Same Old Shuck: Night Thoughts of an Aging Liberal

By David Depew

Will we be able to break through the mental blinkers that prevent us from seeing what where we are and what we need to do?

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble. (Toni Morrison, The New Yorker, Nov. 21, 2016, 54.)

I don’t think the Republicans had any idea how good Trump was going to be for them. They were panicked at first, but this has turned out to be a whole new model for getting what they want. (Naomi Klein, June 21, 2017)

In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, Nixon’s southern strategy cultivated Southern whites in ways that, with the birth of modern conservatism, brought into existence a voting bloc that thrives on racial resentment and elects representatives who transfer wealth upward, hollowing out the middle class and choking off social services to the poor. Whites from a wide swatch of the country and different income levels have gone along with this program as long as they were fed the psychic reward of thinking that their passions and interests are being served. These passions and interests take political form around white identity coded in religious, moralistic, and nationalist talk. Trump’s base tacitly takes itself to be “the people” mentioned in the Constitution. Nobody else is a real American. They want their country back. Can anyone in their right mind doubt that universal health care would have been established long ago if there were no African or Hispanic Americans in this country?

All that happened with the election of Donald Trump was that the prohibition against explicit racism, which as editor of National Review William Buckley enforced on the conservative movement and hence on the Republican Party after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, was breached. That was the price of keeping the game going. The ideology of biologically based racism that was overt and influential until about 1960 went underground--until Breitbart News’ Alt-right unleashed it in the form of Trump’s indecorous rhetoric and behavior. The result was the northward spread of the Southern strategy.

Many whites will be incensed by any such diagnosis. In the usual sense of racism--personal hatred, distaste, or bias--it seems like a bad rap. Many will say that they have black or Hispanic friends, go out of their way to be polite, show no partiality on the job or in the neighborhood. Their reasons for voting for Trump are about the things Trump complained about on their behalf: globalization stripping away their jobs, the poor and illegal having an easier time than they do getting subsidized public services and paying lower taxes, urban elites looking down their noses at less educated or religious people, and failure to protect “our” borders. What I am talking about, however, is not psychological or emotional, but social and cognitive racism. It is about the mental frame through which white people view the world. “Racism without racists” means that people of color experience as clueless and insulting the way most whites express their sincere support for them. Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement by claiming that all lives matter is a good example.

Media pundits and professional Democratic politicians have constantly underestimated the staying power of this politics. In part, that is because Clintonism was complicit with Republican economic policy from the start. Its globalized centrism has saddled its base with an identity politics of its own, in which everyone seems to count except working class whites. Its talking heads blame its problems on the effects of new technology in the work place and the disrupting influence of new media on our private lives. Sorry about that, they say, but we are not responsible. And sure, the global economy has its losers, but on the whole we are better off, right? I suspect that even former President Obama, a Black man who couldn’t get a cab in New York after dark, underestimates the problem. If he does, it is in large part because his extreme decorousness led him to believe his own press releases about how we are all one people and so forth and so on.

The Democrats’ expectation of unhorsing Trump by impeaching him or gaining control of Congress at the midterm election seems to me a bit dicey. True, spirits and morale have to be kept up. Elections have to be contested and won. The party needs rebuilding. It has to “shape” a new “message.” But this will not be enough. Predictably, Trump’s base will continue to support the transfer of wealth to the rich as long as their sense of themselves continues to be stroked. You can pile objections to Trump up almost to infinity but that doesn’t mean that the base will vote for a Democrat. What it means is that the Democrats have to have better turn out, and to get that they need a far better ear for what actually aggrieves most people.

They have a lot to do. The new oligarchy will pour in an almost infinite amount of money to stoke the fire of the base. The ultimate prize is already coming into view: a lock on the judiciary. Congressional Republicans are willing to do whatever it takes. They know who pays for their services. The passage of the tax reform bill proves it. Unfair in itself, it will set afoot the old Republican two-step. We should disabuse ourselves of any sense in which sanctimonious congressional republican “tax reformers” like Paul Ryan, who is clearly repulsed by Trump personally, have been pushed aside by racist yahoos. There are plenty of others to take his place. The Republican Party has become Trump’s party because, in spite of his pathological vulgarity, he re-enables the dynamic in which the people happily surrender their wealth and prospects to the rich in return for validation of their whatever sense of themselves they still have. Surrendering the party’s repulsive pose of decorousness was necessary after Obama succeeded in wresting decorum, gravitas, and virtue talk from them. As soon as the deficit raising and budget-busting consequences of the so-called reform begin to hurt, they can be counted on to call for cuts in spending that further erode, if not finally kill off, the services on which the poor and working class depend. Republicans have always raised the national debt. Democrats have constantly reduced it.

There is something to the fear that the social contract that has bound this country together since the Great Depression is on its last legs. What happens then? More dis-function in families, more police violence, more racially based imprisonment, more scapegoating Mexicans and turning back refugees? War that is supposed to bring us all together? A genuine realignment of party politics?

As Lincoln said about slavery, “We must disenthrall ourselves.” Then perhaps we can do something.