Historically, the rise of racist fascism is linked to economic upheaval. But today, with unemployment rates near all-time lows, at first glance, there seems to be little or no connection between joblessness and the rise of violent white supremacist movements.
Instead, the dominant narrative around the Charlottesville attack is that these young racist men are trying to reclaim the white America that is no more. Male prerogatives are fading fast with the rise of feminism, and racist white privileges are giving way to a growing multi-cultural society. So the Nazi/Klan rabble in the streets are simply railing against an ever expanding international liberalism that no longer provides them by birth with a superior position. Economics essentially has nothing at all to do with it.
Or does it?
There is plenty of economic insecurity pulsing through our economy. Although unemployment is low, wages are stagnant for most working people, while inequality is ever rising. A tiny sliver of elites seems to have walked off with America’s riches, leaving everyone else behind. From this vantage point, the opioid crisis and the rise of the racist right are two destructive reactions to the erosion of economic well-being.
In many parts of America, the blame is placed on big government. Supposedly, it takes our money and gives it to minorities and Wall Street, fails to halt immigration, coddles criminals and threatens to take away our freedoms (i.e. guns). At the margins of white conservatism this translates into exploitation by Wall Street (Jews) and economic displacement (by blacks and Hispanics.) Blood and Soil! Jews will Not Replace Us! It doesn’t get clearer than that.
As the Russian collusion noose tightens around his neck, Trump needs to change the subject in a big way. To capture the dialogue it pays to conjure up a major international threat and/or seize upon a domestic tragedy like a terrorist attack or a sustained civil disorder.
Trump quickly sensed that threatening nuclear war with North Korea had the power to rally the country around him. Even his hated “fake news” outlets seemed titillated by the ins and outs of ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, and Guam duck and cover instructions. You could hear commentators saying that maybe Trump is right to stand up so vociferously to those lunatics in North Korea.
But isn’t coddling Nazi/supremacist rabble a pretty stupid way to capture the news? Maybe not. Trump’s “both sides/Alt-Left” approach could create the kind of internal disorder he needs for his own survival.
Without question, Trump is condoning the attack on Charlottesville. In typical fashion, Trump lied (yet again) by saying that most people were there just to demonstrate peacefully (and with a legal permit, no less) in behalf of their cultural heritage and history (in the form of a Robert E. Lee statue). Through this sanitized portrait, Trump clearly is encouraging more and more demonstrations. After all there is no shortage of venues. The South is littered with Confederate icons put in place when white supremacists recaptured political power and ushered in Jim Crow at the end of the 19th century.
If Trump gets lucky, those neo-Nazi saluted events will draw just enough militant counter-protesters for violence to be blamed “on both sides.” If this takes place again and again, Trump will be able to turn a phony left-right narrative into something that looks more or less real. He will claim that he’s being even- handed and the media is coddling the violent left. Not only will this play well with his base, but also it will dominate the media just as we are seeing right now. It could easily divert attention from announcements of Russia-related pardons and perhaps even the firing of Mueller.
Also, if the violence grows extensive enough, his call for civil repression against violent demonstrators from both sides could act as a discipline on Congressional Republicans who may be thinking of breaking with him. It’s really hard for those Republicans to resist the siren’s call for law and order.
Of course, Trump gets hung out to dry if the counter-demonstrations adhere strictly to a Gandhi/King non-violence strategy. Then it would be clear that all the violence is coming from the Trump-enabled fascists. But at the moment there is no single progressive leader with the moral standing to enforce that discipline on the counter-demonstrators.
Has Trump really thought all this through? Not likely. But he has an instinct for it. He knows that the fascist militants love him and he needs that love to sustain his narcissism and to help him survive politically. He is maneuvering through all of this with the same intuitions that led to the Central Park Five fraud, the “Birther” movement and the ‘Lock Her Up’ rallies that ushered him into the White House. It comes natural to him to provoke controversy, repeatedly lie, blame others, capture the news cycles, and claim he is the only one who is willing to speak the truth to the fake liberal news media.
While Trump may not have thought it all through, his intellectual guru, Steve Bannon, certainly has:
The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist. Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.
Who really wins from all this racial chaos?
Trump may or may not survive his prodigious character flaws and destructive politics. But, he is not Hitler, and this is not 1933. Even if fanning the flames of Charlottesville is his attempt at a Reichstag fire, he is just as likely to be burned as his intended liberal and left targets.
But historically there always are other big winners when we slide into more and more racial tension. Divisions based on the phony idea that there are biological races undermine the solidarity needed to upend racial injustice and runaway inequality.
After the Civil War, there was a virtual 20 year second civil war between the former plantation elites and poor white/black farmers for control of civil society. It was not until 1898 that the white supremacists fully recaptured power and instituted the first Jim Crow laws.
In his novel Freedom Road, Howard Fast (best known for Spartacus) graphically describes how the manipulation of skin color paved the road to power for Southern elites after the Civil War. In this fictional account, a former plantation owner describes how to reclaim their riches by creating a violent army from those who are fixated on their skin color:
... there’ll be men enough, the scum that we used for overseers, the trash that bought and sold slaves and bred them, the kind who were men with bullwhips and filth without one, the kind who have only one virtue, a white skin. Gentlemen, we’ll play a symphony on that white skin, we’ll make it a badge of honor. We’ll put a premium on that white skin. We’ll dredge the sewers and the swamps for candidates, and we’ll give them their white skin - and in return, gentlemen, they will give us back what we lost through this insane war, yes, all of it.
Today Trump and far too many of his supporters are still playing “a symphony on that white skin.” We need to end that malevolent song and redouble our efforts to build a solidaristic movement for racial and economic justice.
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new “reversing runaway inequality” movement. For more information, contact runawayinequality.org.