“Do you think it’s a coincidence that everybody like me loves Trump and supports him?” - White supremacist leader Richard Spencer
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I’ve been hearing some astonishing things lately.
“How can you say Donald Trump is anti-Semitic? Come on, his daughter converted to Judaism! She’s married to an Orthodox Jew, and they are two of his closest advisors!”
“How can you say that Trump is responsible for all these white supremacist attacks following the election? He never told anyone they should do that. All politicians have people who misinterpret what they say and do stupid things; that doesn’t make Trump a racist, doesn’t mean that he’s responsible for their repugnant actions.”
Really? There is so little understanding of how demagogic fascism works? Are we that naïve?
I have no doubt that Adolf Hitler sincerely hated Jews (as well as Slavs, Balts, Asians, Africans, gay people, and anyone else the Nazis didn’t hold as belonging to the “master race.”) But lots of people hate Jews. That wasn’t what made Hitler dangerous and destructive.
What made him dangerous and destructive was that he was willing to inflame and excite an ambient cultural hatred of Jews and ride that inflamed and incited hatred into power. And to do that, you don’t have to actually hate Jews, or anyone else, at all. You just have to not care about using racism and anti-Semitism as political tools.
Can anyone argue that this is not what Trump is doing? If you don’t see it, let’s take a longer view of how we got to where we are today.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the core concern of the modern Republican Party, as we have known it since the Reagan resurgence, is to allocate all profits from all enterprises as fully as possible to capital, and as little as possible to labor. That’s it; there isn’t really anything else, but there are a lot of policy corollaries that spring from this, as well as a lot of more-or-less awkward alliances with other social and political movements that are required to bring enough voters on board to win elections. After all, for most people, a platform that promises to make them slaves to corporate aristocracy will not be terribly attractive.
One of these alliances was always with the constituency of white fear and white insecurity. If Reagan had not been able to win over Southern whites disoriented in the wake of the Democratic Party’s abandonment of its historical support for segregation, and Northern whites furious over busing and fearful of ghetto riots, he would not have been president.
Racial animus as a tool of economic domination is, of course, as old as slavery – much older, actually – and it blossomed in Republican intellectual circles during the ferment of the Civil Rights movement. William F. Buckley, possibly the most influential architect of conservatism’s post-Goldwater revival, was quite direct in an editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail”:
The central question that emerges… is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
Buckley later renounced these words, although he supported this position, when asked, as late as 1989. But he, the heir to an oil fortune, consistently confused what was good for himself and his class with what was good for the country, and he was always comfortable with a racism that served his purposes. The cynical and dangerous use of racial resentment has been going on in “respectable” Republican circles since long before Barack Obama came to the presidency. One of its avatars was Ronald Reagan’s Director of Communications, Pat Buchanan, who was a bridge between the radical underground white supremacist ideology and mainstream Republican politics. Buchanan, as President Ronald Reagan’s Communications Director, successfully insisted that Reagan had to visit a German military cemetery in which Waffen SS soldiers were buried, saying that the SS troops were “victims just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps”. Almost alone among Republicans, he also spoke forthrightly about the need to preserve America as a white-majority nation, a position he proclaims to this day, in language that would not be out of place on the more sophisticated white supremacist web sites.
Overt racism has not been a winning strategy in national political discourse since the Civil Rights movement became more or less widely understood as a righteous and necessary social movement. So while by 1969 the pseudo-intellectual Buckley was still trumpeting the work of the pseudo-scientist Arthur Jensen in articles like “On Negro Inferiority,” the country largely moved on. Post-Civil Rights, the Democrats effectively disavowed their segregationist Southern wing as the Party made alliances with blacks (and began to see a massive exodus of Southern whites, which continues to this day.)
There was always a certain protocol to Republican race-baiting, the “dog whistle” messages that supporters would hear and understand, but that allowed for semi-plausible deniability. Things like Nixon’s “Southern strategy;” Reagan opening his 1980 campaign with a speech at the Neshoba County fairgrounds in Mississippi – a stone’s throw from where the bodies of Civil Rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were found interred in the side of a dam – with a speech on “States’ Rights;” Reagan’s coded attacks on welfare; Jesse Helms’ “white hands” campaign ad; George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton campaign ad – these were all part of the expected Republican political furniture. And they were followed up with far more substantial actual policies that hurt the working class but that also disproportionately hurt minorities, such as union busting and abandonment of public education, public housing, entitlements, fairness in criminal justice, voting rights, and many other things.
What one does not expect to see and hear in Republican discourse – what is entirely new in the Trumpian political moment – are things like these:
A Republican candidate for President who begins his campaign with a tirade against illegal immigrants, calling them rapists, and who names a wall on the Mexican border as his most urgent priority. A candidate whose surrogates invoke “law and order” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement’s insistence that the police really shouldn’t be shooting unarmed black people, and who call this movement a terrorist, anarchist, racist organization. A candidate who encourages his rally crowds to attack protesters, and offers to pay any resulting legal bills; and whose crowds often erupt in the most scurrilous and unambiguously racist howls, which he does not discourage. Who promises security measures targeted at refugees and immigrants of a specific religious background.
A candidate who is enthusiastically endorsed by the neo-Nazi paper The Daily Stormer, the Ku Klux Klan paper The Crusader, American Renaissance, and many, many other white nationalist organizations (arguably the most dangerous hate group of all, the National Alliance, won’t back the candidate, however; apparently he is controlled by Jews.)
The candidate being hailed by a white supremacist group as “our leader and ultimate savior.” The candidate using images of Waffen SS soldiers in his promotional materials. The candidate juxtaposing images of his opponent with images of stacks of cash and a Star of David. The fact that this image is found to have been retweeted – along with many other images – from linked Twitter accounts held by known white supremacists, including accounts that include the phrase WhiteGenocide in their names. Ardent white supremacists attending the Republican Convention, and being greatly cheered by what they see there. The candidate being described enthusiastically by hardcore, militant white supremacists as “88% woke.”
A super-PAC supporting the candidate that commissions Iowa robocalls featuring a leader of the racist American Freedom Party. David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, neo-Nazi, and lifelong white supremacist, announcing a bid for the Senate – his first pursuit of office in more than 20 years – by saying that he was “overjoyed” by the Republican candidate’s advocacy for his issues. The candidate refusing at first to reject Duke’s support, and then grudgingly distancing himself from that support with irritation at the questioner rather than outrage at the white supremacist, saying simply “I disavow.” As the white supremacist activist Richard Spencer notes, “There’s no direct object there. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?”
Clearly, something has changed.
The term “White Genocide” was invented by David Eden Lane, one of the leaders of the modern iteration of American white supremacy. Lane – himself a victim of horrendous abuse in his childhood – was a co-founder of the neo-Nazi group The Order, responsible for bank robberies and bombings, and for assassinating Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in 1984. Lane, who died in prison in 2007, is best known among the like-minded for his “14 words” statement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.” “White Genocide” refers to the fantasy conspiracy that filled his diseased mind and compelled him to action: the idea that immigration, “race-mixing,” integration, and abortion are elements of a Jewish-directed plot against “the White race,” with the goal of consigning whites to minority status or eliminating them altogether. It is the logic behind the phrase, popular among his followers, “anti-racist is a code word for anti-white.”
And many working-class white people, whether they believe in this nonsense or not, feel under siege nowadays. Feel, somehow, existentially threatened. We are engaged in a long-running war with violent Islamic fanatics, a war with no end in sight. The thriving economy that sustained the middle-class aspirations of rising working-class generations between 1945 and the mid-1980s is no more. Such economic security for the working class as had been won by unions in that period has, not coincidentally, gone the way of those unions.
Since the time of President Carter the United States has been facing efficient foreign competition, while being simultaneously engaged in a neoliberal trade experiment, pushed by both Democratic and Republican elites, that (unlike the European Union version of neoliberal trade) demands free flows of capital but not of labor. This is a surefire prescription for enriching the elites of both poor and rich countries, while reducing the status, income, and lives of laborers in the rich countries.
All of these things hurt non-white working class people more than they hurt white ones. But America persists in a state of de facto segregation; we don’t, generally, see or talk about, much less feel, each others’ pain.
And human beings are tribal creatures. When we feel insecure, we turn to those who look like us to protect us. And we are easily manipulated when we feel insecure. The United States, since 2009, has had a black president with a Muslim name and Indonesian relatives. And it has been subject to the sense of entitlement to power among Republican elites, unrestrained by the slightest tinge of civic responsibility, honor, or common decency.
This sense of entitlement to power meant that there was no question of co-operating with a President who had won a significant mandate. Republican leaders met on the night of his inauguration, and decided that they would oppose him on everything he proposed, without regard to the merits or the benefits to the country. In October 2010, Mitch McConnell, at the time the Republican Senate Minority Leader, proclaimed that his party’s first priority was to deny Obama a second term. Not wars abroad, not the economy, not public security, not entitlements, not any area of policy. Recently, of course, McConnell has refused to even hold hearings on any Obama Supreme Court nominee to replace the deceased justice Antonin Scalia – an unprecedented act of partisanship at the nation’s expense.
The Republican Party sought to justify and enhance its strategy of obstructionism through the manipulation of working-class whites: the creation of radical front groups and proxies, sustained by a network of Republican funders, to spread the messages that “respectable” politicians mostly endorse only with a wink and a nudge. We’ve been bombarded for years now with claims that Barack Obama, a center-right liberal with little to distinguish him in domestic policy from, say, Richard Nixon (in some ways Nixon was more radical) is a totalitarian communist. Born in Kenya, ineligible for the presidency. A Muslim. An “anti-colonialist” (like George Washington?) We’ve been told that Obama – who sees himself, rightly, as the president of all Americans, and has therefore addressed racial issues only in the most conciliatory, fair-minded, placatory ways – is a raging Black Nationalist who, in Glenn Beck’s (now renounced, but still influential) words, “hates white people.” And all of this poison distributed wholesale on the Republican party’s unofficial communications wing, Fox News. The blatant racism of Tea Party themes and rallies (and the fact that the Tea Party was, at its core, really an upsurge of traditional Southern racism, opportunistically recruited) could be insulated somewhat from mainstream Republican politics, with the convenient fiction that the Tea Party people were insurgents crashing the Party from outside.
But with the rise of Donald Trump, the plans of the mainstream Republican leaders to use Tea Party radicals to recapture the middle and once again rule as traditional right-wing institutionalists were ruined. As with Mao and his disastrous “cultural revolution,” what was planned as populist demagoguery in the service of ruling elites sprinted far beyond the power of its authors to control it.
Traditional Republicans had, since Buckley, harnessed racial anxieties in the service of class warfare, to the benefit of their corporate sponsors. They are now looking on, aghast, as Trump harnesses class anxieties in the service of race warfare, to the benefit of himself.
And with a polite but firm insistence to my non-racist, well-meaning Republican friends, they are stuck with Trump’s racism, which has become the racism of the mainstream party. No, you can’t say that his supporters have misunderstood him. They understand him all too well, and contrary to a hope expressed in certain Republican quarters, Trump has not moderated his appeal to white supremacists now that he has attained power. His appointment of Steven Bannon – the blatant white supremacist who masterminded Trump’s successful campaign – merely confirms that Trump doesn’t even care about hiding the truth of his alignment.
So then: It is entirely correct and justified to attribute a severe uptick in racist attacks since the election to Trump’s incitement – and to the mainstream Republican Party’s acceptance of this incitement, and willingness to use it to gain political power. It is entirely correct and justified to lay any number of racist attacks and intimidation incidents - in which the perpetrators often explicitly invoke Trump’s name as license, and which Trump has so far refused to convincingly denounce – at Trump’s door, and at the Party’s door. All over the country, right now, Trump supporters are grabbing headscarves from Muslim women, attacking black people, painting swastikas on Jewish homes. This is where we are. This is the new reality. This is what the Republican Party has been willing to do to attain power.
And let’s call it by its name, too. This is what fascist demagogues do. And no, it doesn’t mean a thing if they have Jewish relatives.
Never forget it.