The white heat unleashed last year by Donald Trump appears to be intensifying. Two weeks ago, thousands of white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, Virginia, after the city council there resolved to tear from its plinth downtown a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Armed like paramilitaries and enabled by police, fascists of various stripes, their pasty faces melting under tiki torches,1 spent consecutive days screaming slogans like ‘blood and soil’, ‘white lives matter’ and ‘Jews will not replace us’. They paused only to beat the stuffing out of counter-protesters, who of course had assembled in full awareness of what Confederate statues really are: mass-produced monuments to racial oppression planted, as if they were jackboots on black bodies, by the white power structure in states where slavery had not long since ceased to be the ‘dominant fact’ of life.2
On August 12, the second day of violence in Virginia, a white terrorist named James Fields Jr. rammed his car into a heaving crowd of anti-racist demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19 others. It was at this sad juncture that the president — without whose collected incitements the rally would never have happened — saw fit to begin to disgorge his opinion. More often than not, Trump’s public statements are, or end up becoming, fragmentary illustrations of Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. They serve to remind the world that ‘Baby Trump never learned when to shit and when not to’, and that his putatively adult self ‘codes [its] mouth as an anus‘.3 But on August 12, Trump’s response to events in Charlottesville was far darker than his typical excretions. Having declined even to mention white supremacy or acknowledge the killing of Heather Heyer, Trump condemned what he called ‘this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.’ To suggest, as Trump did here, that those who march against neo-Nazis are morally equatable with neo-Nazis themselves is to choose, in pointed fashion, not to reprove the latter at all. The barely concealed logic at work in such dissimulation is, ‘both fascism and anti-fascism are equally bad, but anti-fascism is even more equally bad’.4 Millions of people — including many a senior Republican — understood this and were horrified.
Then, on August 15, at a news conference in Trump Tower, the president doubled down on his initial statement, assigning half the blame to ‘very, very violent’ counter-protesters before asking, ‘what about the alt-left?’ He went on to state that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’ and claimed of the white fascists that ‘[y]ou had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest.’ All this amounted to a defence of such fascists and a renewal of their licence to commit terror.
Thus we can say that Trump elected after Charlottesville not just to firm up his status as the ‘most openly racist president since Woodrow Wilson’ but also to flaunt it.5 His words in the wake of the rumpus were simply the latest squalid instantiations of a willingness to engage in race-baiting that has marked him out as Amerikkka’s great white hope and thereby endeared him to scum like David Duke and Richard Spencer. From inciting violence against black activists to promising the construction of a wall along the Rio Grande, from describing Mexicans as ‘rapists’ to placing restrictions on Muslim migration, from beefing up ICE to hiring men like Bannon †, Gorka † and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Trump has succeeded in speaking to the racial anxiety felt by adherents of the Fourteen Words. As one long-standing ‘friend’ of Stormfront † put it, ‘there are more White folks awake [sic] now than at any time since the desegregation fight 60 years ago, due mostly to the internet, and yes, Donald Trump.’ That these creatures feel ’emotionally connected’ (Spencer) to Trump cannot by now be gainsaid (though it should be noted that the more hard-line among them look askance at him as a ‘a jew-lover [who] has surrounded himself with jews’).
At any rate, it is a mistake to think of Trump’s appeal as limited only to those who actively identify as white nationalists, etc. And crucially, as the profusion of polo shirts and undercuts in Charlottesville confirmed, such appeal cuts across classes. Indeed, the time is overripe to squelch the notion that working-class whites — either alone or en bloc — were responsible for Trump’s ascent.6 Exit polls taken during the primary season showed that the median household income of Trump-supporters was, at $72,000, substantially higher than the national figure. Last August a massive Gallup study concluded that ‘those who [viewed] Trump favorably [had] not been disproportionately affected by… immigration’, nor were they ‘more likely to be unemployed’. And shortly after November’s election, the Pew Research Centre noted that among white college graduates, Trump ‘outperformed’ Clinton by a ‘4-point margin’. The rise and rise of Trump, then, was in large part attributable to the ‘hatred and despair‘ of a ‘crazed petty-bourgeoisie’, in this case one that drew and was anxious to keep on drawing what Du Bois, writing 80-odd years ago, termed the ‘psychological wage’ of whiteness.
If Trump’s election came about as a result of ‘white people voting to restore the power and value of whiteness’, then to locate the diseased heart of Trumpism in the ‘white working class’ is, at best, to be lazy and reductive.7 At worst it is either to betray one’s class-prejudice by absolving more ‘respectable’ whites, or to ‘give credence to the fantasy’ of a certain kind of ‘white (male) pain’.8 This last is often achieved by idealising Rust Belt voters as Mikes and Nickys, helplessly adrift on a Mekong of opioids, debt and stagnant incomes. On such a view, support for Trump is akin to the instinctive drowning response. It is seen as more or less forgivable. After Charlottesville there can be no more indulgence by the Left of these white identity politics.
Equally, there can be no succumbing to the notion that the alpha and omega of white supremacy in the United States is ‘a Nazi, an alt-right shithead or a Trump supporter’.9 After all, white supremacy, properly understood, is structural-ideological by nature. Its logic is encoded in the base and superstructure of U.S. society — not to mention its collective unconscious — and has been ever since the nation was ‘born in genocide‘ 10 score and forty years ago. The concrete expressions of such logic, inconceivable in their multiplicity, disfigure history like so many stinking sores. They include the holocaust of indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands; the unspeakable abomination of chattel-slavery; the racist expansionism justified by Manifest Destiny; the Chinese Exclusion Act and other immigration restrictions; segregation as sanctioned in cases like Plessy v Ferguson; the Ku Klux Klan and its cinematic glorification; redlining and all the inequalities it served to worsen; FDR’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; the brutal suppression of movements towards liberation, embodied, for instance, by the execution of Clark and Hampton; the forced and state-sponsored sterilisation of tens of thousands of women of colour; and mass incarceration, which has, with some justice, been called ‘the new Jim Crow’. White supremacy, then, like Trump himself, is as American as apple pie. It long antedates the 45th President and would, we can be certain, have continued to ‘pauperise and destroy people of colour’ had he never been elected.10
But of course, this is no reason not to demonstrate against the process of rapidly accelerating fascistisation that Trump has set in train, or to accuse those that do of seeming concerned above all with ‘self-improvement’ and ‘self-expression’. We cannot take as our exemplars the bulls in Trotsky’s fable, who, firm in their ‘principles’, refused to close ranks against the butcher in the slaughterhouse.11
1. A Polynesian invention.
2. Barrington Moore Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (first published 1966, Penguin 1981) 117.
6. I must admit to having parroted this rubbish here.
11. Still, it is tempting indeed to say, as Horkheimer once did, that ‘whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.’