The Nationalist’s Delusion – Adam Serwer | The Atlantic

The Nationalist’s Delusion

Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.

Adam Serwer | The Atlantic

THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.

It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.  

Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment?

What message would those voters have been trying to send by putting a Klansman into office?

By accepting the economic theory of Duke’s success, the media were buying into the candidate’s own vision of himself as a savior of the working class. He had appealed to voters in economic terms:

He tore into welfare and foreign aid, affirmative action and outsourcing, and attacked political-action committees for subverting the interests of the common man. He even tried to appeal to black voters, buying a 30-minute ad in which he declared, “I’m not your enemy.”

Duke’s candidacy had initially seemed like a joke. Many of Duke’s voters steadfastly denied that the former Klan leader was a racist. Duke’s rejoinder to the ads framing him as a racist resonated with his supporters. “Remember,” he told them at rallies, “when they smear me, they are really smearing you.”

The economic explanation carried the day: Duke was a freak creature of the bayou who had managed to tap into the frustrations of a struggling sector of the Louisiana electorate with an abnormally high tolerance for racist messaging.

While the rest of the country gawked at Louisiana and the Duke fiasco, Walker Percy, a Louisiana author, gave a prophetic warning to The New York Times:

“Don’t make the mistake of thinking David Duke is a unique phenomenon confined to Louisiana rednecks and yahoos. He’s not,” Percy said. “He’s not just appealing to the old Klan constituency, he’s appealing to the white middle class. And don’t think that he or somebody like him won’t appeal to the white middle class of Chicago or Queens.”

Less than three weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump declared himself “the least racist person you have ever met.”

Even before he won, the United States of America was consumed by a debate over the nature of his appeal. Was racism the driving force behind Trump’s candidacy? If so, how could Americans, the vast majority of whom say they oppose racism, back a racist candidate?

It was not just Trump’s supporters who were in denial about what they were voting for, but Americans across the political spectrum, who, as had been the case with those who had backed Duke, searched desperately for any alternative explanation — outsourcing, anti-Washington anger, economic anxiety — any alternative explanation to the one staring them in the face.

Most Trump supporters I spoke with were not people who thought of themselves as racist. Rather, they saw themselves as anti-racist, as people who held no hostility toward religious and ethnic minorities whatsoever — a sentiment they projected onto their candidate.

The specific dissonance of Trumpism — advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated — provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States of America, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump has reneged or faltered on many of his biggest campaign promises — on renegotiating NAFTA, punishing China, and replacing the Affordable Care Act with something that preserves all its popular provisions but with none of its drawbacks.

But his commitment to endorsing state violence to remake the country into something resembling an idealized past has not wavered.

In his own stumbling manner, Trump has pursued the race-based agenda promoted during his campaign. As the president continues to pursue a program that places the social and political hegemony of white Christians at its core, his supporters have shown few signs of abandoning him.

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency.

That is the Story of the 2016 Election.

One of the first mentions of Trump in The New York Times was in 1973, as a result of a federal discrimination lawsuit against his buildings over his company’s refusal to rent to black tenants. In 1989, he took out a full-page newspaper ad suggesting that the Central Park Five, black and Latino youths accused of the assault and rape of a white jogger, should be put to death. They were later exonerated.

His rise to prominence in Republican politics was first fueled by his embrace of the conspiracy theory that the first black president of the United States was not an American citizen. “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” he said in 2011. “If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility … then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.”

Trump began his candidacy with a speech announcing that undocumented immigrants from Mexico were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And “some,” he said, were “good people.”

To keep them out, he proposed building a wall and humiliating Mexico for its citizens’ transgressions by forcing their government to pay for it. He vowed to ban Muslims from entering the United States of America. Amid heightened attention to fatal police shootings of unarmed black people and a subsequent cry for accountability, Trump decried a “war on police” while telling black Americans they lived in “war zones,” in communities that were in “the worst shape they’ve ever been in” — a remarkable claim to make in a country that once subjected black people to chattel slavery and Jim Crow.

A bleak vision, but one that any regular Fox News viewer would recognize.

The plain meaning of Trumpism exists in tandem with denials of its implications; supporters and opponents alike understand that the president’s policies and rhetoric target religious and ethnic minorities, and behave accordingly. But both supporters and opponents usually stop short of calling these policies racist.

It is as if there were a pothole in the middle of the street that every driver studiously avoided, but that most insisted did not exist even as they swerved around it.

One measure of the allure of Trump’s white identity politics is the extent to which it has overridden other concerns as his administration has faltered. The president’s supporters have stood by him even as he has evinced every quality they described as a deal breaker under Obama. Conservatives attacked Obama’s lack of faith; Trump is a thrice-married libertine who has never asked God for forgiveness.

They accused Obama of being under malign foreign influence; Trump eagerly accepted the aid of a foreign adversary during the election. They accused Obama of genuflecting before Russian President Vladimir Putin; Trump has refused to even criticize Putin publicly.

They attacked Obama for his ties to Tony Rezko, the crooked real-estate agent; Trump’s ties to organized crime are too numerous to name. Conservatives said Obama was lazy; Trump “gets bored and likes to watch TV.” They said Obama’s golfing was excessive; as of August 2017, Trump had spent nearly a fifth of his presidency golfing.

They attributed Obama’s intellectual prowess to his teleprompter; Trump seems unable to describe the basics of any of his own policies. They said Obama was a self-obsessed egomaniac; Trump is unable to broach topics of public concern without boasting. Conservatives said Obama quietly used the power of the state to attack his enemies; Trump has publicly attempted to use the power of the state to attack his enemies. Republicans said Obama was racially divisive; Trump has called Nazis “very fine people.” Conservatives portrayed Obama as a vapid celebrity; Trump is a vapid celebrity.

There is virtually no personality defect that conservatives accused Obama of possessing that Trump himself does not actually possess. This – not some uncanny oracular talent – is the reason Trump’s years-old tweets channeling conservative anger at Obama apply so perfectly to his own present conduct.

Trump’s great political insight was that Obama’s time in office inflicted a profound psychological wound upon many white Americans, one that he could remedy by adopting the false narrative that placed the first black president outside the bounds of American citizenship.

Americans act with the understanding that Trump’s nationalism promises to restore traditional boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. The nature of that same nationalism is to deny its essence, the better to salve the conscience and spare the soul.

Among the most popular explanations for Trump’s victory and the Trump phenomenon writ large is the Calamity Thesis:

The belief that Trump’s election was the direct result of some great, unacknowledged social catastrophe — the opioid crisis, free trade, a decline in white Americans’ life expectancy — heretofore ignored by cloistered elites in their coastal bubbles. The irony is that the Calamity Thesis is by far the preferred white-elite explanation for Trumpism, and is frequently invoked in arguments among elites as a way of accusing other elites of being out of touch.

White people without college degrees are living in deprivation, and in their despair, they turned to a racist demagogue who promised to solve their problems.

This explanation appeals to whites across the political spectrum. On the right, it serves as an indictment of elitist liberals who used their power to assist religious and ethnic minorities rather than all Americans; on the left, it offers a glimmer of hope that such voters can be won over by a more left-wing or redistributionist economic policy. It also has the distinct advantage of conferring innocence upon what is often referred to as the “white working class.”

After all, it wasn’t white working-class voters’ fault. They were suffering; they had to do something. The studies’ methodology is sound, as is the researchers’ recognition that many poor and white working-class Americans are struggling. But the research does not support the conclusions many have drawn from it — that economic or social desperation by itself drove white Americans to Donald Trump.

To be a regular or working-class American was to be white.

Trump’s solutions did not appeal to people of color because they were premised on a national vision that excluded them as full citizens.

Equally strange is the notion that because some white voters defected from Obama to Trump, racism could not have been a factor in the election; many of these voters did, in fact, hold racist views.

Particularly during the 2008 campaign, Obama emphasized his uniqueness as an African American — his upbringing by his white grandparents, his elite pedigree, his public scoldings of black Americans for their cultural shortcomings. It takes little imagination at all to see how someone could hold racist views about black people in general and still have warm feelings toward Obama.

Even before Election Day, the mainstream-media consensus was reflected in the reaction to Clinton’s most controversial remarks of the campaign. “You know, to just be grossly generalistic,” she said, “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”

The defenses of Trump voters against Clinton’s charge share an aversion to acknowledging an unpleasant truth. They are not so much arguments against a proposition as arguments that the proposition is offensive — or, if you prefer, politically incorrect. The same is true of the rejoinder that Democrats cannot hope to win the votes of people they have condemned as racist. This is not a refutation of the point, but an argument against stating it so plainly.

The argument for the innocence of Trump’s backers finds purchase across ideological lines:

Nowhere did Clinton vow to use the power of the state to punish the constituencies voting for Trump, whose threats made his own rhetorical gestures toward pluralism risible. Clinton’s arrogance in referring to Trump supporters as “irredeemable” is the truly indefensible part of her statement — in the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton herself ran as the candidate of “hard-working Americans, white Americans” against Obama, earning her the “exceedingly strange new respect” of conservatives who noted that she was running the “classic Republican race against her opponent.” Eight years later, she lost to an opponent whose mastery of those forces was simply greater than hers.

Cautioning that there are limits to social science, political scientist Marisa Abrajano told me, “All other things being equal, we see that immigration has a strong and consistent effect in moving whites towards the Republican Party. I think having the first African American president elected into the office … You can’t disentangle immigration without talking about race as well, so that dynamic brought to the forefront immigration and racial politics more broadly, and the kind of fear and anxiety that many voters had about the changing demographics and characteristics of the U.S.A. population.” The Slate writer Jamelle Bouie made a similar observation in an insightful essay in March 2016.

“Birtherism was the beginning. It was a way of tying together President Obama’s foreignness and his name, in an effort to delegitimize him, from the get-go,” says James Zogby, a Democrat whose Arab American Institute has spent years tracking public opinion about Muslim and Arab Americans. By 2012, the very idea of Muslims in public service “had become an issue in presidential politics, with five of the Republican candidates saying they wouldn’t hire a Muslim or appoint one without special loyalty oaths.”

Obama, as the target and inspiration of this resurgent wave of Republican anti-Muslim hostility, was ill-equipped to stem the tide. “The problem was that when situations would occur, and people would say, ‘Why can’t [Obama] speak out more forcefully,’ I would say that the people he needs to speak to see him as the problem,” Zogby argues. “It was the responsibility of Republicans to speak out, and they didn’t. George Bush was forceful on the issue in the White House, even though he supported policies that fed it … There were no compelling voices on the Republican side to stop it, and so it just festered.”

In other instances, whites’ fears that black political figures would give preferential treatment to black Americans had subsided as those black leaders took action in office. Despite Obama being “the least liberal president since World War II and the biggest moderate in the White House since Dwight Eisenhower.”

The Republican opposition — attacking health-care reform as a “civil-rights bill,” and Obama as a foreign-born, terrorist-sympathizing interloper and freedom-destroying socialist — substantiated “any race-based anxieties about an Obama presidency destroying the country,” and prevented consciousness of Obama’s moderation from filtering to white voters, Michael Tesler, another political scientist argued. Instead, white voters became convinced that they had elected Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

“I think you can draw a straight line between Obama and heightened racialization, and the emergence of Trump,” Tesler told me. “Birtherism, the idea that Obama’s a Muslim, anti-Muslim sentiments — these are very strong components of Trump’s rise, and really what makes him popular with this crew in the first place.”

Birtherism is rightly remembered as a racist conspiracy theory, born of an inability to accept the legitimacy of the first black president. But it is more than that, and the insistence that it was a fringe belief undersells the fact that it was one of the most important political developments of the past decade.

Birtherism is a synthesis of the prejudice toward blacks, immigrants, and Muslims that swelled on the right during the Obama era:

Obama was not merely black but also a foreigner, not just black and foreign but also a secret Muslim. Birtherism was NOT simply racism, but nationalism — a statement of values and a definition of who belongs in America.

By embracing the conspiracy theory of Obama’s faith and foreign birth, Trump was also endorsing a definition of being American that excluded the first black president.

Birtherism, and then Trumpism, united all three rising strains of prejudice on the right in opposition to the man who had become the sum of their fears.

In this sense only, the Calamity Thesis is correct. The great cataclysm in white America that led to Donald Trump was the election of Barack Obama.

Trumpism emerged from a haze of delusion, denial, pride, and cruelty — not as a historical anomaly, but as a profoundly American phenomenon. This explains both how tens of millions of white Americans could pull the lever for a candidate running on a racist platform and justify doing so, and why a predominantly white political class would search so desperately for an alternative explanation for what it had just seen. To acknowledge the centrality of racial inequality to American democracy is to question its legitimacy — so it must be denied.

I don’t mean to suggest that Trump’s nationalism is impervious to politics. It is not invincible. Its earlier iterations have been defeated before, and can be defeated now. Abraham Lincoln began the Civil War believing that former slaves would have to be transported to West Africa. Lyndon Johnson began his political career as a segregationist. Both came to realize that the question of black rights in America is not mere identity politics — not a peripheral matter, but the central, existential question of the republic. Nothing is inevitable, people can change. No one is irredeemable. But recognition precedes enlightenment.

The most transgressive political statement of the 2016 election, the one that violated strict societal norms by stating an inconvenient fact that few wanted to acknowledge, the most politically incorrect, was made by the candidate who lost.

Nevertheless, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who assured them that they will never have to share this country with people of color as equals. That is the reality that all Americans will have to deal with, and one that most of the country has yet to confront at its core.

White nationalism has and always will be a hustle, a con, a fraud that cannot deliver the broad-based prosperity it promises, not even to most white people.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument against Trumpist nationalism is not one its opponents can make in a way that his supporters will believe. But the failure of Trump’s promises to white America may yet show that both the fruit and the tree are poison. 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 11/26/2017 at 8:24 am

    If Only Slavery Really Had Been Abolished

    Kevin McKenna | The Guardian UK

    Just as we once profited from an abhorrent trade, we now turn a blind eye to modern abuses

    On Thursday night in Killearn, a perjink little village concealed within the folds of the Campsie Fells, 15 miles north of Glasgow, Professor Tom Devine was telling the locals about Scotland and the slave trade.

    I’d wondered how this comfortable, middle-class audience would respond to being told that not only was Scotland right up to its oxters in the trafficking of people from West Africa, but this was a key driver of the nation’s economy.

    Furthermore, we then spent the 200 years after the abolition of slavery covering up our involvement.

    In the centuries prior to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the British Empire gorged itself on the riches wrought from forcing 3.4 million Africans into slavery, premature death and sexual exploitation.

    Britain’s involvement was more than all its European neighbours combined and middle-class Scots from every region sailed forth to fill their boots.

    Two years ago, Sir Tom edited a collection of essays by some of Scotland’s finest academics called Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection.

    His Killearn lecture was based primarily on this work but implicit in it was a universal and eternal warning about the dangers of assuming racial or ethnic superiority.

    The questions were gently probing and perceptive and later there was an orderly throng seeking his autograph on their lately purchased copy of his work.

    The funds raised that evening went to Killearn primary school and to UNICEF to help with its work with children affected by modern-day slavery.

    There is something appealing about the children of a village primary school in rural Scotland learning about how inhumanity to our fellow human beings in the 17th and 18th centuries is still widespread in the modern world.

    We assume we are much more civilised now, but then our ways of enslaving vulnerable people have become more sophisticated too. It’s good that Scotland at last has woken up to its slavery past, but how awake are we to the modern-day slavery that has begun to lap once more at our shores?

    The most depressing aspect of Brexit isn’t the economic apocalypse that will soon visit those disadvantaged regions that were keenest to leave Europe.

    Rather, it was the way that people’s fears about immigration were exploited by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove purely to advance their political careers.

    There seemed to be an absence of any compassion for the thousands of wretched people dying in the Mediterranean as they fled death and torture in Africa and the Middle East.

    Where there ought to have been pity, there has been a rancid mood of fear and suspicion whipped up by the malevolent Nigel Farage and the Tory opportunists for whom he was a delightful marionette.

    In Scotland, even as we welcomed some refugees into our communities there were still loud protests from the unionist banjo and flute brigade. Why were we neglecting our own poor to give shelter to these people? they asked.

    That these African and Syrian families were fleeing unimaginable horrors didn’t seem to register with them. Instead, they seemed more concerned that there might be Islamic State activists hiding among them.

    Such casual indifference to the suffering of others, and especially those who are not from the white-skinned races, bears all the hallmarks of 18th-century attitudes to the slave trade; that its victims are somehow less human than us and, thus, not deserving of being treated with dignity.

    Some of the same attitudes are present in the way that we casually permit the world’s mega-corporations to treat their employees. The technology that has allowed Silicon Valley titans to amass riches beyond what could have been imagined a few years ago has also allowed them to use workers as human termites.

    The concept of workers in some of these places having the right to join a trade union, to have a proper contract of employment and reasonable holiday entitlement and sick pay, has become an alien one.

    Instead, we view the presence alone of such corporations as an indicator of prosperity and of a healthy economy. As such, we offer them financial sweeteners and accelerants to open their factories and depots and celebrate their arrival as a “boost for an unemployment black spot”.

    Governments use their mere presence in election literature as being indicative of a successful economic strategy. Few questions are asked about why so few of their workers are paid enough to heat and feed a small family in decent accommodation. And there is little scrutiny of their efforts to avoid paying the taxes due on their mammoth profits.

    Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, has described these corporations as the “global titans of technology”. She is attending a two-day conference in Rome along with international trade unionists and Catholic leaders who have been galvanised by recent uncompromising messages from Pope Francis on social justice. O’Grady will point out that some of these companies are forcing workers into a form of slavery.

    Pope Francis has been even more uncompromising about global inequality: “The capitalism of our time does not understand the value of trade unions, because it has forgotten the social nature of economy, of business. This is one of the greatest errors.”

    The pope has previously been unsparing in his loathing of capitalism and seems keen to bridge the gulf that has existed between Catholic social teaching and its pronouncements on human sexuality.

    In 2015, he said that the unfettered pursuit of money was “the dung of the devil” and he attacked “the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature”.

    Francis, though, is facing a sinister, global, well-funded right-wing revolt from within his own church because of these views and for refusing to condemn same-sex relationships. The opposition has been fierce and has led to fears for his safety.

    For when huge profits are at stake nothing must be permitted to stand in the way:

    NOT mere human beings and certainly NOT trade unions. And NOT, it seems, troublesome pontiffs.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 11/26/2017 at 2:17 pm

    I was raised (indoctrinated would be a better word) to believe that white-skinned humans were superior to brown- and black-skinned humans. While scientific studies in our human DNA has proven white superiority a fallacy, the economic, social and psychological harm inflicted on non-white humans over the centuries cannot be easily undone.

    Over the years, as I bent under the blows of white supremacy, I’ve often questioned why white-skinned humans have felt the need to subjugate those of us who are darker in skin tone yet identical in nature. It’s not much different than the unequal relationship between the male and female of our species. I’ve concluded that, like male domination, white supremacy arose out of fear of the other. (Who fears the weak?)

    In the end, these unnatural divisions among the human species will be our decline or extinction. The evidence is all around us. Denial does not alter reality.

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 11/26/2017 at 2:19 pm

    Oops. The first sentence in the final paragraph should read: “will lead to our decline…”

  • Clyde Duncan  On 11/28/2017 at 7:39 pm

  • Clyde Duncan  On 12/04/2017 at 3:06 am


    Netanyahu Is Worse Than Trump, Don’t Believe a Word He Says

    Netanyahu wants everyone in Israel to talk only about issues like Iran and Hezbollah, anything that will overshadow the criminal cloud hovering over him

    Uzi Baram | Haaretz

    Important events happen in Israel – some benefit the country and others drag it into blood-soaked wars. Naturally, its citizens reconcile themselves to their leaders’ decisions, for good or bad. There are socioeconomic and cultural decisions that are supposed to improve the people’s situation, and there are decisions that might lead to unintended consequences.

    Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a leader not to be trusted one bit. You can never know if his statements stem from thought or an emotional whim. You can’t understand his moves, but you have to accept that a giant nation elected a leader with a grotesque personality for reasons that are hard to explain, PERHAPS, because of the opponent he faced.

    Benjamin Netanyahu is NOT TRUMP. He is wiser, smarter. He has better political judgment at home and abroad. But given the corruption investigations into him, Israelis get a leader worse than even Trump. In other words, you should never believe the prime minister’s word.

    If the bill preventing the police from publishing their recommendations following an investigation were on the U.S.A. agenda, Trump wouldn’t deny his personal motives. He might also admit that he was born in the United States of America and NOT in Kenya.

    Netanyahu can’t say this, for he has shared with the public his witty saying: “There will be nothing because there is nothing.” But after the investigations into him by the police, he changed his tune and was willing to burn every good part in order to be rescued from the charges coming to light.

    Netanyahu was terrified of the police investigations. He saw the material piling up, the worrying connections, and decided that the public mustn’t see the material. He understood that the dialogue with “the people” was no longer working, and that he erred in minimizing the citizen’s natural sense of justice, including that of his supporters.

    So he gave up his opposition to personalized legislation, harnessed the vulgarity (yes, that’s the word) and lack of inhibitions of Likud MKs David Bitan and David Amsalem and the acceptance of the dangerous justice minister. And he decided to pass the bill at any price.

    We mustn’t be impressed by his “repentance” Sunday. His request from Amsalem that “the bill be formulated so that it won’t apply to the investigation involving me” – is throwing sand in the public’s eyes. Netanyahu understands that he’s in dire straits with the public and is trying to turn back the hands of time.

    [Oh Yeah, TIME – The Mother of Truth: – Mugabe said if he could turn back time, he would put a condom on Trump’s father.]

    But it’s too late. We mustn’t believe any utterance emitted from his lips. Not the “existential” battles that he’s preparing on the northern front, not the glorious coordination with Vladimir Putin, not his friendship with anonymous Arab countries, not legislation against “subversive organizations” like Breaking the Silence – an organization of idealists, quite naïve, who fall prey to incitement and slander.

    Netanyahu wants everyone in Israel to talk only about Iran, about Hezbollah, which is sharpening its fingernails, about the horrible dangers on our southern border, about Trump’s benevolence toward Jerusalem, about any subject that will distance the information-receiving public from the criminal and ethical cloud hovering over him.

    Netanyahu has one goal and that’s to advance the Organization for Rescuing Benjamin Netanyahu. We mustn’t believe one word that comes from this man’s lips. Not one word.

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