Monday, July 11, 2016

Which Tribe Are You On?

Stokely Carmichael, Donald Trump's ideological father

Just as Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, Donald Trump is not a fascist, nor are his followers.  They resemble fascists – with their worship of the strong leader, their dreams of unmediated state power, their casual attitude toward violence, their embrace of barbarism, and their hostility toward minorities – but they also differ in very important ways.  They don’t wish to end democracy, for instance, or embark upon wars of conquest.   Indeed, Trump defends majority rule and denounces foreign interventionism (though inconsistently).

But Trump does share one notable thing with historical fascists: he has borrowed the tactics and style of his opponents on the left.  In fact, right-wing movements traditionally take on the stylistic attributes of their contemporaries on the left.  Hitler famously adopted the organizational and rhetorical style of the Communists of his day.  The Birchers of the 1950’s self-consciously organized themselves into cells modeled on those of the Communists.  The Goldwater-Reagan right of the 1960’s created and nurtured a slew of conservative media and think-tanks to counter the then-dominance of liberal institutions.  The Moral Majority of the 1970’s portrayed itself as a Christian version of the Civil Rights Movement, claiming to be victims of anti-religious prejudice.  In each case, the right-wing movement in question became the mirror of its left-wing counterpart – only with inegalitarian goals.  They were all wolves in left-wing clothing.

And as our present left consists of identity politics – promoting the interests of traditionally oppressed groups: blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, etc. – so the new right that Trump is crafting consists of white identity politics; in its distilled version: politics for straight, white, Christian men.  White identity politics has been the lurking in the shadows on the right for decades, and though we’ve occasionally glimpsed its sinister face, conservatism’s Reaganite masters have generally kept it hidden (while still happily profiting from its electoral support, of course).  But Trump has dragged it into the bright sunshine and made it the shining, shouting, strutting star.  Trump is not a present-day Hitler, he’s a white Al Sharpton.

Consider Trump’s attacks on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge who has ruled unfavorably for Trump in the ongoing Trump University fraud case.  Trump complained that Curiel can’t be fair to him because he’s “Mexican” (on an earlier occasion he called him “Spanish”) and therefore, presumably, must be angry at Trump’s anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant positions.  Curiel was actually born in Indiana of Mexican immigrant parents, and Trump seemed to imply he’s not American because he’s not white, and that is inarguably racist.  But was it racist to question the judge’s objectivity?

Many seem to think so, even many conservatives.  Republican Speaker of the House and 2012 nominee for Vice President Paul Ryan explained:

Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment.

But that’s not quite fair.  Trump wasn’t complaining that Curiel was incompetent because of his national descent; he wasn’t saying that his race made him an inherently inferior judge, as a classic racist might; he was complaining that he was irredeemably biased against Trump.  At best, Trump was saying that Curiel couldn’t possibly be objective in the face of Trump’s well known anti-Mexican animus.  That’s not necessarily racist, since anyone’s bias might affect his or her objectivity.  At worst, Trump was saying the judge couldn’t possibly be fair to a white man.  Even that isn’t necessarily racist, since racial animosity, regrettably, can be found everywhere.  Though it’s reasonable to wonder if he meant that all non-whites are irredeemably hostile to whites, since he based his conclusion on little more than Curiel’s ethnic background.  And that would definitely be racist.

But the point is not whether Trump was being racist, the point is he was being self-consciously white, he was engaging in white identity politics.  And he was doing it just like leftists do it.  That is, left-wing identity politics isn’t simply about advancing the interests of oppressed racial and sexual groups, goals that are themselves tremendously necessary and important; it’s also about group consciousness, group pride and, crucially, group loyalty.  One of its axioms is that only members of an oppressed group can really understanding that oppression, and only they can apply that understanding as needed.  So only blacks can really understand the black experience and only blacks can do it justice; only gays know what it means to be gay and only gays can represent that, and so on.  This is the reasoning that says, for instance, that minorities need to be well represented in the judiciary, because white judges can’t be counted on to treat minorities fairly.  This seems plausible, as far as it goes.  But some on the left drive it off the rails when they claim, for example, that only a black person can fairly judge another one.  Trump has merely turned that logic back on itself, saying that only whites can be fair to whites.

He seems to be adopting the entirety of identity thinking, with all of its concomitant dogmatism and intolerance.  We begin to see the squalid outlines of this newest right, and it’s not a new fascism, it’s White Lives Matter.  Its first premise is that whites are themselves victimized by other groups, notably immigrants and Muslims, also by liberals and blacks.  And, crucially, they are victims of political correctness.  That is, the commonly accepted rules of political discourse prevent whites from asserting their values and interests.  This is a direct borrowing of the post-modern belief common on the left that received notions of propriety, reason, and truth are merely tools the oppressors use to squash dissent.  Following the rules is for suckers.  So almost anything – name-calling, attacking motives, suppressing opposition, even violence – is justified in the interests of one’s tribe.  And this is the essence of the new white nationalism: Whites have interests as whites, interests that can only be properly addressed when informed by consciousness of that whiteness.  The least self-aware person in America is leading whites into a deeper self-consciousness of themselves as white!

But this is how Trump and his followers understand, if only viscerally, their current situation, and it explains why they love him so.  To them, politics is about who is screwing who, and they’re determined to be the ones doing the screwing.  In this telling, there are various innately antagonistic tribes in America, defined primarily by skin color, the non-white tribes have been ganging up on the whites, and the whites are finally fighting back.  Politicians and activists can argue about capital-gains tax rates and Obamacare subsidies and abortion, but those issues don’t really matter.  They’re only symbols for signaling where one’s loyalties lie, and that’s all that really matters: loyalty to one’s tribe.  There are white conservatives on one side and blacks, gays, Muslims, and all the other racially, religiously and sexually dubious tribes on the other, and all that matters is who wins.  And white liberals, obviously, are traitors to their own tribe, and are therefore worthy of the worst scorn.  Tribe is all.

Which America?  And great how?
And America belongs to the white tribe.  Or it once did.  There was a time, not so long ago, when being a true American meant being a white, straight, Christian; others were casually consigned to the periphery.  That’s why Trump thinks Curiel can’t really be American.  Some white nationalists wish to restore male whiteness to its proper place at the center of American identity and social deference.  Other Trumpians merely feel that working whites in particular have been unfairly denigrated as backward, ignorant, malicious.  But all Trumpians share the conviction that whites are being treated unfairly by society at large.  When they hear Trump say “Make America Great Again”, they know he means them, only them.

It is, of course, foolish to think that whites per se are an oppressed group.  They still hold the vast majority of the wealth and power in this country.  And there are still oceans of anti-black, anti-gay, anti-Hispanic, etc. feeling out there; Trump’s rise demonstrates that all too well (there is ample rigorous empirical evidence, as well).  And it’s reasonable to think, for example, that a white judge might be unfair to a Hispanic claimant in a way that a Hispanic judge would be less likely to.  Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that a thoroughly white judiciary would be significantly less sympathetic and fair to minorities.

But the reverse is true as well.  There are probably fewer racially hostile minority figures in authority – judges, politicians, policemen, lawyers, etc. – than racially hostile white ones, because white supremacy has been and still is such a potent and insidious force in our national life, even if it is now largely unconscious.  But it’s highly unlikely that there are no non-white authorities who would be tougher on a white person.  And there is truth to the charge that working-class whites have been systematically and unfairly disdained by political and cultural elites.   (And of course working whites are being genuinely exploited, not by blacks or Muslims or gays, but by investors and globalist politicians.  That is, they’re being oppressed not as whites but as workers.)  And consider that programs like affirmative action are explicitly designed to lessen the number of white men in certain occupations.  Whatever good such programs may do (and they don’t do much good, even for minorities) is done by artificially maintaining higher barriers for whites.  This is a minor injustice compared to the universe of injustice that America has dispensed to racial and sexual minorities, but it is nonetheless an actual injustice committed against the individual whites in question.

But need justice be a zero-sum affair?  Is it necessary to lower whites in order to raise others? Are the Trumpians right that America is only a cage match of hostile tribes?  Either the logic of identity applies to all the tribes or it applies to none.  As the Civil Rights Movement was winding down, white liberals and black activists decided that blacks would be better off claiming blackness as their primary identity and loyalty – but what good has that done them?  One increasingly obvious result is that it has provided white nationalists with the perfect rationale for fighting for the interests of whites as whites.  It’s true that it has helped bring a small number of minorities into the higher echelons of American power.  But how does that help minorities stuck in the ghetto?  In practice, left-wing identity politics has been an abject failure.  It’s only changed the color of the CEO’s.  If whites embrace it too, it will do as little for them.

Our real enemy is racial consciousness itself.  America wallowed in racial identity politics for hundreds of years before the Civil Rights Movement, but the answer to white consciousness is not black consciousness, nor the reverse.  Race is a fiction, a social construct that has no objective existence, though plenty of racists have believed otherwise.  The early Civil Rights Movement understood this and worked mightily to overcome race consciousness and replace it with color-blindness.  But that short period was the only time in our long history when fully color-blind assimilation was seen as the ideal, when the very idea of race was attacked as meaningless and destructive.  The full weight of our sordid history has made race a most powerful and implacable fiction, one powerful enough to destroy us yet.  If whites follow Trump – and their own worst instincts – they’ll make real that other unimaginably destructive fiction: that we are nothing more than that war of all tribes against all.  And that can only unleash mistrust and hatred so horrible that we can barely imagine it now.

There are social constructs that are objectively real, and unlike race, national culture is one of them.  We all speak the same vernacular; we all share the same folkways and traditions; we’re all products of the same history.  We’re all Americans.  When generations of white Americans thought minorities were not real Americans, they were wrong.  And when black nationalists and white leftists think they themselves are not real Americans, they’re wrong too.  Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Robert E. Lee and Susan B. Anthony and Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X and Judith Butler and Donald Trump and Gonzalo Curiel are all irredeemably American, even if they may not all recognize each other – or even themselves! – as such.  But this is the consciousness that must be raised, that must be re-invigorated, that must be embraced if we are to avoid the hideous nightmare into which both Trump and his obliging leftist opponents are so eager to lead us.  Only if we resist those false identities and accept our common, actual identity can we have any hope of making life better for all of us.  Let’s make America conscious again.