American racialismTrump’s unscripted news conference at Trump Tower on Tuesday has once again raised questions about the future of his presidency and even his mental state. Unwilling to admit error and seeing enemies everywhere, he has once again doubled down on divisive and unsustainable positions that further diminish his leadership, his party and the United States itself.
Race plays a role in American politics that is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. Slavery was the root cause of our five-year long civil war. Despite the Northern victory, racial segregation lingered as an unresolved blight for a century. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and changing attitudes did the country move — grudgingly in both North and South — towards greater integration and racial tolerance.
The issue quickly resurfaced in the 1970s, however, in the form of resentment about welfare and affirmative action and ultimately in more naked concerns about the country’s rapidly changing demographics. Less educated whites fared poorly as the country globalized and growth was increasingly driven by the demand for skills. Yet racial animosities were never just a proxy for economic conflicts. In the last two decades, the identity politics of minorities was appropriated by segments of the majority, with a surprising share of whites of all incomes seeing themselves as victims of prejudice and discrimination.
A central political challenge for those seeking to mobilize these fears was the bounds of civility. Openly playing the race card was considered out of bounds, even if issues such as welfare, affirmative action and immigration served as proxies.
As much as Trump focused on the economic issues facing the downwardly mobile, racial themes littered his campaign from the beginning. It is not widely known that Trump’s “America First” theme was the catchword of an interwar isolationist movement with distinct anti-Semitic, racist and even fascist overtones.
Trump gained serious media attention in part through his embrace of the “birther” movement, which questioned whether Barack Obama was an American prior to his election and sought to delegitimize him once in office. And of course no other political promise aroused Trump’s base as much as building the wall to keep out immigrants he characterized as “criminals and rapists.”
Complex social forces are always at work when democracies decline and disintegrate. Yet leaders play a crucial role in validating extremism, even if only out of an opportunistic electoral calculus. While Trump was holding his populist rallies, with their often-violent overtones, a toxic underground of right-wing groups incubated in dark spaces on the internet and social media: Southerners nostalgic about the Confederacy, older racist groups like the Klu Klux Klan, and white supremicists attracted to Nazi and fascist symbols. Bubbling just below respectability was the complex of so called alternative or “alt-right” groups, with their civilizational message of a liberal Anglo-Saxon West in decline and conspiracies about a “deep state” beyond democratic control and accountability.
Trump allowed these groups to come out of the shadows. The decision to march on Charlottesville — nominally in response to an effort to remove a Confederate statue — was a coming out party. Exploiting our strong traditions of free speech, the rally was in fact designed from the beginning to provoke. And with America’s crazy gun laws, this underground not only showed up in force, but armed to an extent that far outmanned local and state police forces.
When violence erupted, the response from public officials should have been easy: to emphasize that these groups have no meaningful political role, will be prosecuted if they instigate violence, and should above all be held in contempt and shamed. As virtually all politicians played their appropriate roles — Republicans and Democrats alike — Trump equivocated before struggling to make it right with a prepared statement that was read without any conviction.
Then the meltdown of the press conference, at which he once again laid blame on “both sides.” As if this could be seen as a situation in which legitimate moral values were really in conflict! They simply weren’t. Was the United States president going to condemn violent racist thugs or pander to them? It was as simple as that.
As this is going to press, it is hard to gauge the longer-term impact. The Democrats are still in denial: divided, rudderless, and reduced to endless fuming about the president. The Republican Party is now so compromised that expectations of their willingness to stand up are minimal.
Rather, it appears that what might turn the dial is the defection of the private sector, which is belatedly seeing open association with the President as a liability. Local governments, churches and civil society organizations across the country — and from across the political spectrum — have also hopefully maintained their basic sense of decency. I am an optimist, a believer in the diversity of the United States and its resilience. But as a political scientist, I am acutely aware that democracies do not necessarily persist. Bit by bit, the Trump presidency is dragging America down with his impulsiveness and lack of any moral or policy compass. Charlottesville will certainly stand as the most serious manifestation of that drift to date.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at https://piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.