As Jamelle Bouie reminds us, none of us should be surprised that eight years after the election of the nation's first black president that America has brutally reverted back to the historical norm of white nationalism.
We can’t know for certain how many Americans voted for these ideas and this approach. What we can say is that tens of millions experienced Donald Trump’s campaign, heard his racist appeals, and set them aside to take a chance on an “outsider.” Now we’re faced with the extraordinary: A White House whose chief thinkers and architects are white nationalists, keepers of a dangerous tradition in our history, with an unprecedented opportunity to pull the United States back a century to an era of unvarnished nativism and prejudice. The past three weeks are likely just the beginning; we are sure to see even more action against immigrants and Muslims, even more tolerance for the worst forces in American life.
In this usage, white nationalist isn’t a pejorative; it’s the best term we have for the ideology of the Trump administration, one that gives coherence to its actions and approach. White nationalist helps us see how the expansive refugee ban is tied to the efforts to deny government benefits to legal residents and is tied to the promise by Trump to protect entitlements for those who receive them. It helps us see how his “populism” excludes tens of millions of Americans, and why he seems more interested in narrow enthusiasm versus broad popularity. And it gives a sense of what might follow in a Trump administration: not just demonization of disfavored minorities but possible attempts to expand the welfare state for the “deserving,” defined by race—a kind of welfare chauvinism. As he did during the campaign, Trump may adopt slogans and ideas from the left and right, not because he’s really a conservative or really a liberal, but because white nationalism exists outside the familiar divide. It confounds the left-right spectrum as we understand it in the United States. Trumpish policy won’t fall neatly into our old categories of liberal and conservative. Instead, it will turn on the question of what strengthens this basic notion that ours is a white nation.
Democrats, liberals, leftists, and dissident conservatives can dissent and resist, but the only party with the power to challenge Trump and win is the Republican Party, which controls Congress and may soon (again) have a majority on the Supreme Court. But the GOP is too complacent and complicit in the rise of Trump, too willing in its past and present to tolerate or even encourage appeals to white racial tribalism and ethno-nationalism. Indeed, in some regards, Trump is the logical conclusion of a process that began when Barry Goldwater opened his arms to Southern segregationists in his crusade for “liberty.” Besides, Republican leaders like Paul Ryan have embraced Trump as a vehicle for their conservative ideological agenda, content to back the president’s agenda for racial exclusion as long as he cuts health care, cuts taxes, and delivers the federal judiciary.
Defenders of pluralism have a tremendous struggle ahead of them. But as they mobilize and defend, they must understand the stakes. This is a fight to protect our multiracial democracy. It’s the latest in an old fight, one that goes back to our Reconstruction, when freedmen, freemen, and their white allies tried to build true democracy in the former Confederacy. They lost that battle, beat back by reaction, by “redeemers.” A century later, with the civil rights movement, we thought we had won the war. Not quite.
“There is beauty in art, in literature, in science, and in every triumph of intelligence, all of which I covet for my country,” said Charles Sumner in his appeal for a national civil rights bill in the fall of 1871. “But there is a higher beauty still—in relieving the poor, in elevating the downtrodden, and being a succor to the oppressed. There is true grandeur in an example of justice, making the rights of all the same as our own, and beating down prejudice, like Satan, under our feet.” He continued: “Humbly do I pray that the republic may not lose this great prize, or postpone its enjoyment.”
We seem to have entered a time where, by choice, we have postponed the enjoyment of that higher beauty. Let us pray, like Sumner, that we do not lose the prize altogether.
Trump, Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, and Jeff Sessions: these are the folks running the show here. The end result of this is an America divided into a "deserving" white middle class and excluded everyone else, with the wealthiest corporate titans ruling over all. It's a massive transfer of wealth and political power to the top, the the expense of tens of millions of people of color.
When people like Trump and Bannon talk about "chaos" and "breaking the system" and "making America great again" what they mean is the restoration of native-born white Christians to first-class citizen status. Everyone else is denied the benefits of citizenship. A compliant populace and self-interested Republican party will go along. They're only marginally good at this stuff right now, but they are learning quickly.
We're heading there at frightening speed. We may not be able to turn back. The good news is as I've said, they're making mistakes and there's still time to act.
But that time grows shorter by the hour.