nationalists have. (They fail to understand that this has to do with the underlying reality, that a Kurd asking for national liberation is just not comparable to an affluent white man asking for even more national power, but they are still able to do this).
As I discussed earlier in the election, even Trump never quite got to the point of discussing who dominates, instead discussing who belongs.
So what books did I read while biologically occupied that help to explain the complexity of this connection?
Stephen Steinberg’s Ethnic Myth and Walter Russell Mead’s Special Providence are necessary reading for many reasons (even if I find Mead’s analysis somewhat centrist and unwilling to acknowledge strong imperialist trends in U.S. foreign policy). Steinberg is one of the leading race relations scholars and Mead one of the leading historians. Their books are vastly different: The Ethnic Myth is an attempt to ground the differing cultural traits and outcomes of ethno-racial groups in the way that they faced different opportunity structures, while Special Providence argues that American foreign policy has been comprised of four distinct policy traditions.
But both speak to the way that Americans, especially the average folk American, think, in ways that are salient for today.
Steinberg examined the causes of conflicts between blacks and whites as blacks went to the northern cities and as the civil rights movement advanced black causes and created blacks as a special interest. Steinberg made clear that these conflicts were indeed ethno-racial, that whites resented and feared blacks and often didn’t want them in their neighborhoods. But what Steinberg says next is worth considering in its entirety in the Trump era. He argues:
“Yet even the blatant racism on the part of white ethnics should not be taken at face value. It is far from clear that white resistance to integration stems from race prejudice per se. Often it is the same people who work amicably beside blacks on the job, and who are appropriately deferential to blacks whom they encounter in positions of status and authority, who become rabid in their opposition to integration. Their fears are not rooted in prejudice – that is, in superstition and irrationality – so much as in the realities of a class society. What is feared is not racial mixing, but reduced property values… At bottom, the so-called ethnic backlash is a conflict between the racial have-nots and the ethnics who have a little and are afraid of losing even that”.
Even insofar as many Trump voters were motivated by racial animus and tensions, their concerns aren’t just genetic or cultural. They’re worried that immigration of poverty can bring poverty with it. They’re worried that American generosity overseas and at home may come at the cost of American jobs, infrastructure and success. Many of the same folks who voted Trump and who may have incredibly negative attitudes against immigrants, legal or illegal, also have Hispanic and black friends. They may harbor the kind of homophobic attitudes that the RNC promulgates but have specific gay friends they view as exceptions to the rule.
I’ve spoken to white nationalists and outright neo-Nazis who were willing to relax their general rules when it came to specific Hispanics and blacks, specific Jews, and autistic people and homosexuals. If that’s true of the vilest of Trump’s base, it is likely to apply to the far more centrist, normal people voting for him out of a far more subconscious and nuanced feeling of racialized resentment.
What’s key about this dynamic is the classic process of rationalization and cognitive dissonance. Even if most whites in a given neighborhood don’t mind having black neighbors, everyone knows that just a few who really do indeed mind and want to move out might lead to a race to the bottom. Just a few bigots can spoil it for everyone else. So those who are making decisions in such an environment may be willing to repeat stereotypes and negative ideas that they’ve heard and absorbed from the broader culture, just because it’s preferable to saying in public, “I don’t mind black people, I just don’t want them in my neighborhood because I know enough of my neighbors are bigots that it’ll cost me my property values and I really don’t care about the success of good people”. Easier to blame the victim than to admit one is making a Machiavellian choice.
This same reality is emphasized by Mead in Special Providence. Mead reviews the Jacksonian tradition in American politics, named after Andrew Jackson (who inherited it far more than he embodied it). Indeed, Jackson is very much like Trump today: a man of wealth who came along with a populist agenda that he as much inherited as originated. Jacksonian politics are about the folk community of mostly-white Americans, especially those of Scotch-Irish descent but including other white ethnics today. The Jacksonian tradition is the part of American life that emphasizes martial and national honor, only picking fights that America can win and fights that need to be fought, and right-wing Christianity (often premillennialist, believing that there will come a time where the devil will rule in the world before Jesus comes to defeat him). The Jacksonian tradition in America is the tradition of cowboys and bikers, and it’s the source of America’s cowboy diplomacy.
There’s actually much good to be said about this folk tradition in America. For one, it’s one of the reasons why the United States has actually been relatively generous to defeated opponents. From Germans to the Japanese to the defeated Confederates, American folk warriors want to win decisively and brutally but lose their bloodlust upon surrender.
Mead argues that this folk tradition is indeed traditionally quite racist, but he also points out that “folk cultural change is measured in decades and generations, not electoral cycles, and on this clock, Jacksonian America is moving very rapidly. The military institutions have moved from strict segregation to a serious attack on racism in fifty years. In civilian life, the belief that color is no bar to membership in the Jacksonian community of honor is rapidly replacing earlier beliefs. Just as southerners whose grandfathers burned crosses against the Catholic Church now work very well with Catholics… so we are seeing a steady erosion of cultural barriers”.
The populist rebellion that Trump represents is worryingly fascistic. There are serious trends toward violence, and military adventurism like what happened during the Bush years may occur. There is likely to be continuing flare-ups of homophobia, racism, and sexism, as all too many people feel that they can now be a little less on their guard without the elites wagging fingers at them.
But the process of cultural change does have an effect, however slow, and as Mead points out, while to us it may seem glacial it’s actually incredibly rapid by any objective standard.
During the election, Liberty University conservatives endorsed Gary Johnson. Liberty University is connected to Jerry Falwell and his son Jerry Falwell Jr. and is a fundamentalist Christian institution intended for the extreme right-wing. But these students still rejected the efforts of the generations before them to make them appreciate a fascist. They actually accepted the conservative values they were taught more than their far more hypocritical forebears who use those values as a cover for their actual agendas.
It’s easy to despair and look at our friends and family members who may have considered voting for Trump, or even actually made that choice, and wonder if they’re inveterate bigots. And to be sure, the idea that they simply don’t buy the media narrative about Trump is not particularly acceptable as an excuse. It’s not okay to care so little about whether or not someone actually is bigoted to actually go check carefully, and any objective assessment would indicate that, yes, Trump was being overtly bigoted.
But just like the same voices that screamed for Japanese blood quieted down upon surrender, the folk community in America has a long tradition of demonstrating that they don’t take kindly to perpetual barbarism.
There was a process that led Americans to not trust the media and institutions. That process is not going to be replaced by new institutions that just lie to them differently.
This isn’t to say that Americans are going to turn en masse to socialism or a European-style welfare state rapidly. But it is to say that enough of the populist fervor can be peeled from the Republicans to possibly hold the line in 2018 and win again in 2020 and 2022.
Of course, the Democrats will need to find their own candidate that galvanizes populists and actually commit to supporting that candidate totally. But if there ever was a time for the party to be able to reinvigorate itself, it would be now.
As I’ve stated repeatedly here and elsewhere, the next four years will be tough. But the slow process of civilization isn’t going to stop. It may stall but the inertia will build, and just as the floodgates built up against the liberal wing of the business party for eight years, we’ll see the kind of pressures that produced Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders candidacy rise up if we keep fighting.
This article was written by Frederic Christie, a writer for dusk magazine.