This title of this essay is inaccurate, Trumpism doesn’t exist, because Trump is a symptom, not a cause. It’s hard to think about history without slipping into the old habit of thinking in terms of “great men,” or people, to be properly gender inclusive. We do this because humans are wired to understand personalities, not social forces. No hunter-gatherer ever found himself arguing with a demographic trend and none of us will ever find ourselves face to face with an entire social class. No matter how far-flung our societies become, our brains think easiest on the human scale.
Nevertheless, our genius for invention allows us to think around our limits to grasp underlying phenomena. The underlying phenomenon of leadership is that it’s impossible to lead a large group of people where they don’t already want to go, consequently, movements make leaders more than leaders make movements. It’s commonplace to say that Trump grew out of the politics of White grievance, but what to say next? It’s easy to look into the past and see that these politics have always been with us, but again, what then? White grievance has more than a past; as the ever growing list of extremely-online right wing terror groups demonstrates, it also has a future.
For the people who own and manage America, there is only one possible response to Trumpism, as I’ll call it in the name of simplicity, that is to walk back so-called progressive excesses, to curb calls for defunding the police and prioritize national amity. This is the approach Whites have traditionally taken in the face of racial progress, it’s the Biden approach. If we let them, Whites will bond atop our suffering as they always have. As always, this will only put off the reckoning, because we refuse to suffer silently.
But before we go that far down the road, let’s think about the nearer term. In Joseph Robinette (the fuck is that middle name?) Biden, we have someone who has great cultural affinity with Trumpism. These are his people, he’s a relic of the time when authoritarian tendencies were more evenly split between the parties. The Republicans had their Barry Goldwater, the Democrats their George Wallace. Goldwater supported civil rights until it went too far, which for him was in 1964. Goldwater’s conservatism was the conservatism of people who don’t live near enough to enough Black people to be overly fervent about keeping us down. Nevertheless, Goldwater’s ilk empathized with the White Southerner who, through the misfortune of having lazy ancestors, found himself facing an insistent “race problem.” Dwight Eisenhower and his comment about Brown v. Board, that he could understand White Southerners not wanting to send their “sweet little girls,” to schools where they would be forced to sit next to “big overgrown Negroes,” reflects this tendency well. Goldwater and Eisenhower represented to varying degrees the pro-business, laissez faire version of conservatism according to which terrorizing non-Whites was neither necessary nor unacceptable, but merely one option among many available to free White men. Biden represents a Democratic version of this, the Roosevelt model: “I wish you wouldn’t lynch so many of them, but I think we can agree to disagree.” (It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about Franklin or Theodore here.) But then, maybe I’m not being fair to Biden’s views, which he himself expresses thusly: “I have some friends on the far left, and they can justify to me the murder of a white deaf mute for a nickel by five colored guys. They say the black men had been oppressed and so on. But they can’t justify some Alabama farmers tar and feathering an old colored woman.” If you think this quotation represents an outdated sampling of Biden’s views, I refer you to the last 12 years of Biden’s public comments. Biden is as racist as you can be and still be a Democrat without having been involved in a few “unsolved,” civil rights cases. Put simply: I expect preventing the return of Jim Crow is more a vague want than a concrete need for our president-elect, because I don’t think he’s capable of seeing the Trumpists for who they really are, because it would too much resemble a mirror.
Biden will therefore try in vain to accommodate these people, as did Obama, Clinton and Carter before him. He may not tolerate street fighting in front of, and inside of, the capitol building as Trump has, but much of their maneuvering will happen just out of the reach of his lukewarm desire to punish people he identifies with culturally.
I think Trumpism will retreat to the states while continuing to maintain a regular presence in the capital. We can expect routine marches in direct contravention of demonstrations for racial justice as well as more random attacks, especially as they figure out how to avoid getting caught, assuming they haven’t already. In red states specifically, we’ll see greater political assertion directed at protecting the countryside from the predation of the cities. We’ll see Republican politicians at all levels vacillating between their duty to ensure law and order for the bare majority of their supporters who want that, and the need not to alienate a vocal and growing minority who want something else. We may see the rise of a MAGA caucus on the local, state and national levels much as we saw the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus. State’s rights will probably rear its antediluvian head with a conservative court to feed its hunger. Challenges to the 1964 civil rights act and other laws, in the name of “freedom,” will likely arise. “Any business that refuses to serve minorities will quickly find itself out-competed by businesses that will,” the argument will run. “And besides, the founders never meant for the Commerce Clause to be used that way.” Hate crime legislation, legislation allowing the federal government to investigate racist violence, partisan gerrymandering and federal oversight of police are just a few areas begging for a state’s rights challenge before a friendly court. Judicial Trumpism will lay the groundwork for political and social Trumpism.
Now to the even longer term: As racial progressivism gains ground over the coming decades and Whites feel less socially and economically privileged, it will only become easier to recruit young White people into White supremacy. It is tempting to frame this as a “last gasp,” of White dominance, but as I’ve argued in the past, non-Hispanic White minority America will look a lot like non-Hispanic White majority America. Not all Hispanics will assimilate into American Whiteness, nor will all Asians, but a sizable enough number, maybe even a majority, will ally themselves with White power under a variety of names. Some will be out and out White supremacists, as White Hispanics and the growing population of people with European and Asian ancestry claim their birthright; others will be Western chauvinists who claim to fight for “Western values,” a racist idea that unites both liberals and conservatives; still others will represent an American nationalism that claims to fight for all Americans, while declaring dissident members of minority groups to be un-American and fit only for repression.
It is necessary for Black Americans to recognize that this is our fault, that our insistence on freedom drives White supremacy to its greatest excesses and always has. The slave driver didn’t whip out of sadism, but to avoid being impoverished by our ancestors’ absence or murdered by them in his sleep. The Confederacy seceded from the Union because it feared an abolitionist movement started by Black fugitives and Black freedpeople. The Southern insurrection was definitively crushed under the weight of more than 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors. Maybe this is what Jefferson Davis was talking about when he claimed the South had been “cheated.” The lyncher didn’t lynch out of boredom, but because it was the only way he could stay on top. Jim Crow was a response to our organization and self assertion after emancipation.
Republicans don’t dog whistle because they like the sound. The two major parties are what they are because Black Americans strangled Jim Crow through sheer strength of will, which drove millions of Whites into the Republican Party, which has been lurching rightward on anti-Black resentment ever since. The TEA party wasn’t an anti-tax movement, it was an insurgency against a Black president who rode to power on our struggle, even as he betrayed it, and broke open the deranged conservative id simply by existing. This, good reader, is the story of how we got Trump. When I say this is our fault, I don’t say it by way of apology. I say it with pride. If we’d let ourselves be peacefully oppressed, America would be a far more stable country. Instead, we’ve been giving the bastards hell since we got here and we’ve got a lot more hell to give, but we’ve got to accept that backlash, resentment and terror are the price of these victories and conduct ourselves accordingly. There has never been a time when the White supremacist impulse in this country faced our progress quietly, and as demographic trends portend a long life for White supremacist America, we should stop expecting anything like permanent freedom in this society as it exists, and start plotting a way out.
Since 1/6/2020, I’ve read knowledgeable, brilliant commentators trying to make sense of what’s going on and what’s to come. At the risk of sounding not just pessimistic, but arrogant, I think many are allowing their analytical skills to be hamstrung by a desire to see this problem go away before serious damage is done to the fabric of the social order. I, on the other hand, though no agent of chaos, can’t see any reasonable way that happens. I take no glee in saying this but neither can I afford to ignore it.
During the Cold War, diplomat and historian George Kennan argued that radio propaganda broadcast into the USSR and other Communist countries would cause them to collapse under their own, “internal contradictions,” which didn’t stop the West from engaging in a healthy regime of sabotage. America’s internal contradiction, which needs no outside assistance, is a “free,” society built on repression, an “equal,” society built on an imaginary biological hierarchy. The internalization of such a hierarchy at the core of the social psyche means that progress for those constructed as inferior will always outrage those who imagine themselves superior.
Trumpism already transcends Trump, because it created him. In the face of Trump’s indiscipline, selfishness and personal contradictions, we’ve seen Richard Spencer, Steve Bannon and others prepare to take the bounty they’ve reaped from Trump and carry it forward, not into the sunset, but a sunrise, a new day for their disease that has yet to see its noon. Prager U represents the will Conservatives have to smear their fact-bereft drivel across the cognitive landscape of the next generation. We may laugh today at their tone deaf, comical efforts to cultivate a young conservative movement, but as it did with high school textbooks, Youtube and Dylann Roof, Right wing extremism has a way of laying claim to the White imagination, even as it morphs itself into more palatable appearances, the better to lure in new soldiers. That’s because Whiteness is a feat of imagination and mythmaking, and as long as the mythology pays, it will live.