Adam Shatz on Trump’s Racism
In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: ‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the South had won – that just always fascinated me.’ On 12 August, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open to anyone who hated black people and Jews, from members of the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have done in London and Nice and Barcelona. A helicopter surveilling the event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured.
The ‘Unite the Right’ protest was a reminder that the dream of the Confederacy has never died: the vision of Herrenvolk democracy has continued to smoulder since Union troops left the vanquished but still defiant South, scarcely a decade after the end of the war. Eric Foner has described the Reconstruction era, when ex-slaves became citizens and the first biracial Southern governments were elected to power, as America’s ‘unfinished revolution’. The battle over Reconstruction never ended; it has simply changed form. Nor has it been confined to the South: the North has had its own, scarcely less virulent form of white supremacy. The struggle to achieve full enfranchisement for black people in the United States has produced many martyrs: Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King; James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. And now Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old paralegal killed in Emancipation Park.
It is true, as some have sanctimoniously pointed out, that even in her death, Heyer was a beneficiary of white privilege, remembered as a ‘strong woman’, rather than subjected to the invasive examination of background typically meted out to unarmed black people killed by the police. But her biography suggests that she would have been the first to object to any special treatment. ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,’ she wrote in her last Facebook post. She broke up with a boyfriend who expressed unease over her friendship with a black man, her manager at work. White supremacists have reserved a particular loathing for white women in the civil rights struggle: ‘nigger lovers’, they call them. One white woman at the counter-demonstration reported a jeering fascist saying to her: ‘I hope you are raped by a nigger.’ Heyer is likely to have heard similar things. For white supremacists, the end of white rule has always meant the conquest of white women by men of colour, from the rapacious emancipated slaves in Birth of a Nation to Trump’s Mexican ‘rapists’.
The man charged with Heyer’s murder, James Alex Fields Jr, a 20-year-old from Ohio, fits the usual terrorist profile: a radical loser without a father, intelligent but semi-educated and isolated, drunk on visions of grandeur on the stage of history. His murder weapon was a car, rather than a gun, but he was cut from the same cloth as Dylann Roof, who shot dead nine worshippers at a church in Charleston two years ago. Fields wrote school papers celebrating the Third Reich and shouted racist curses at home, but neither his teachers nor his mother thought to report on his ‘radicalisation’. Even if they had, the government is unlikely to have cared. In February, it was reported that the Trump administration no longer intended to investigate white nationalists, who have been responsible for a large share of violent hate crimes in the United States; the focus of the ‘countering violent extremism’ programme would be limited to Islamist radicals. White nationalists were exultant. ‘Donald Trump is setting us free,’ the Daily Stormer website crowed.
Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan and a former Louisiana state representative, whose endorsement Trump could barely bring himself to disavow, said that Unite the Right was intended to ‘fulfil the promises of Donald Trump’. When Fields set off for Charlottesville, he told his mother he would be attending a rally for Trump, which wasn’t entirely a fib. The fascists in Charlottesville are a fringe, not a mass movement, but they are a coddled fringe: hence Trump’s attempt to blame ‘many sides’ for the violence, as if victims and perpetrators inhabited the same moral plane. The fascists represent the hard edge of the coalition that brought him to power, and they express, though in a cruder form, the ideology of the men he chose as advisers, from Steve Bannon to Sebastian Gorka. When – apparently under intense pressure from his aides – Trump finally denounced white supremacists as ‘evil’ in a speech read off a teleprompter, he sounded like a little boy forced to eat his spinach, or to rat on his friends. No president has been so easily flattered, so thrilled by the sight of his own name, which his advisers include in policy memos in order to hold his attention. To repudiate a follower is not only to threaten his electoral base, as Bannon, before his departure, surely counselled him; it is to threaten the supply of adulation that is Trump’s lifeline, and the only thing, aside from loyalty to Trump, that he has raised to a principle.
Trump’s Republican allies scrambled to denounce the violence, in ever more pious tones, while falling far short of withdrawing their support for Trump. Listening to Paul Ryan, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Orrin Hatch inveigh against the evil of white supremacy, you might have thought they’d just dusted off their copies of Between the World and Me. They can hardly claim to have been shocked by Trump’s response, however. As erratic as Trump has been, he has been remarkably consistent on the question of race. He cut his teeth in a real-estate firm – his father’s – that was investigated by the FBI for not renting to blacks. In 1989 he took out an ad in four newspapers, calling for the execution of five young black and Latino men charged with raping a jogger in Central Park; even when the ‘Central Park Five’ were exonerated 13 years later, he continued to insist on their guilt. He built a campaign on the claim that Obama was not American, appealing to the oldest prejudices about black American rights to citizenship. He has revelled in the idea of police brutality.
What, then, explains the paroxysms of Republican anti-racism in the face of Charlottesville? The purpose was not to expunge white supremacy from American life, but to expunge its naked expression, which Trump, to their embarrassment, has been reckless enough to encourage. Since the Nixon era, Republicans have understood that the party’s plans to favour the white ‘silent majority’ depend on coded language that everyone understands but which can be plausibly denied. Cruz and Hatch may have been distressed by Trump’s response to Charlottesville, but neither of them objects to his policies on race, which amount to the most aggressive assault on civil rights since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whom the New York Times has hailed as a ‘forceful figure’ for his comparatively forthright condemnation of the violence, has led these efforts. He has cut back the civil rights division of the Justice Department, promised to end oversight of police departments and proposed relaunching the war on drugs that helped lead to the scandal of mass incarceration. His idea of a ‘civil rights investigation’ is to investigate cases of discrimination against white students in universities, or – Trump’s favourite – claims of ‘voter fraud’ in last year’s election, a flagrant attempt to suppress the vote among blacks and Latinos who supported Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s attacks on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and other non-white people were portrayed by some members of the press during the campaign as a kind of rhetorical extravagance: the lurid expression, like his tower and his casinos, of a tabloid clown. The implicit suggestion was that his racism needn’t be taken too seriously, and that it wasn’t, in any case, the major reason for his popularity. A number of prominent liberal intellectuals – in a move that suggested self-flagellation but was closer to racial blindness – claimed that if Trump was popular, it was because of liberal condescension to the fabled white working class. The identity politics of the left, they suggested, was driving misunderstood and maligned blue-collar workers into Trump’s arms. As it turned out, Trump’s support among whites ranged across class lines, and was particularly strong among middle and upper-middle-class whites. They were driven into his arms by identity politics – their own. They understood, and welcomed, Trump’s promise to make America great again for what it really meant: to make it white again, and to take back the White House from a black president.
Yet the spectre of a black president continues to haunt the White House, not least in Trump’s imagination. In his most revealing, because least rehearsed, response to Charlottesville, Trump said that racism ‘has been going on for a long time in our country – not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.’ Trump often invokes Obama, not least when he is trying to dismantle national healthcare: the name ‘Obama’ seems to give him a sense of mooring. Still, this was a curious remark, coming from someone who has had little patience for history or the longue durée, and who had rather strongly implied that if America had a race problem, it was Obama’s doing. One possible interpretation of this cryptic (and typically ungrammatical) statement is that Trump could hardly be expected to end racism, when the country’s first black president, of all people, could not: a backhanded, and racist, compliment to his predecessor. Another is that Trump remains perversely fixated on the figure of Obama, aware that without him, and without the anti-Obama backlash he spearheaded, he would not be president.
It’s not clear that Trump would even have seriously pursued the presidency had it not been for Obama’s roasting of him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner – comic revenge for the birtherist lie. ‘Donald Trump is here tonight,’ Obama said, introducing his guest. ‘Now, I know he’s taken some flak lately. But no one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like … Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?’ Trump was so mortified he practically ran to the exit after the plates were cleared. As Joshua Green reports in his new book on Trump’s relationship with Steve Bannon, Devil’s Bargain, ‘Trump’s interest in politics intensified right after the dinner, instead of quickly melting away, as it had after each of his presidential flirtations in the past.’ The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was his own private Treaty of Versailles: by winning the presidency, he hoped to wash away the shame of being mocked by the son of an African immigrant. It was this personal sense of humiliation, of being put in his place by a black man, that allowed him to forge an almost mystical connection with his ‘base’, as he still calls his supporters, the only Americans he addresses directly these days. But even Trump can’t avoid noticing that the former president’s ‘base’ vastly exceeds his own. In three separate tweets posted on 13 August, the day after Heyer’s death, Obama, resurfacing from his seemingly permanent vacation, quoted Nelson Mandela: ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’ The first of these tweets became the most liked in history, without even naming its target.
The Apprentice, Trump’s reality TV show, was, in spite of his sulphurous reputation on race, very popular among black and Latino audiences – more so, in fact, than it was among whites – and he has often boasted of his multicultural bona fides. ‘I have a great relationship with the blacks’; ‘The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love the Hispanics!’ But ever since he entered politics on a platform catering to white nationalism, ‘the blacks’ and ‘the Hispanics’ have abandoned him. Where could he turn after Charlottesville? Ivanka and Jared Kushner, who were about to join their friend David Geffen, a gay Democrat, on his yacht in Croatia, prevailed on him to denounce the evils of white supremacy, and on 14 August Trump genuflected to anti-racist norms. But, as David Duke reminded him on Twitter, ‘I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.’ The following day, at a rancorous press conference at Trump Tower, Trump insisted that he had said nothing wrong in his initial remarks on Charlottesville, and that the counter-demonstrators were equally responsible for the violence – in fact a bit more so. After all, the protesters had a permit, and the counter-protesters (‘very violent’) did not. There were, he added, some ‘very fine people’ among the protesters. Who were these fine people, lost in the torch-lit crowds of white nationalists? Trump didn’t say, but he implicitly endorsed their cause: the defence of Lee’s statue. ‘So this week, it’s Robert E. Lee … I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?’
Duke praised Trump for his ‘honesty and courage’ in condemning left-wing ‘terrorists’ in Charlottesville. But Duke was not alone in his support for Trump. While many Republican politicians deplored Trump’s equation of racists and anti-racists, and while the executives on his business advisory boards deserted him, the base remained fiercely loyal. And for the next few days, the press was aflutter with stories about ‘antifa’, the roving band of young anti-fascist militants who battle with fascists in street demonstrations. In a New York Times profile of the movement, the white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, one of the organisers of Unite the Right, was interviewed saying the antifa ‘have a sadistic streak’, as if he were an authority on violent extremism rather than its embodiment. With Trump’s help, the alt-right had succeeded in inserting itself into a mainstream conversation of ‘many sides’.
Trump’s cleverest tactical move, however, was to link Lee’s statue with Washington and Jefferson, both of whom were slave owners. Never mind that Lee fought against the Union that Washington and Jefferson helped found. Trump, who says ‘the big problem this country has is being politically correct,’ shrewdly played to the fear among his supporters that the removal of Lee’s statue was a slippery slope in the destruction of ‘our heritage’. Bannon may have been on his way out – his resignation was made public three days later – but the Trump Tower press conference was as clear a sign as any that Bannonism will survive his departure. As Green notes, ‘the prevailing worry among the GOP’s intellectual class was that the party was too Southern – that its rootedness in Southern folkways and values would inhibit its ability to appeal to a rapidly diversifying national electorate … Bannon believed exactly the opposite. He thought that the South – populist, patriotic, pro-military, and sceptical of immigration – was in fact the party’s salvation.’ One of the headlines at Breitbart was ‘High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage’. That many Republicans, not just Southerners, consider a secessionist rebel to be part of America’s ‘heritage’ is worth pausing over. What this reconfiguration of national heritage suggests is that white Republicans are tired, as they see it, of being made to feel guilty for slavery and discrimination. The removal of Lee’s statue is, for them, a case of unjust persecution, and an abject surrender to those calling for a reckoning with the American past, such as Black Lives Matter, whose very name is seen by many whites as an expression of racial supremacy, rather than a protest against it.
Trump explained that he had waited to respond to Charlottesville until he’d painstakingly weighed the facts of the case. He showed no such patience when, on 17 August, Islamic State killed 13 people in Barcelona. On Twitter, he encouraged study of General Pershing’s counterinsurgency methods in the Philippines, an allusion to the myth that Pershing had crushed Muslim rebels by killing them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. ‘No more radical Islamic terror for 35 years!’ Having fended off reporters over Charlottesville for days, Trump had returned to his characteristic frenzy over Islamist terrorism, which, unlike white nationalist terror, has the virtue of allowing him not only to condemn violence but to call for more. That he recycled a lie as ‘history’ was hardly new; more striking was the reference to a practice specifically targeting the dietary prohibitions in Islam. He was calling for ‘civilisational jihad’, as Bannon might have put it.
The organisers in Charlottesville were also waging a civilisational jihad, not only against blacks and Muslims but against Jews. Not since the Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois in 1977 has there been such a brazenly anti-Semitic gathering in an American city. A number of right-wing nationalists in Europe and the States, notably the National Front in France, have used Islamophobia to ingratiate themselves with Jews, and particularly with Israel, with a certain measure of success. Trump, typically, has maintained cordial ties with ‘many sides’, flaunting his daughter’s marriage to a Jew (and conversion) and his unconditional support for Israel, while invoking anti-Semitic clichés about shadowy global conspiracies, and doing nothing to repudiate the more than two million anti-Semitic tweets sent in the year before his election, many of them by his supporters. Trump’s Jewish allies have been mostly unmoved. Neither Steven Mnuchin, his treasury secretary, nor Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, has resigned. Mnuchin – in response to an open letter by three hundred of his Yale classmates calling on him to step down – absurdly contended that Trump ‘in no way, shape or form, believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways’. Benjamin Netanyahu, too, has been conspicuously silent, but his communications minister, the Israeli Druze politician Ayoub Kara, helpfully explained that because Trump is ‘the best US leader Israel has ever had’, ‘we need to put the declarations about Nazis in proper proportion.’ There are, after all, ‘many sides’ to an issue.
On 21 August, Trump outlined his plans for a new build-up of troops in Afghanistan, wrapping up his volte-face on overseas military adventures in declarations of martial bravado: ‘Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win. From now on, victory will have a clear definition.’ Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a more sober view of the new policy when he addressed the Taliban the day after Trump’s speech: ‘You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.’ The new Afghan surge – Trump refused to reveal how many troops were being deployed, or to present a timeline for their engagement – was, in fact, a continuation of the failed policies of the last 16 years, including Obama’s. When Trump said he wouldn’t be ‘nation-building’, just ‘killing terrorists’, he might have been describing Obama’s shift from ground wars to the ever-expanding drone war. The press and the foreign policy establishment responded with only mild notes of dissent to Trump’s new plan, in large part because he had capitulated to his military advisers, who are now widely seen, even by some liberals, as the last line of defence against Trump’s destructive impulses. (American liberals increasingly suffer from a disease that afflicted their Arab counterparts during the Arab uprisings: a desperate faith in the wisdom and prudence of the military and intelligence services.) Trump had initially toyed with the idea of a complete withdrawal of troops, or – Bannon’s idea – farming out security to private mercenaries like the company formerly known as Blackwater. But Bannon, by then, was back at Breitbart, where he pledged to ‘crush’ his enemies (no doubt including Trump’s son-in-law, who had lobbied for his dismissal). Trump allowed himself to be persuaded by the military, so long as he could be made to look strong, his paramount concern. His agreement was sealed after H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, showed him a black-and-white photograph from 1972 of a group of pretty young Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul. Afghanistan could be won over to ‘our heritage’, after all.
By Trump standards, the Afghanistan speech was a judicious, rational address. But he was in full Father Coughlin mode the following evening, at a rally to thousands of his supporters in Phoenix – the eighth such event he’d held since taking office. He spoke for more than an hour. He took long pauses, so that they could be filled by applause, and loud cries of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ and ‘Drain the Swamp!’ His approval ratings may have dropped to 34 per cent nationally, and 42 per cent in the conservative state of Arizona, but that night he was among fans, the only people he doesn’t try to bully, and, as he played his greatest hits, the adulation was near carnal. He spent the first half of the speech defending his Charlottesville response, claiming that ‘fake news’ had distorted his ‘perfect’ words, extensively quoting from his speeches, except the lines for which he was criticised. He warned that ‘they’ – the media, perhaps other sinister, unnamed forces – ‘are trying to take away our history and our heritage … They really don’t like our country.’ Trump’s domestic enemies – the media, ‘obstructionist Democrats’, Republicans who voted against his healthcare plan – were the enemies of America, and he would not allow them to win. He would free Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a hero of the anti-immigrant right, who was found guilty of defying a judge’s 2011 court order to refrain from racially profiling Latinos during patrols and turning them over to federal immigration authorities. He would raid sanctuary cities shielding ‘criminal aliens’, and ‘liberate’ towns menaced by Latino gangs. And he would build his ‘beautiful’ wall, even if it meant shutting down the government.
Most presidents do everything they can to avoid shutting down the government, but Donald Trump is not most presidents. On the eve of the Iraq invasion, Colin Powell explained the ‘Pottery Barn rule’ to George W. Bush: ‘You break it, you own it.’ Trump has stood this rule on its head, and applied it to all of his assets. His fellow Republicans, whatever their anxieties about him, were willing to join him on his wrecking ball – the destruction of America’s image abroad, the assault on truth, the brutalisation of public discourse, the severing of the fragile bonds of shared citizenship that hold the country together – so long as he delivered on healthcare and tax reform. But their bargain hasn’t paid off, because Trump is incapable of running a government. As a campaigner, however, which is what, in essence, he is, he is terrifyingly competent, and too capricious to be anyone’s tool, as his various enablers have all discovered. (Even Bannon confessed that he was a ‘blunt instrument for us’.) The reason that Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and other Republicans are worried about Trump isn’t that he threatens American democracy, or that America has ceased to be a serious country in the world; it’s that Trump’s rule may bring about the break-up of the Republican Party.