Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a masterful reflection on the Obama era in The Atlantic this month. Clear an hour on your schedule and go read My President Was Black.
The entire piece is worth your time-, but I want to highlight this selection:
“Much ink has been spilled in an attempt to understand the Tea Party protests, and the 2016 presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which ultimately emerged out of them. One theory popular among (primarily) white intellectuals of varying political persuasions held that this response was largely the discontented rumblings of a white working class threatened by the menace of globalization and crony capitalism. Dismissing these rumblings as racism was said to condescend to this proletariat, which had long suffered the slings and arrows of coastal elites, heartless technocrats, and reformist snobs. Racism was not something to be coolly and empirically assessed but a slander upon the working man. Deindustrialization, globalization, and broad income inequality are real. And they have landed with at least as great a force upon black and Latino people in our country as upon white people. And yet these groups were strangely unrepresented in this new populism.
Christopher S. Parker and Matt A. Barreto, political scientists at the University of Washington and UCLA, respectively, have found a relatively strong relationship between racism and Tea Party membership. “Whites are less likely to be drawn to the Tea Party for material reasons, suggesting that, relative to other groups, it’s really more about social prestige,” they say. The notion that the Tea Party represented the righteous, if unfocused, anger of an aggrieved class allowed everyone from leftists to neoliberals to white nationalists to avoid a horrifying and simple reality: A significant swath of this country did not like the fact that their president was black, and that swath was not composed of those most damaged by an unquestioned faith in the markets. Far better to imagine the grievance put upon the president as the ghost of shambling factories and defunct union halls, as opposed to what it really was—a movement inaugurated by ardent and frightened white capitalists, raging from the commodities-trading floor of one of the great financial centers of the world.”
This revelation should be unsurprising to any of my readers. As I’ve said many times over the last year, Trump wasn’t elected because of a white working-class revolution against crony capitalism and globalization. He is the natural conclusion of decades of white conservative backlash to desegregation and the gains of the civil rights movement. When the corrupt finance sector tried to obscure their role in bringing down the economy in 2008 by blaming it on the very people who had been most exploited by their scam, they had a ready and willing audience for whom this narrative fit snugly into their pre-existing view that poor minorities are a drain on the economy and a blight on our national character.
My notion that the white backlash is racial and not economic is backed up by Trump supporters behavior since the election. Case in point, the silence his supporters have over his cabinet appointments. Nearly ever appointment Trump has made to his cabinet, from education to foreign policy, is a person with an economic interest in the policy area they will be leading. That is literally the definition of crony capitalism. Trump is a less subtle plutocrat than Putin, who at least attempts to create the illusion of separation between himself and the oligarchs. Where is the outrage that he is not draining the swamp, but is instead restocking it?
There is none. There has been no pushback from the Tea Party Republicans, who made their bones supposedly standing up to this sort of coziness between the government “establishment” and big business. Nary a peep has come from the conservative infotainers who promoted the narrative that liberals and moderate conservatives have ignored the issues of the white working class in favor of global capitalism. Most tellingly, not a single conservative friend or family member of mine who loudly (and proudly) supported Donald Trump in the name of blowing up the corrupt system that Hillary Clinton represents has expressed disappointment in Trump creating an administration with an unprecedented level of conflict of interest. In fact, most of them continue cheering his every move. Why?
It has nothing to do with coastal elites ignoring the plight of the midwestern, white working class, no matter what smug conservatives or “class first” liberals want you to believe. Trump, like the Tea Party before him, is overwhelmingly a racist response to Obama along with the legal and cultural gains of multicultural liberalism. Point blank. This narrative that it is some economic revolution is absurd. Look at how these people vote at the state and local level. They continue to support anti-labor/pro-capital politicians who strip their communities of taxes and services that help create opportunities for the poor and working class in favor of policies that enrich the wealthiest and decrease educational and economic opportunities for everyone else. It is not the economy, stupid.
Instead, the white working class appears to have given up hope on ever clawing out a better life. Drive through Chillicothe, Ohio and tell me I am wrong. Spend a week in Springfield. Move to Lima. They don’t vote based on their economic interests because they see no hope there. Trump can come out and promise them the world– most of them understand that it was hyperbole. Their worldview has been clear for decades: the ship (US economy/society/civilization) is going down! If two candidates appear to be offering you a fantasy, why not choose the sexier one? More importantly, Trump made them feel important again. The mindset seems to have been similar to this:
Sure, we are poor. And things are not going to get better. But damn it feels good to let our freak flags fly and just yell all the things polite society makes us repress. Remember when we could do this all the time?? Wasn’t that great? This orange sideshow is promising us we can do that again– let’s hop aboard the Trump Train!!
No more catering to feminist ideology, the “gay mafia,” or minority sensitivity. No more PC censorship. Just (white) people saying whatever the fuck they want. Trump wasn’t offering them a spot on the lifeboats– those belong to him and his cronies. Trump was offering them first-class status on the sinking ship. And that seemed like better than nothing.
I’ve thought a lot about this since the election. I’ve been challenged by colleagues and friends who think my stance on race alienates moderate conservative allies and distracts from the supposedly more important issue of economic equality. I’ve struggled to respond. Maybe they were right– perhaps this rhetoric did make white conservatives feel alienated and left behind. Perhaps the economic populism animating the two bases is really the one and only issue of our times…
As you likely suspect from the format of this post, I disagree. After great reflection, I come away MORE convinced that race and culture were the motivating factors behind this election and the collapse of white liberalism. It is true that the Democratic party failed the working class. They kicked them to the curb in the name of pragmatism during the Clinton years, but really the die was cast long before that. The Democratic Party made a Faustian bargain in bringing the New Deal to life. They sold out black people in the name of an economically oriented coalition of (white) northern union workers and southern segregationists. Federal money would be used to modernize the rural south and deals would be struck to provide homes and old age support for the working class. The new white middle class, complete with their shiny new suburbs, were created by this arrangement. But this house was built on sand. The inevitable cries for freedom and equality from those systematically excluded from the process didn’t take long to materialize.
When the Democrats decided to break with the racist Dixiecrats in favor of black voters and the civil rights movement, they delivered a fatal blow to the New Deal coalition (and many of their gains). At first, it simply meant losing the solid south. Then the Reagan Revolution came along and it meant losing those northern middle-class whites, most of whom were ignorant of the role Federal money and power (and racism) had played in creating both their economic and geographic spaces. Finally, the Trumpening happened. Rural and urban white working class men, the last remaining vestiges of the Progressive Era union movement, finally left the fold. Too few of the old guard were left to enforce order. Too many of the young members saw the union as an impediment to their individual success, rather than the only thing that provided them with the opportunity to make a decent living with little education, training, or skill. The Devil finally came back to collect on the New Deal. Our penance is watching the white supremacists that made the growth of liberalism happen in the 20th-century ring in the new century by refocusing on their white nationalist fantasies. And their President is orange.