Antiracist activist, essayist and author of seven books on racism, inequality and white privilege.
If we are to effectively push back against what’s been unleashed by Trump in this election, we have to understand how he was able to prevail. There are so many competing explanations. So many rationalizations. We want to know what exactly happened, and how knowing what happened should inform our efforts moving forward. Tim, tell us how we should understand the role of white racial anxiety and resentment—specifically white nationalism and racism—in bringing Donald Trump to the White House.
There are some things we know, some things we don't. One thing, the point about how vital it is not to normalize Trumpism, is very true. Yet we also have to remember how incredibly normal this moment is if we look at American history. Carol Anderson's brilliant book, White Rage, looks at the ways in which every step forward for people of color in this country's history has been met by this kind of rage-filled backlash against that movement.
The end of enslavement and Reconstruction was met with Black codes, vagrancy laws, convict lease programs and Jim Crow; the Great Migration was met with riots and lynching; desegregation was met with white flight, white academies, and so on. Massive resistance has been the norm, all the way up to the election of President Obama and the browning of America, prompting Trumpism, birtherism, “take our country back,” and “make America great again.”
So in one sense, this is not all that new—it is just a more extreme iteration of a long-standing pastime. We do need to parse and figure out how the white nationalism piece played out here. It's not always as obvious as it might seem. There’s no question that if you think of Trumpism as a house, the foundation of this house was an incipient white nationalism. Not necessarily the David Duke variety or what they now call the alt-right variety, but a clearly incipient white nationalism.
It started with birtherism for Donald Trump. It then moves on to the speech bashing Mexican migrants and then moves on to Muslims. Even the attacks on China for trade were very much a racialized narrative about the Other. That's the foundation of the house. It's not enough to have propelled him to the presidency—I think, if that was all he'd been able to do, he wouldn't have won.
You can't build a house without a foundation. Which is to say, you can’t understand Trumpism without that appeal to white racism, anxiety, and resentment. In addition to that, of course, he adds on white Evangelicals, who often have a racist narrative, and a white nationalist frame as well. They’re principally motivated by these hyper-patriarchal, Christian hegemonic concerns about abortion, like making sure Kim Davis can do her thing in Kentucky, overturning Roe vs Wade, et cetera. You add to that these so-called economic anxiety voters—and I want to be real precise when we think about them, because that's the narrative the mainstream media is trying to give us—because I think it’s critical to remember a couple of things.
This can't just be about economic anxiety or the loss of jobs, because if that were the case, Black and brown folks would have flocked to Donald Trump. They're twice as likely to be unemployed, three times as likely to be poor. When we talk about white economic anxiety, even though I think it’s a real thing, in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, it can't be divorced from the backdrop of white racial expectations and entitlement.
In other words, white folks, particularly white men, have been told all their lives, as long as you were strong and had a strong back and could lift stuff, you’ll always have work. Black and brown folks always knew that wasn't true, but white men had the luxury of believing the narrative. Then when that narrative doesn't work anymore, because of globalization, because of the loss of manufacturing jobs, they, uniquely, are ill-prepared for it. Is it economic anxiety? Yes. But it is interconnected intimately with a white cultural, racial anxiety, and an expectation and entitlement mentality.
What we're really seeing, if you think about all those groups I mentioned—the Christian Right the Evangelicals, the hyper-patriarchal, we-want-an-alpha-male folks in the “man-o-sphere,” or the white nationalists who were big Trump supporters, every single one of them is essentially responding to what they perceive as a loss of hegemony. If you had hegemony, all of a sudden to not be the absolute norm anymore—if you’ve had 100 percent and now only have 90 or 80 or 70 percent—that feels like oppression.
The irony of this is that the systems of inequality, white supremacy, Christian hegemony, straight supremacy all set these groups up to expect a permanence of power and hegemony, and they are now backlashing, or as Van Jones said, “whitelash”-ing, against that. We have to understand the intricacies of these things, the way that they intersect. I think if we do that, we can begin to fashion some strategies for response to what Carol Anderson, in her recent book, calls “white rage.”
Yes. Thank you, Tim. Thank you especially for the shout-out to Carol Anderson, whose work cannot be more highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand what's happening here. I also want to put a point on what you just said about the baseline expectations against which any diminishment is seen as an injury. Luke Harris calls this diminished overrepresentation. When you are expected to have 100 percent, 80 percent feels like a loss, and it’s a loss that those who feel aggrieved by it can be mobilized to go to the mat to defend.
How do we understand race and calls in this moment through an intersectional lens?
The thing about racism and the way it works within white communities currently is, it is linked to this economic expectationalism. Black and brown communities already know what the job market is like.
They’ve never had the expectation or the sense of entitlement that said, our kids are definitely going to be better off than we’re going to be. Black and brown folks have never had that luxury. White America did. Even though it is totally true that the economic shock of a changing economy is part of what’s going on, I think we can’t disentangle that from the fact that white folks, and pretty much white folks alone, were encouraged to believe that that would never happen to us. That amplifies the sense of injury.