The Whiteness Of A Liberal In The Age Of Trump

The coronation has not even taken place, and some liberals on campus are already starting to do damage control. One is example is Mark Lilla's New York Times op-ed, "The End of Identity Liberalism," which leaves no doubt about who or what needs to be sacrificed so that liberalism can be rehabilitated -- in effect, to be made "great again." The gist of Lilla's argument is that "identity politics" have steered us in the wrong direction, and the results of the presidential election show it. Somehow he misses the fact that Clinton has won the popular vote by 1.7 million votes and counting.

More important for Lilla is the fact that Trump's likely victory in the Electoral College gives those like himself who are against putting issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation in the forefront a weapon to use to dismantle progress we have made toward widening our scope of care and concern for the past several decades. And it's not just a matter of sentiment -- politically and practically the new demographics of America demand to be understood as powerful shaping forces. But Lilla wishes to ignore that historical development for a view of America that looks strangely retrograde -- civil and other rights which have been fought for and that now need to be defended are recast as simply the concerns of special interests. Indeed, the line between Lilla's attitudes and those of Donald Trump starts to blur at this point.

Now clearly, no group votes as a simple block, and cross-over concerns need to be recognized. But Lilla veers to one extreme without nuance -- it's either about race and other sorts of difference, or not about race, et cetera.

Lilla makes some concessions before he lowers the hammer:

"The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood's efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life."

There can hardly be a more distorted characterization of our recent history of progressive activism, on campus and off. Consider for just a moment the unfolding history of the alliances amongst the Standing Rock activists and pro-Palestinian, pro-Black Lives activists. Or the work of groups like CODEPINK that work across many different lines of "identity" to multiple issues and concerns. The list stretches on and on. The victories of pro-Palestinian divestment measures on college campuses are largely the result of multi-group coalitions, including progressive Jewish groups. So the entire premise of Lilla's argument is false, and glaringly and purposefully so.

Lilla gets it exactly wrong -- in this moment, we need more attention to issues of race and gender, not less, especially if we are to be, as he suggests, people of "conscience." Why? Again, simply look at what is happening. The horrors of Trumpism will fall disproportionately on the undocumented, on those whose reproductive rights will be gone, on those without the "protection" of Title IX any longer, on those whose skin color makes them targets for violence and abuse and incarceration. At a time when the President Elect's first acts include appointing white supremacists to his staff, he is making clear that he too wants to end "identity politics" of a certain sort. Trump and his ilk are out to destroy certain portions of this population in favor of white nationalism -- his preferred brand of identity politics. And yet Lilla's response to this is to move backwards, not forwards:

"We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale."

Lilla's politics are those of false expediency and pseudo-effectiveness at the cost of ethics. He would be at pains to provide any actual evidence that "identity politics" on campus or elsewhere led to Clinton's Electoral College loss. In fact, in his criticism he seems eerily akin to Trump, who railed against "political correctness" and maintained his privilege to imagine an American made great by the expulsion, criminalization, and exclusion of particular groups that did not fit in to his image of America. When he says "Americans as Americans" Lilla is moving into more, not less, dangerous territory. For in order to get to this formulation he has to first shove all "lesser" concerns back into a quiet corner at the back of the bus for the sake of his particularly identified "America." Who does he actually mean when he says "us"? By looking at his list of expendables, we arrive at an answer.

Rather than fighting against the reduction of America via an intensely exclusionary agenda, Lilla is capitulating to it, based on the assumption that what cost Clinton the White House was a lack of attention to class. Certainly that played a part --but how big of one? Trump's margin of victory came from whites who enjoy a median income of $70,000. Hardly the underclass. Trump's racist actions then and now show that he has playing to racial hatred, not economic deprivation.

In yet another ironic moment in one of the most surreal political episodes in American history, we find one of the most strident voices of neoliberalism actually saying something more empathetic and less reactionary than what is contained in Lilla's op-ed. Lawrence Summers, ex-president of Harvard, seeming to understand the ways race and gender and ability now matter in very specific ways, writes:

"Black students, gay students, Hispanic students, Muslim students, disabled students, female students - all of them now fear that the basic security and acceptance on which they relied is at risk. Help lines are flooded with calls. Those who seek to count hateful incidents report an upsurge. I cannot convince myself that that fear is irrational. Personal experience has brought home to me the pervasive change since the election. Painted swastikas have defaced the middle school that my twin daughters attended and the college another daughter now attends. At a different university where my daughter studies, all the black freshmen were sent emails with pictures depicting lynchings."

The proper reaction to Trump's victory is not to fight him for the helm of a white America where concerns over race, sexuality, and other issues are banished to the back of the bus, it is to commit to defending the rights of everyone, especially those most threatened by hatred and prejudice.