Accounting For MAGA

In a recent newsletter from The Atlantic, Tom Nichols echoed a frustration of my own. He wrote that, in his lifetime, he’d seen” polio defeated and smallpox eradicated. Now hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead—and still dying—because they refused a lifesaving vaccine as a test of their political loyalty to an ignoramus.”

Ever since 2016, a significant percentage of my posts have revolved around the reality (or actually, the unreality) of that political loyalty, and my inability to understand what–other than racial grievance–might account for it.  Study after study, however, has confirmed that it is, indeed, racism that explains support for Trump and the MAGA movement.

The Guardian recently published an article building on that research. The author began by commenting on President Biden’s forceful condemnation of Trump and MAGA, and as he noted, that attribution was correct —so far as it went.

The deeper, more longstanding threat, however, was articulated by historian Taylor Branch in a 2018 conversation with author Isabel Wilkerson recounted in Wilkerson’s book Caste. As they discussed how the rise of white domestic terrorism under Trump was part of the backlash to the country’s growing racial diversity, Branch noted that, “people said they wouldn’t stand for being a minority in their own country”. He went on to add, “the real question would be if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?”

 Whiteness is the deeper threat because championing whiteness is what makes Trump powerful. People forget that Trump was not particularly well-regarded before he started attacking Mexican immigrants and signaling to white people that he would be the defender of their way of life. In the months before he launched his campaign, he was polling at just 4% in the May 2015 ABC/Washington Post poll. After stirring the racial resentment pot, his popularity took off, growing exponentially in a matter of weeks and propelling him to the front of the pack by mid-July 2015 when he commanded support of 24% of voters, far ahead of all the other Republican candidates.

Of course, Trump’s discovery of the power of racism is nothing new. (That’s why the Right doesn’t want accurate history taught in our schools.) The author quoted George Wallace’s epiphany:  “I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes – and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about n—–s – and they stomped the floor.”

People who’d dismissed Trump as a loudmouth buffoon “stomped the floor” when he began talking about (brown) Mexicans and Muslims.

The article reminded readers of Wallace, Nixon’s “southern strategy,” and the fact that David Duke–an “out and proud” Klansman–had attracted the support of 44% of Louisiana’s voters when he ran for the U.S. Senate.

The good news is that the proponents of whiteness do not command majority support. The original Confederates themselves were in the minority and represented just 11% of the country’s white population. People who enjoy majority support have no need to unleash fusillades of voter suppression legislation in the states with the largest numbers of people of color. Yet, from the grandfather clauses of the 1800s to the restrictive voting laws passed last year in the south and south-west, we are seeing an unrelenting practice of trying to depress and destroy democracy by engaging in what the writer Ron Brownstein has described as, “stacking sandbags against a rising tide of demographic change”.

It’s one thing to confirm that a majority of Americans aren’t racist. It’s another thing to ensure that the people in that majority turn out to vote. As the author says,

In order to defend democracy and win the fight for the soul of the nation, two things must happen. One is to make massive investments in the people and organizations working to expand voting and civic participation. Coalitions like America Votes Georgia and Arizona Wins played critical roles in bringing hundreds of thousands of people of color into the electorate, helping to transform those former Confederate bastions.

We also need to “name and shame” the numerous political figures who are appealing to racist sentiments in order to turn out their supporters. Too many liberals shrink from calling out those who are trafficking in racism–it seems so uncivil. But racism is also uncivil–and far more dangerous.

To ultimately prevail in this defense of our democracy, we must clearly understand the underlying forces imperiling the nation, name the nature of the opposition, and summon the majority of Americans to unapologetically affirm that this is a multi-racial country.

This is a test, and we cannot afford to fail.


Voting Their Interests

A recent post described a confrontation between the author of a book on American “whiteness” and a group of Neo-Nazis who attended his book signing in order to let him know that “Christian” white guys intend to remain in charge of America.

Jonathan Metzl, the author whose book signing was crashed had a column in the Washington Post referencing the intrusion; in it, he insisted that America needs to have a genuine discussion about whiteness.

It’s time to talk about what it means to be white in the United States.

That’s what I was trying to do Saturday afternoon at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington when I was interruptedby a group of white nationalists. Ironically, the protesters’ chant — “This land is our land” — served only to reinforce my point.

For too long, many white Americans have avoided this conversation, and we’ve done so for a reason: We don’t have to see the color white. Race scholarsoften arguethat white privilege broadly means not needing to reflect on whiteness. White is the default setting, the assumed norm. A white American does not have to think about being white when walking down the street — while people marked as not-white are often noticedand surveilled. White people have the superpower of invisibility.

Metzl noted that the rhetoric employed by Trump focuses on a white identity characterized  by shared resentments. In researching his book, Metzl spent eight years studying how what he calls the “politics of racial resentment” have harmed working-class white communities.

I traveled across southern and midwestern states to track the everyday effects of anti-government, anti-immigrant politics and policies. Time and again, I found that the material realities of working-class white lives are made worse not by immigrants and citizens of color — but by GOP policies that promise greatness but deliver despair.

Metzl isn’t the only researcher who has come to this conclusion–far from it. And when an article or book documents the harms done to the white working class by the policies of the GOP, when researchers and pundits point out that Trump’s base will be those most negatively affected by his sabotage of the ACA, or the idiocy of his tariffs, etc. etc.–the conversation will veer to a predictable lament and question: why are these people voting against their own interests?

Metzl’s book–and his experience at the bookstore–should provide the answer. These people aren’t voting against their interests. They’re voting against what reasonable people believe their interests should be. They should base their votes on policies affecting their incomes, their access to healthcare, the education of their children… policies that have a direct effect on the quality of their lives.

But that isn’t how the people in Trump’s base define their interests.

The “heartland” folks that Metzl interviewed define their interest as maintaining the fiction of white superiority. Their overriding interest is in preventing erosion of their privilege. They believe passionately in what Metzl calls “zero sum” formulations of race relations — in a world where there’s only a finite amount of power, and a finite supply of resources, and where having to share either means there will be less for them.

Fortunately, not all white working class people define their interests in this way. It’s doubtful that even a majority are “zero sum” voters, although far too many are.

As Metzl writes,

During my research, I saw countless examples of white Americans in the reddest of red counties who were proud of their conservative values but also understood their moral obligation to immigrants and citizens of color. In other words, they were willing to see their privilege and to begin the work of dismantling it.

The others–the voters whose entire self-image is invested in the importance of their white skin–are a big problem. But the problem isn’t that they aren’t “voting their interests.”

The problem is, they are.