While reading a recent Thomas Edsall essay in the New York Times, three famous quotes kept repeating in my mind:
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”
“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”
As Edsall compelling shows, Trumpism and the larger neofascist and MAGA movement are not animated by “working class” rage and resentment. The mainstream news media can make an infinite number of trips to the diners, churches, bowling alleys, gun shows, and flea markets of Trumplandia and it will not change that fact. The MAGA movement is driven primarily by white racism and white identity politics. The ultimate goal is protecting and expanding white privilege and white power for white people.
Moreover, as shown by public opinion and other research, a large percentage if not outright majority of these White Americans support ending democracy and replacing it with some form of authoritarianism — if white people are no longer the most powerful group in the country. Thus, the language of “freedom” and “democracy” as used by many on the American right-wing in the post-civil rights era (and before), and especially the Age of Trump, really means “white democracy” and “white freedom” where elections are legitimate and to be respected only if they win.
Edsall begins his new essay, “We Are Normalizing Trump. Again”, by showing how the aspiring dictator has been embraced and normalized by huge swaths of the American public, even after Jan. 6:
Over the past nine years, Donald Trump has been variously described as narcissistic, mendacious, authoritarian, unbalanced, ignorant, incompetent, egotistic and racist — as someone who demonizes minorities and fans ethnic hostility. These assessments are a major reason roughly half of American voters, according to polls, say they will not vote for him.
But even as Trump has steadily escalated his defiance of behavioral norms, a substantial share of the American electorate remains willing to cast a ballot for him. Approximately half of the electorate views Trump as a legitimate 2024 presidential contender, repeatedly demonstrating in surveys that they plan to vote for him in a matchup with President Biden.
In other words, these voters have normalized perhaps the least normal president in American history.
Edsall then focuses on race and America’s color line:
Racial issues and those involving immigration are crucial to Trump’s continued level of support. “While many of the positions that Trump is taking (and the rhetoric that he is using) on these issues may appear extreme to objective observers,” Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, wrote by email, “public opinion data suggest that much of America believes in much of what Trump is selling on race and immigration.”
Many whites, Hajnal continued, hold deeply negative stereotypes about people of color and we know that many feel deeply threatened by a “changing America.” Ultimately, Americans who are anxious about racial change are likely to be attracted rather than concerned about Trump’s authoritarian threat. Deep down, they may believe that Trump and the Republican Party will protect them.
If Trump wins in November, Hajnal argued, It will be because he is able to assemble a slightly more diverse coalition that is mostly comprised of MAGA supporters but that also includes some never Trumpers who see no clear alternative, a number of fiscal and social conservatives who like specific aspects of the Republican agenda, and others who pay relatively little attention to politics and may not know or fully support the MAGA movement.
“Race and immigration,” Hajnal added, “are core issues that are not only undermining Biden’s candidacy but are also threatening the success of the Democratic Party.”
It would be difficult to overestimate the role of racial animosity in the evolution of the two parties since the mid-1960s, a development that most recently found expression in Trump’s domination of the Republican Party.
When Edsall asked Gary Jacobson, a highly respected political scientist, if Trump could win the 2024 election, he replied “yes”:
He’s running neck and neck with Biden in the horse race polls and has very strong support among about two-thirds of ordinary Republicans. His “normalization” is reflected as well as a consequence of the majority of Republican politicians who endorse him despite all; examples are nearly all his rivals for the nomination and pols like McConnell who may despise him but nonetheless say they will vote for him if he is nominated.
Edsall also spoke with Marc Hetherington, who is the co-author (with Jonathan Weiler) of the prescient book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics about the role of right-wing political tribalism and antipathy towards the Democrats in calculating Trump’s chances of victory in November:
“A staggering percentage of Republicans,” Hetherington wrote in an email responding to my inquiries, “will support Trump even when they disagree with him on the most central of issues.” In the case of Covid mitigation, “huge swaths of Republicans disagreed with him on how he was handling an issue that killed over 200,000 people by the time of the 2020 election,” Hetherington wrote. “Republicans did not follow him on policy in lock step, but they did vote for him in lock step.”
In fact, Hetherington continued, “Trump in 2020 lost the same percentage of Republicans as Ronald Reagan did in 1984 — 6 percent. Our analysis suggests that Republicans so deeply dislike the Democratic Party now that they’ll still support candidates with whom they deeply disagree on even the most important political matters.”
Edsall also spoke to political scientists and other experts who disagreed to varying degrees about the enduring power of Trumpism and if it has been normalized enough to create a winning long-term right-wing electoral coalition. In all, these arguments and evidence were far less compelling than those in support of Trumpism as a political-cultural force built upon decades and centuries of white racism and white supremacy in their various forms. Ultimately, today’s Republican Party cannot win on policy. This is even more true as the country’s demographics shift to become younger and more non-white.
The Republican Party’s response to their relative unpopularity among the American people has not been to evolve in order to broaden its base of support. Instead, their strategy has been to scare enough white people in combination with rigging the political system through gerrymandering, voter nullification, voter suppression, using the courts, campaign finance laws and “dark money,” and now with Jan. 6 direct threats and acts of violence and intimidation to get and keep power.
In response to the successes of the civil rights movement and long Black Freedom Struggle, the “conservative” movement deployed what became known as the Southern Strategy of shifting (mostly) from overt and naked white supremacist and racist appeals to more coded “dog whistles” as a way of winning elections and white voters. Trumpism and the MAGA movement are the Southern Strategy on crack and meth. A majority or Trump MAGA people (and Republicans as a whole) believe in the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that the Democrats and Jewish people are somehow replacing white people i.e. “real Americans” with non-whites. This is a very old, fantastical, and pernicious lie.
Donald Trump has been channeling Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his threats about non-white “vermin” and other human “poison” in “the blood” of the United States. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Republicans and Trump MAGA people agree with these claims – which in essence means they agree with Hitler and his book Mein Kampf.
Likewise, a majority of Trump’s MAGA people and other Republicans and right-leaning independents believe that white people as a group are the “real victims” of racism in America. There is no substantive evidence in support of such a belief; it is a lie and a fantasy.
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Social scientists have repeatedly shown that racism and white racial resentment are heavily correlated with party identification where white people who are more racist and racially resentful are much more likely to be Republicans. By comparison, white people who are less racist are much more likely to be Democrats.
These debates and discussions about Trumpism and the color line reflect the larger question(s) of is America a fundamentally racist country? or is America a country where racism is coincidental to its history and character? or is America a country that was once racist but has largely corrected those errors and is now more or less “colorblind”?
My resolution to these questions is to lean into the evidence: American society continues to be structured around racism and white supremacy as shown by how those people deemed to be white have greater life chances, life opportunities, privileges, and other unearned advantages as compared to those people deemed to be non-white. These are societal outcomes that are far greater than the sum of any given person’s individual choices, be they “good” or “bad.” The story is both that simple and that complex.
During a recent speech at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the site where a white supremacist terrorist murdered nine black people in 2015, President Joe Biden said that white supremacy is “a poison, throughout our history, that’s ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”
On Election Day in November, the American people are going to decide if they want to live in a real albeit flawed multiracial pluralistic democracy or if the country will collapse into a 21st-century version of Jim and Jane Crow Apartheid. In that way, the 2024 Election is truly existential and a reckoning for our national character and the type of country and people we are and will be in the future.
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