December 10, 2017


Donald Trump: America's First Post-White President : Trumpism is not a simple retread of the white supremacy of the past, but a new form of the self-destructive politics of ressentiment. (Richard Thompson Ford, 12/10/17, American Interest)

Racial politics can tell us something about Trump's popularity, but, ironically, the history of American race relations suggests that Trump's mystifyingly loyal supporters are less like the recalcitrant white supremacists of the past and more like the beleaguered and desperate African-Americans who--against their better natures and better judgment--followed demagogues such as the Nation of Islam's overtly anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, who rose to prominence by organizing the Million Man March in 1995, and supported charlatans such as Washington DC's "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry, who was reelected even after serving time for smoking crack cocaine.

In their embrace of the crass, bigoted, impulsive Trump, white working-class voters resemble no group more than the poor and working-class African-Americans who flocked to support Farrakhan in the 1990s. Like Trump, Farrakhan was a vulgar embarrassment to the mainstream: His rise to a leading role in black politics baffled and dismayed responsible political leaders, who initially shunned him for his sexism, corruption, and anti-Semitism. Farrakhan was, like Trump, a skillful demagogue who exploited the frustration of people who had been treated with contempt by the powerful and privileged. Like Trump, Farrakhan spoke in the unrefined cadence and style of the people and, like Trump, he traded in slanders and conspiracy theories that were alloyed with just enough truth to make them plausible to an uneducated and deeply suspicious audience. Farrakhan and Trump both spoke of a return to traditional values and old hierarchies--a message that resonated in communities plagued by joblessness, nihilism, addiction, and crime. Although many mainstream black politicians and opinion leaders shunned the Million Man March because of its defining sexism and the outspoken anti-Semitism of its organizer (#NeverFarrakhan!), many others joined in, gambling that they could harness the momentum of a reckless and self-serving bigot and turn it to their own purposes. Predictably the egotistical Farrakhan insisted that he himself was larger than the movement he had galvanized: "Today, whether you like it or not, God brought the idea . . . through me." Similarly, after his list of exaggerated crises facing the nation, Trump declared at the Republican National Convention: "I am your voice. . . . I alone can fix it."

Of course, unlike Farrakhan's admirers, Trump's hard-core supporters are white--members of a privileged class who have no need of the petty politics of ressentiment. Or are they? It's now conventional wisdom in academia to insist that race is a "social construction." A prominent account of race and racism describes a process of "racial formation" in which racial groups are constantly recreated through a host of social interactions and political decisions. Racial groups change over time--old races gradually atrophy and die and new ones slowly emerge to take their place: In the 18th century, Pennsylvania's Germans (the Pennsylvania Dutch or Deutsche) were considered a "swarthy" distinct race; according to historian Noel Ignatiev, the Irish "became white" only in the late 19th century; fair-skinned Pakistanis are "black" in the United Kingdom; it's not clear whether recent immigrants to the United States from Ethiopia or Ghana count as "African-American." Like the 19th-century Irish, today some dark-skinned people are becoming more and more "white" in terms of privilege and socialization (think of South Asians in Silicon Valley). 

Posted by at December 10, 2017 11:09 AM