Like you, I haven’t been able to escape Donald Trump. Much like Starbucks and gentrification, he’s pretty much everywhere by now.
I’ve done my best to avoid watching him on TV, or even discussing him among friends and colleagues since I don’t want to humor even the thought of someone like him running the country, let alone being Republican nominee. But as mentioned, easier said than done. Despite not buying into his circus-act, I too have seen the videos passed around through social media, such as the one where three young girls are singing some sort of Nazi-esque anthem about America’s greatness at a rally, to the ones where Trump just rambles on and on about nothing and everything at the same time (a feat only him can somehow achieve). And just recently, I was forced to learn from posts on Facebook and our 24-hour news cycle that Trump landed the “coveted” Sarah Palin endorsement. Of course, to me, Palin means nothing more than a crazy person standing on a street corner, preaching a mix of Armageddon and a brand of Christianity that’d make Jesus tilt his head and ask, “Wait, I said that…was I high?” Regardless, she does matter to certain folks, especially the ones hunkered down in their mental bunkers (see what I did there), finding solace in a 1950s America that fortunately, doesn’t exist any longer.
Many of us know how insane this all is. The fact that a billionaire is roaming around the country, calling people losers, and terrorists and able to attract thousands of people to his campaign. It’s almost unthinkable.
But that is why we’re sooooooooooo wrong.
I understand why you must be watching all this and equating all of it to some dystopia you never thought imaginable, and seeing the similarity between a Trump crowd and a Hitler Youth convention. I agree. It’s jingoism at its finest. White supremacy like white wine, refined and cultured. Yet, the mistake is this: We’re acting surprised.
Honestly, I was also bemused when Trump chose to run, and imagined him to fade out. I didn’t think he’d be successful not because I thought the American people are divine people who would realize the craziness, but instead, I felt that maybe our society has evolved, especially since President Obama’s two-terms in office. I should’ve known then what I know now, and what I had known all along, especially during the Bush years, that beneath the framing of democracy, and liberalism, and justice, is American fascism. This type of rhetoric, like we on the Trump campaign trail isn’t new. If it is to you, then frankly, you’re either ignorant or privileged to the point that you think Ta-Neihisi Coates invented journalism about race (and if you don’t who that is, god save you). Basically, Trump reflects the real America that’s been functioning since the day of its modern birth. Trump is not the aberration. We are.
If you don’t believe me, let’s take a cursory view of American social and political history. When did the U.S. become a democracy? Your answer shouldn’t certainly be 1776. Because I thought having people as slaves and not being able to vote is anti-democratic? Right? I mean, in case you forgot, black Americans were turned into property and made to work in the fields, creating the wealth that many white elites built their success on. So, that’s one part of the American ethos that seems like b.s. already.
How about what happened to the American Indian? Again, it wasn’t the European who came over who suddenly created this new land by stepping foot on its shores. There were already indigenous peoples living here, who created their own societies. They helped the Europeans master the elements in this foreign space, and in turn, the Europeans massacred them and took their ancestral birthplace. That doesn’t seem democratic either.
This process repeated. From the internment of Japanese-Americans to the lynching of Mexican-Americans. To be fascistic and crude is as American as apple and Jim Crow. I’m not the only one who’s basically said Trump is a product of the U.S., not a mere radical on the fringe. Brittney Cooper, a respected professor at Rutgers University and way more awesome than I am, explained in a piece written for Salon “But the GOP should understand Trump’s popularity as a case of their chickens coming home to roost. The modern Republican Party has secured its base by pandering to the worst impulses of white male, working class, and white Christian fundamentalist rage. Only Trump doesn’t use a dog whistle. He barks. And every time he does the GOP base responds by replenishing his poll numbers.”
Ronald Reagan, the one true god for conservatives and arbiter of their wet dreams, used similar tactics to gin up support among white working-class voters. By the time he was running for his first term, already many white Americans had left the Democratic party, upset at the increase in civil rights for people of color. They believed in the zero-sum narrative, that if the black or brown Americans gets more rights and better pay, somehow, the white man loses everything. Reagan, aware of this reality, utilized dog-whistles to let them know he understood their grievances. For example, Reagan spoke of the “welfare queen”, painting this image of a person on welfare cheating the system and living the high-life. Although more white Americans rely on government help, for many white voters, the imagery was obvious to them, and they picked up the racial cues. Reagan even went to places like Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered, and spoke of “states’ rights” to a white crowd. Ian Haney Lopez explains this messaging perfectly in his work Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, where he also includes a quote from Reagan’s adviser, who understood the power of race and how to manipulate it for their advantage:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut taxes and we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”
One could argue that’s changed. But even today, many white Americans continue to believe that their country is no longer theirs, and that it needs to be returned to them. In a study published last year by the Public Religion Research Institute, “half (50%) of white Americans—including 60% of white working-class Americans—agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while fewer than three in ten Hispanic (29%) and black Americans (25%) agree.”
It’s evident also in the hate crimes perpetrated against Muslim and Sikh-Americans, and the rhetoric brandished toward Mexican-Americans that such rhetoric of Us v. Them has worked.
Now, even I still don’t believe Trump will win the GOP nomination. But that would still be missing the point. What’s the difference anyway between a Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush or a Trump? One “barks” as Cooper says, while the others “whistle.” Ultimately, we’re left to face a center-right that’s xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and anti-working class as ever. What we should be doing, however, is making sure we show up at the polls, and spreading the word that Whiteness will not go unchallenged any longer.
Most importantly, any sort of attempt at changing the system as is, especially the racism that infects American politics should be based on the truth that this country was created to oppress POC, not to include them, which is an idea explained in Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell.
Bell, although a slight and professorial man, embodied what he wrote. One of the few who truly cared about extending social justice into all walks of life rather than remain complacent with the comforts of academia. He resigned twice to protest the lack of diversity in the higher-ed. In both cases, he did so for women of color (one Asian-American and the other black American). Bell himself was black American and had been a lawyer for the NAACP. Basically, he was a bad-ass, despite again, his glasses and nerdy veneer (gives hope for all of us I guess). Some would argue he was also a critical influence for the young Barack Obama who was attending Harvard at the time when Bell was there.
Bell was a major figure in critical race theory. If you don’t know what that is, it’s okay. That’s why I’m writing this. Critical race theory is pretty much what it sounds like: studying race in the social sciences and law. In essence, making race a key piece of our discussion of politics and society in the U.S. What Bell believed in, as did others in his line of work, that race was socially and politically constructed. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. Through laws passed, such as Jim Crow and decisions made by the Supreme Court, who was considered “black” or “white” was conceived. The “one-drop” rule is an example. Basically, even though you may not “look” black. You can still be considered such just cause someone in your family, even if it was found to be a great-great-great-grandaunt that was African-American. And under the auspices of the system that was functioning in the Deep South, you are, in the words of the Dalai Llama, “fucked.” This last part needs no explanation as to why. Read a history book, if you don’t know. But speaking of race as a political project, I do recommend checking out Whiteness of a Different Color by Jacobson.
In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Bell uses short stories (yes, short stories) as a brilliant way of explaining what he means with his theories and how he views race in America. At the time, it was the early 90s and we just survived a decade of Ronald Wilson Reagan (666). Right-wing conservatism was on the rise, and white folks acting crazy was in effect once more. Bell argued that racism would never be completely expunged from the American body politic, that in many ways, white America always needed black America as its underclass as to alleviate their own issues around class and gender. So, the way white America was kept together (despite their ethnic differences i.e. Italian v. Irish, religious i.e. Protestant v. Catholic, and class i.e. blue-collar v. white-collar) was through hating their black neighbors and blackness in general. It was what unified them.
Bell called this realization of how things really were in the U.S. as being a “race realist.” Instead of what he probably would’ve described an optimistic and naive sense that somehow, all whites would just learn to love black people and stop being dicks, Bell adopted the “race realist” view and pushed for this perspective as any starting-point for anyone interested in finding solutions. Now, I know this may sound pessimistic, but just remember the decade he was in, and the experiences he had as well. A proper analogy would be the feminist theorist,Simone de Beauvoir, as having survived the horrors of Vichy occupation in France and expressing her somewhat dim view of female and human solidarity post-WWII. You can still criticize the perceptive but be mindful of where it’s coming from.
Groups like BLM and Dream Defenders do comprehend the big picture. That it is not about being tolerated or Trump losing the primary. Real change takes place when the system is forced to change, not accept what it may. To look boldly into the abyss.
Or as the great Bell would’ve put it: “We simply cannot prepare realistically for our future without assessing honestly our past.”