Last week, several major news outlets validated a sentiment long-held by many Americans when they announced, finally, that Trump is racist. The admission marks the end of the gas lighting Americans of color (and our like-minded allies) have experienced since the start of his campaign. But although this feels like progress, the new headlines feed into an old and dangerous narrative that has persisted since before the 2016 election: namely, that highlighting Trump’s racism is a strategic boon.
The view that a racial lens is the best way to see and understand the Trump phenomenon is popular among many of the country’s most esteemed thinkers. Ta-Nehisi Coates has emphasized what he perceives to be Trump’s unique exploitation of race by dubbing him our “First White President.” More recently, Charles Blow characterized Trump as “The Lowest White Man” in a piece for the New York Times – focusing on how the gap between Trump’s inadequacy and Obama’s exceptionalism evinces a society that demands more from those to whom less is given, while casting the successes of a rich kid like Trump as proof of the power of meritocracy.
Both explorations are thoughtful in their analysis of racial trends. But these narratives only tell a partial story. In failing to incorporate a class analysis, writers and political analysts risk unwittingly cultivating a harmful mythology: that Trump represents the best interests of white Americans.
Of course, I understand why Trump’s presidency is increasingly defined by its relationship to race and racism. Trump glided into the 2016 presidential contest on the twin engines of a golden escalator and the Southern Strategy – signaling his antagonism toward non-white interests by flagging Mexican immigrants as an existential threat to American (read: white) purity.
Yet Trump is no ideologue. His antipathy for people of color has never indicated an affinity for the needs of white voters in general. While his policy prescriptions benefit wealthy (yes, predominately white) Americans, his efforts to help the white working class are relegated to lip service and unfulfilled promises. His pledge to not “let people die in the streets” was forgotten in the zeal to first repeal and then replace Obamacare, and his promise to bring jobs back from overseas has been revealed as a sham – the Carrier plant Trump famously “saved” continues to lay off workers. Even Steve Bannon, perhaps the only true believer among Trump’s team of advisors, has been ousted. Gone is the man who fought for a 44 percent marginal tax rate for the 1 percent. In are the (liti)gaters of the so called “swamp,” along with a massive tax cut for corporations and the superrich.
Such being the case, it seems clear that while Trump is a racist, he is no zealot. Instead, it seems more apt to describe him as a plutocrat.
After all, Mr. Trump’s relationship to wealth is as cartoonishly excessive as Scrooge McDuck’s money pool, and his leadership has been mercenary in kind. He has explicitly mocked the idea of a “poor” person joining his cabinet, and it can even be argued that Trump chose riches over racism when he claimed Oprah Winfrey as his dream vice presidential candidate back in the Nineties. A man so invested in status that he named his son “Baron,” Trump’s place in the public imagination is bookmarked by brassy bold letters, rococo interiors and glitzy excess in lieu of genuine taste. Lest his milieu be in doubt, Trump announced his candidacy in the lobby of one of his opulent towers mere yards away from the flagship location of Tiffany’s Jewelers – the namesake of another of his children.
Greed is such a central motivating thread for Trump, that it may even be the cause of his undoing, as the Mueller investigation reportedly subpoenas his international banking records, and Democrats continue to investigate the possibility of using the emoluments clause to impeach him.
But despite his governance of grift, the mainstream left has committed to a narrative in which Trump is defined predominately by his racial antagonism. He’s our “first white president.” The “lowest white man.” Similarly, his supporters, who certainly should be criticized for being, at best, indifferent to Trump’s racism, are painted as motivated solely by racial animus rather than the blend of economic populism and bigotry that has long been used to foment a potent nativist anxiety.
In fact, to a significant number of liberals, the idea that a populist economic strategy should be integrated alongside a more race-forward approach represents a betrayal of anti-racist ideals. Some writers, like Nikole Hannah-Jones – a brilliant authority on matters relating to race and social justice – are outwardly hostile to the idea that economics could have played any role in Trump’s ascendency, tweeting recently that “so many in the media and academia look foolish for saying Trump won because of economic anxiety. . . . It was always race. Always.”
In his much respected, widely circulated piece on the Trump phenomenon, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer went so far as to attack the premise of economic anxiety itself. Arguing that, unlike whites who voted for Trump, voters of color suffered “a genuine economic calamity in the decade before Trump’s election,” Serwer suggests that Trump voters were somehow immune to the devastation of the recession. Although the recession disproportionally affected people of color, it absolutely was calamitous for Americans of all hues.
To be clear: I don’t think these writers, who are generally quite sensitive and humanistic in their approach, believe white Americans are actually impervious to economic harm. But it’s important to draw attention to the ways in which our liberal language increasingly pushes the idea that anti-blackness and pro-whiteness are always in diametric opposition, leaving no space for forms of oppression which subjugate subsets of both groups.
In “The Lowest White Man,” Blow begins to move in what I feel to be the right direction – recognizing the role racism has played in dividing the poor and preserving power for the wealthy. He even quotes Lyndon B. Johnson’s prescient warning that “if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” But Blow ignores that at the center of President Johnson’s observation is an acknowledgment that those who use racism to accrue power often do not represent the best interests of white Americans, but wealthy Americans. Instead of considering the class implications at play, Blow characterizes Trumpism as “a religion founded on patriarchy and white supremacy.” Dave Chappelle came much closer to the real dynamic in a much-quoted riff from his newest Netflix comedy special: Trump isn’t fighting for poor whites, he observed; “[Trump]’s fighting for me,” a millionaire who, incidentally, is black.
In fact, for all he maligns non-whites, Trump is far from a champion of the white race. Even at his most bigoted, one can tease out the financial incentives that operated in symbiosis with his prejudice. His relentless campaign against the Central Park Five was not only evidence of his callow disregard for criminal justice and the civil rights of the accused, it reflected his personal interest in the greater policing of New York City, the increased safety which most (wrongly) assumed would follow, and the correspondingly higher value of his Central Park-facing properties. The housing discrimination for which Trump is famous was enabled by a lack of fundamental respect for black renters, yes, but it was also likely motivated, in part, by a desire to extract the maximum fees from his properties. Trump wrote off entire nations as “shithole countries,” but while those “shitholes” were uniformly brown, it strains credulity to believe that he would have made a stink about wealthy, non-white nations like Japan or Saudi Arabia. Even Eric Trump’s foot-in-mouth defense of his father’s racism speaks some truth to power: “My father,” he says, “sees one color: green. That’s all he cares about.”
It seems Trump’s true religion is not racism, as Blow diagnosed it, but avarice.
As Coates has persuasively written, the “tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the Untied States – and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far.” Acknowledging the combined motives of racism and greed does nothing to diminish the cruelty of Trump’s bigotry – no more than acknowledging that slaves represented economic capital to antebellum whites minimizes the essential moral imperative of the Civil War.
But there is real danger in artificially divorcing Trump’s broader economic agenda from his racism. Doing so has the potential to bolster the flimsy relationship between working class white voters and the Republican party – one that endures on the mythology that racial identity is a stronger bond than identity of interest. It’s time to take some responsibility for perpetuating this fictive alliance called “whiteness” – maintaining a category of identity where none should rightly exist.
Historians Barbara and Karen Fields describe the process by which racism creates race as “racecaft.” By casting Trump’s acts of racism as evidence of a broader white identity, liberals are conjuring the whiteness to which they object. When we describe Trump as pro-white, we are complicit in the transformation of a man infamous for his commitment to wealth into an ideologue committed to the betterment of most American people. At their own risk, Democrats ignore that for an unsettlingly large percentage of white Americans – many of whom feel abandoned by liberals – the identification of Trump with whiteness is not a critique.
While the media’s focus on Trump’s bigotry last week was understandable and appropriate, as midterm elections approach, liberals should keep in mind historian C. Vann Woodward’s observation, invoked by the Fields sisters in a recent interview, that the question of white supremacy is secondary to the question of “which whites should be supreme.” If the party loses sight of the ways in which Trump has failed most whites in addition to communities marginalized by their identities, it is inclined to miss an opportunity to cleave back those voters who once provided a winning margin to Barack Obama’s 2012 and 2008 campaigns.
Importantly, Democrats should make clear that the white supremacy Trump peddles may benefit working class whites, but its benefits are marginal compared to the material rewards that would come from a class conscious, progressive, political agenda. By backing universal programs that have long had popular support among all Americans, Bernie Sanders appealed to the economic circumstances of working class whites without the dog whistles of the right, or the lip service of the left. Without undermining Arabs or casting himself as anyone’s abuelo, Sanders gained unanticipated traction simply by speaking to the material needs of working people. In a recent Vox article, Matt Yglesias observed that as a strategic matter, Trump is more vulnerable to criticisms that target his economic self-interest than those attacking his racism. If no other lesson is learned from the failure of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, it should be that “the other guy is racist” is not a strategy that sufficiently moves the needle.
Karen and Barbara Fields have argued that identifying bigotry, while necessary, is of limited utility: “Even if you can argue convincingly that [white people] all have bigotry and prejudice …you have to acknowledge that not everyone has the same level of power and responsibility.” As Democratic candidates begin to pepper their speeches with references to intersectionality, they would do well to acknowledge that excluding class from the intersectionality analysis has contributed to the feeling among working class whites that their plight lies beyond the scope of the Democratic Party’s ambitions.
Blow takes for granted the “unassailability of white power and white privilege,” but the Democratic Party should not. Racism is stubborn, but casting it as unassailable grants it too much power, and prematurely cedes battles the Democratic Party has already shown it has the ability to win.
Until liberals begin connecting Trump’s racism to a class narrative, white Americans, particularly low-income white Americans, will be tempted to see Trump as their white savior, and racism as their last salvo. Let’s provide them an alternative in 2018.